Burkas are political symbols not Islamic ones, Muslim scholar says

Pauline Hanson's recent burka stunt attracted criticism from both sides of Parliament, but a Muslim scholar and human rights adviser says it's the garment itself that's offensive.

Associate Professor Elham Manea, a Swiss-Yemeni citizen and the author of Women and Sharia Law, argues it is naïve — even racist — to regard the wearing of a burka as a sincere act of faith.

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AUDIO: Listen to the full interview (Religion and Ethics Report)

"The burka is not Islamic," she told the Religion and Ethics Report.

"It's a tradition that comes from the heart of Saudi Arabia, a region called Nejd."

Dr Manea says the veiled garment was not worn by women outside of Nejd until Saudi Arabia's Wahabi regime came to power in the late 1970s.

"The re-Islamisation of Saudi Arabia according to the Wahabi Salafi fundamentalist principles led to the mainstreaming of the burka," she said.

"With Gulf money you had a promotion of this ideology and a reading of Islam that turned the burka into an 'Islamic' tradition."

Criticising the burka, not the stunt

The Koran calls for both men and women to "cover and be modest", but this reference is open to interpretation.

In Australia, few Muslim women wear burkas, though many wear other kinds of hijab or head coverings.

Dr Manea, a member of the University of Zurich's political science institute and a former advisor to the Swiss government, believes conversations around the validity and religiosity of the burka are essential.

"To tell me that by talking about the burka we are hurting the feelings of the Muslims is not only inaccurate, with all due respect, it's almost racist," she said.

Though she was careful not to align her views with those of Senator Hanson, Dr Manea did agree with one of the politician's points: the burka is not a religious requirement.

"[The burka] is a sign of segregation, separation, rejection of the values we see all around us — values of acceptance and tolerance and otherness," she said.

"[It reflects] a culture that treats woman as a sexualised object that has to be covered.

The scholar went on to criticise the Parliament's bipartisan condemnation of Senator Hanson's stunt, in particular citing the well-publicised censure from Attorney-General George Brandis.

Senator Brandis flatly rejected Hanson's call to ban the burka in Parliament, saying: "To ridicule [the Muslim] community, to drive it into a corner, to mock its religious garments is an appalling thing to do and I would ask you to reflect on what you have done."

Stressing the diversity of Muslim identities, and connections to faith, Dr Manea called out the Western liberal tendency of homogenising and defending "the other".

"Like far-right groups, who believe every Muslim is a potential terrorist, they come [from] the other side and say every Muslim is religious and therefore we have to support these poor people who need our protection," Dr Manea said.

"It's an essentialist perception — they can't believe that Muslims are people with different identities and attitudes."

Defending women's right to choose

However, La Trobe University lecturer Nasya Bahfen argues Senator Brandis's denunciation of Senator Hanson's stunt was well-founded.

"You can criticise and absolutely have a discussion around issues to do with the burka," Dr Bahfen said.

"I just don't think the condemnation of Pauline Hanson was unwarranted.

Despite referring to the burka as a "dehumanising sack", Dr Bahfen, who herself wears a hijab, said it's important to defend the right of Muslim women to wear what they wish.

"I have two sisters who don't wear the hijab," she said.

"It was never something that was forced upon us.

"You're not trying to make a political statement to declare yourself holier than thou, and you're not trying to appease men in your family — it's [about] your relationship with Allah."