Just last month, on 17 August, Pauline Hanson, a member of Australian political party One Nation, entered the Senate chamber wearing a burqa. Taking her usual seat, her choice of dress was met with gasps from her fellow senators, one of whom was heard to say, ‘Oh, what on earth?’
When invited by the Senate president to speak, Hanson, after removing the burqa, asked the Attorney-General, George Brandis, whether or not he would, in light of relevant national security concerns, move to ban the burqa.
In response, Brandis scolded Hanson for what he described as a ‘stunt’, before affirming that the government would not ban the burqa. Brandis qualified that the majority of Australia’s 500,000 Muslim population ‘are law-abiding, good Australians.’ Brandis added that each director-general of security and each commissioner of the Australian Federal Police with whom he has worked has maintained that it is in the national interest to maintain healthy relations with the Muslim community. Hanson’s stunt, conversely, constituted ‘ridicule’ in Brandis’ eyes, and he implored Hanson to ‘reflect on what [she had] done.’
Hanson responded by asking why anyone wearing ‘a balaclava or helmet’ who enters ‘a bank or any other building or on the floor of a court’ is ordered to remove that balaclava or helmet while a Muslim woman wearing a burqa is not. Hanson asked Brandis if the government would therefore consider changing the country’s laws in light of this apparent inconsistency. Brandis assured the Senate that the government would make no such change. Hanson, however, moved a private members’ bill on the floor of the Senate that day with regard to a proposed ban of the burqa in Australia.
A day later, while appearing on breakfast television program ‘TODAY’, Hanson spoke with host Karl Stefanovic. Stefanovic asked Hanson if she was proud of her actions. In response, Hanson said, ‘’Proud’ is not the word I’d say… Not at all. Why should I feel proud of what I did? I did it to actually prove a point here. ’ Hanson explained that the proposal to ban the burqa ‘is based on national security and social cohesion.’ Hanson also explained that it was her belief that ‘there are a lot of women out there wearing the burqa who would dearly love not to have to wear it.’ When Stefanovic asked Hanson how she had felt wearing the burqa on this occasion, Hanson responded, ‘Terrible. It is horrible. It is a horrible feeling. I really feel for these women that are made to wear it or have to wear it.’ Hanson then told Stefanovic that she had received a text message from someone in Saudi Arabia applauding her for speaking out and wearing the burqa in parliament.
Hanson also explained that she believes Australian laws that permit freedom of religion and expression are being used by certain members of society to further their own ideological agenda. Hanson continued, stating that 15 Labor Party seats are controlled by Muslim MPs, which is why Labor is ‘bending over backwards to appease the Muslim population.’ Hanson clarified, ‘I have no problems with the religion. I have a problem with the political ideology that is incompatible with our culture and our way of life and is shutting down a lot of things that are dear to our hearts as Australians.’
On 21 August, during a debate on another morning television program, ‘Sunrise’, Greens’ senator Sarah Hanson-Young chastised Hanson for her actions, labelling them an ‘absolute disgrace’ and telling Hanson she was ‘doing ISIS’s work for them’. Hanson-Young then told Hanson, ‘The next ISIS attack will be on your head, Pauline.’
A day later, and in response to this ongoing discourse, political commentator and former Labor politician Graham Richardson wrote an opinion-piece for national newspaper, ‘The Australian’. An advocate for the banning of the burqa, Richardson qualified that he believes the burqa could and should only be banned in Australia, however, following substantive dialogue with the Muslim community. Richardson was also critical of Hanson’s burqa-wearing stunt, while labelling Hanson-Young a ‘serial idiot’ for her comments attributing a future terrorist attack to Hanson’s decision to wear the burqa in the Senate chamber.
Interestingly, a recent vote among members of conservative political party The Nationals rejected the motion to ban the burqa, 55 to 51. The symbolism of the burqa and the debate about whether or not it is compatible with Australian culture and values will, however, no doubt continue. Whether or not it informs the decisions of Australians next year at the federal election ballot box is, however, unlikely.