Humiliating and isolating Muslim women won't make us any safer.

Update: Since this post was published, Prime Minister Tony Abbot has signalled his intention to have this ruling overturned. See our News story


It’s scary how quickly fear can can degenerate into hate.

And this week, as the campaign to ‘ban the burqa’ reared its ugly, uncovered head once more, our country’s leaders have validated that fear. The Australian Government sent a message loud and clear that Muslims, and more particularly Muslim women, are a threat to the safety of others.

According to new rules released today, anyone who wants to sit in the Australian Parliament’s viewing galleries wearing a ‘facial covering’ will be segregated to an enclosed glass area. The regular public gallery – the usual vantage point from which voters can watch their democratic representatives in action – will be closed to those who insist their faces be shielded from view.

The change comes off the back of public discussion about potential security risks of not being able to identify the faces of burqa-wearers (or more correctly, niqab-wearers, as a burqa is generally not worn outside of Afghanistan). While the new parliamentary ban does not target Muslim women’s dress explicitly, no reasonable person can be in doubt of who the restriction is aimed at.

Banning the burqa has been the pet cause of some bigoted parliamentarians for years. They use the issue to promote an ‘us’ and ‘them’ culture and build support for anti-Muslim immigration policies. In the past, it has only been one or two lone voices on the conservative right who have been vocal; others have dismissed the call to ban the burqa for the dog-whistle that it is.

Senator Jacqui Lambie appeared on Sunrise yesterday calling for the burqa to be banned:

The post continues after the video.

Even Prime Minister Tony Abbott who has previously described the burqa as ‘confronting’,  has always fallen short of actively supporting a ban. And yet this week, Prime Minister Abbott’s powerful Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin was quoted as being sympathetic to those in the Coalition caucus who wanted the burqa banned in the corridors of parliament.

The following day, Mr Abbott himself took his language one step further, saying “Frankly, I wish it was not worn”. Then today, the announcement came that those who cover their faces would be separated from other members of the public who visit Parliament House’s viewing galleries.

Burqas are now only allowed in the Parliament’s viewing room.

Security in our nation’s parliament is an incredibly serious issue. And at a time when our security organisations are on high alert and a terror attack on Australian soil is more probable than normal, it is right and proper that the building at the centre of our democracy be subject to heightened protections.

But security must be based on fact, not hysteria and political drum-beating.

The case has not been effectively made that segregation of some Muslim women to a glass-enclosed section of parliamentary viewing gallery, will do anything to improve the safety of our politicians. For those unfamiliar with Parliament House, these glass areas which are further from the main action were created to provide a sound-proof environment for school children to watch parliament from.

Jamila Rizvi.

Already, individuals can be asked to remove their face coverings for identification purposes before entering the houses of parliament and go through metal detection screenings like the public is used to doing at airports. Several politicians have noted, including the Prime Minister himself, it would be very unusual to see a woman in niqab or burqa in Parliament House.

There are no reports that parliamentary security are confronting more (or any) visitors who have their faces covered, than they have previously.

In fact several journalists are today reporting that there has never been a report of a niqab or burqa-wearing individual seeking entry to parliament house’s public or private areas.

Now, perhaps that says more about religious and cultural diversity in the corridors of power, but all the same – this is hardly a ‘problem’ that needs solving.

This change only serves to demonise Australia’s Muslim community and make Muslim women feel isolated and alone.

It also ignores the fact that security is about so much more than checkpoints and screenings.

Security is about community and connectedness and building a harmonious society where Australians feel safe within each others’ company. Working together to create a culture where all individuals feel like they belong, is critical to defeating fringe or extremist groups who wish Australians harm.

The message this segregation sends is the very message Australia does not need to hear right now; that Muslims are dangerous, worthy of segregation from others, not to be trusted. It comes at the time when heightened community tensions are already causing Muslims, particularly Muslim women, to come under attack from those who ignorantly equate violent acts committed on the other side of the world with the schoolgirl next door who happens to wear a headscarf.

And when those messages of fear and hate appear to be coming directly from our parliamentary leaders, they carry far more weight. Suddenly, in the community’s eyes, the ranting of a back-bencher with peculiar politics becomes the accepted mainstream view of the parliament. Suddenly, the message that Muslims should be feared carries a weight that it did not possess previously.

Those in power have a responsibility to rise above the mania and hysteria of the press and fearful members of the community to be a voice of calm, reason and inclusion. Today, Australia’s leaders didn’t do that. They gave into political pressure in a way that will do little to secure the safety of our parliament and only serve to humiliate and isolate Australian Muslims.

At a time when this country most needs inclusion, we have been delivered segregation.

And, sadly, this is probably just the beginning.