Monday, August 29, 2005

RELIGION/COMMENT: Mrs Bishop and regulating Australian women's dress

Recent reports suggest al-Qaida has its eyes fixed on Australia. After the London attacks, Australians of all backgrounds and faiths are afraid terrorists might strike here.

With national security firmly on the agenda, it was both amusing and worrying to watch a host of political and religious leaders acknowledge on the Channel 9 Sunday program that they did not know the phone number of the National Security Hotline.

Even more concerning was the notion that a terror suspect could be shot on the basis of possessing a Middle Eastern appearance.

It seems that, when it comes to fighting terrorism, some Australian decision makers are not upto the task. And with some allegedly liberal and conservative politicians now openly calling for Muslim female students to be banned from wearing the head scarf (known in Arabic as the hijab and in Malay as the tudung), it appears some are less interested in national security as in national hysteria.

In recent days, two female Liberal MP’s have taken the extraordinary step of calling for changes in the law which would ban the traditional Islamic head scarf. Both Bronwyn Bishop and Sophie Panopoulos have suggested that Australian state schools should follow the French model of banning students from wearing the hijab on school premises.

For Mrs Bishop, the issue is perhaps less about national security and more about discouraging rebelliousness and ensuring cultural diversity in schools is kept to a minimum. For Ms Panopoulos, the arguments of the Rev Fred Nile MLC ring true. How do we know that these women aren’t hiding bombs under their dress?

Mrs Bishop appeared on ABC Radio National’s The National Interest show on Sunday 28 August 2005. She compared the discourse of 21st century Muslim Australians to that of Nazi Germans during the 1920’s and 30’s.

Mrs Bishop’s comments were most enlightening. She attempted to respond to a suggestion I made that her attempts to marginalise a key faith-sector of mainstream Australia were most helpful to Usama bin Ladin.

Mrs Bishop made frequent references to “our law” and “our beautiful constitution”. She felt offended when a Muslim man came to Canberra and refused to shake her hand because he felt she was unclean.

The writer has shaken hands with Mrs Bishop on numerous occasions, usually in his capacity as a fellow factional warrior for the NSW Right of the Liberal Party. When it came time to having Muslim Australians assist Mrs Bishop in stacking her branches as a defensive mechanism against what she saw as infiltration by supporters of NSW Opposition leader John Brogden, Mrs Bishop was most enthusiastic of Muslim involvement.

The writer also had an opportunity at a NSW Liberal Party State Council meeting in 2000 to pass onto Mrs Bishop the appreciation of members of the Dee Why Mosque congregation who greatly admired the assistance she provided to the Mosque parishioners on numerous in relation to the problems they have had with extensions to the Mosque.

Yet on Radio National, Mrs Bishop lambasted that same congregation for allegedly inviting Abu Bakr Bashir to speak and recruit in her electorate. A cynic could argue that, in effect, she unknowingly facilitated that process through the assistance she provided to that congregation.

In relation to headscarves, the writer recalls Mrs Bishop’s enthusiasm in being photographed with Muslim women at a farewell function for former NSW Premier and Finance Minister John Fahey in 2001. The writer was accompanied by 3 female Muslim students who chose to wear hijabs to the function. One of these 3 women was of Anglo-Australian background and is currently a Councillor on Auburn Council.

While listening to Mrs Bishop discuss the issue with Terry Lane on Radio National Mrs Bishop appeared to be influenced more by what she may have seen or heard or read from a conservative thinktank than any direct knowledge of Muslim Australians living in her electorate.

Some of Australia’s most productive and wealthy Muslim citizens live in the seat of Mackellar. Most are medical professionals with substantial medical practices in the electorate. Others are prominent business people who employ hundreds of Australians of all faiths.

These Muslim Australians will be looking to Mrs Bishop to concentrate on ensuring the passage of Mr Howard’s IR reform package. By focussing on what the daughters of these Aussie Mossies wear to school, Mrs Bishop is diverting important airtime away from a fight of greater relevance to people of all faiths in her electorate.

If Mrs Bishop were to use her substantial talents and experience (in both politics and the law) to take the industrial fight to the union movement, she would be doing the small business people in her electorate a huge service.

Instead, by focussing on overturning 30 years of legislative consensus by creating an exception to religious and sex discrimination laws, Mrs Bishop is merely reinforcing the union movement’s claims that the real agenda of the Howard government is to turn back the industrial and social clock to a time when women could be denied opportunities for purely cultural reasons.

Aussie Mossies do not lecture Mrs Bishop on what she should be allowed to wear into Parliament. The writer submits that she should not be marginalising Aussie Muslim women by telling them what not to wear in schools. She should leave comments on women’s dress to crackpot imams and other fringe elements on the fringe of our society.

Words © 2005 Irfan Yusuf