Here in the Land of Oz there’s a bit of a public debate going on about face coverings by muslim women. Even the Prime Minister got involved. What it really boils down to is this – should people be allowed to cover their faces up?

The concerns are obvious; if someone’s face is covered then you can’t identify them. This diminished identification brings two major problems; many places require identification for safety and security (and this argument is sometimes spliced in with the observation that our major terror threat at the moment is from islamic-motivated sources) and that, more basically, we are a culture that prizes openness – so much so that to wear a face covering is somehow “unAustralian”.

This week it all went the wrong direction when the Christian Democratic Party put up the following image on facebook:

cdpfacecover

Words fail me. No, that’s not true; I have a few that come rapidly.

Shame on the CDP. There’s nothing “Christian” about this kind of response and not much democratic about it either (except for the right to say silly things). The first thing to grasp is that the vast majority of women who wear face coverings are Australian citizens. Like it or not this is Australian. We’re a wonderful melting pot of different cultures and we’re a long way away from a pure white (colour and culture) country. In fact we never were, as many aboriginal people will point out to you.

Many of us work hard to understand why women would wear the niqab or even the burkah. They see it as a form of modesty, and all the more so in a culture as overtly and crassly sexualised as ours. Who can blame them? We gently urge people to be modest in the way that they dress and so some women do so in a way that they think is correct.

But more fundamentally the CDP are shooting themselves in the foot, and discharging another round into mine. The muslim woman’s right to wear a niqab or burkah as a religious expression is also my right to religious expression. To silence one is to silence all. First they came for the burkahs, but I did not wear a burkah so I was silent…

Now of course, this means that some women will be unable to identify themselves. Well then so be it. That is their choice in a country that still has certain requirements. If they will not remove their face covering then perhaps they cannot enter a bank that requires helmets to be removed for identification. But that’s their choice. Similarly when it comes to identification for public services. I suggest that some accomodation should be made but if we need to identify someone we need to identify someone. But this is the choice of the woman herself. If she freely chooses to cover her face then let her cover her face. There may be consequences for her but she is free to make decisions about them.

And how ought Christians to respond? Well this is a good start:

x101islam

Now I think they misunderstand the term “Common Grace” but the point is still well made. But how do we love Muslims like Christ? Well by telling them about the greater covering.

Coverings are an interesting thing in the Bible. The man and woman cover themselves early on when their sin leads to a new way of looking at themselves and their (previously wonderful) nakedness is something they need to hide. So they cover themselves with leaves. God brings a more permanent arragement by using the skin of animals and so (we might say) the first sacrifice to cover sin is made.

“Covering” then becomes a byword for dealing with sin, the word “atonement” having much the same meaning; a covering for sin. In Israel’s cultic life there is a great covering once a year at Yom Kippur, the day of atonement (Lev. 16). But there is also, in the tabernacle, a constant covering, the “mercy seat” that closes the Ark of the Covenant (Exo 30:6). It covers the law which condemns and therefore provides a place where God may meet with man.

The Apostle Paul picks up on this when he speaks of how Jesus saves us:

Rom. 3:25 [Christ], whom God put forward as [a propitiation] by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.

The words translated here “a propitiation” is the greek “hilasterion” which was used in the greek translation of the Old Testament to refer to the “mercy seat” or “atonement cover”. We might just as accurately say:

Rom. 3:25 [Christ], whom God put forward as an atonement cover by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.

Muslim women may wear the veil so that men will not look at them in an unhelpful way. All well and good. But there is a bigger problem for all of us. God does not look at us well at all, because of our rebellion against Him. The solution, which He Himself provides, is the covering of Jesus. It brings the confidence to stand with no fear of being looked at in the wrong way. It brings the total assurance of forgiveness of sins and peace with God.

And the muslim woman’s right to wear a covering is my right to tell her (and everyone else) about the wonderful covering of Jesus. Which is a terrible thing for a “Christian” organisation to be campaigning against.

Comments

comments

31 comments on “Covering Up in Australia

  1. I do believe that we can all get a bit paranoid at times on both sides of the fence. Yep, because of world events and Islam dominating the news seemingly all the time you can understand the paranoia which l think is normal. HOWEVER……

    1. The way l read the CDP’s ad is that the face of Australia is the people behind the flag of Australia.
    2. Islamic women covering their faces is for some a cultural thing, similar in fact to Christians who might wear a cross….it’s just something you do.
    3. As for face covering in sensitive areas, well, just like motorcyclists and helmets……if you want to keep wearing it, well there are certain places you won’t get admittance…….and that’s just the way it is.

  2. Thanks for your post David, really helpful and considered.

    I think “Common Grace” is a facebook page which has as its about info:

    More like Jesus. Less like jerks. A movement celebrating a larrikin Christianity of *GRACE* for the common good. #Beauty. #Generosity. #Justice. Now you lot must be hipsters cause you’re liking #CommonGrace before we’ve launched (at the end of the year) and no ones heard of us yet. But here’s a sneak peek: we are ordinary Aussie Christians (yep, from happy clappy to high church) who long for our lives and a public Christian voice that’s more like Jesus, and less like jerks. We take the Gospel of grace very seriously. Ourselves, not so much.

    https://www.facebook.com/pages/Common-Grace/564280547034271

  3. That's a great article. The security problem is obvious, but the Christian Democrat party's response is not helpful to any of the people concerned. Better to use the positive approach described here, if we can..

  4. hi Geoff,

    Yes, we have security concerns but we don’t need a particular “Islamic” ban to deal with them. We just need laws about identification that everybody keeps.

    Having said that, I’m not entirely sure which bit of my post you think is “not good”.

  5. If a violent criminal can cover themselves wearing a burqua, what's to stop them whering a burns mask or face-paint? The "security" argument is pretty flawed if you consider the multitude of other potential shrouds that are available.

    In regards to wearing the dress of the country you're living in, are you wearing your Naga today?

  6. A thought provoking article, and while I would always err on the side of allowing people to wear the burqa if they choose, that’s the thorny issue. It should be an issue of women’s choice, and there are definitely Muslim women who do choose to cover their faces. However, there are, no doubt, women who get no choice. Having grown up in a very Islamic area of Sydney, I can tell you, when women aren’t give a choice about who they marry, when they marry or what educational/career choices they will make, there is no way they are then given the choice to cover up or not. And this is where it does become an issue of “Australian Culture” (as if there is such a straight forward thing), because I do believe all women in Australia should have CHOICE about their clothing. So, the burqa issue isn’t really about whether women are allowed to cover their faces (yes, of course they should have the choice) but whether they truly have a choice, within their Australian sub-culture. And this is where I think the church is letting those women down, because I’d much, much rather see the CDP defending women’s rights to choose, I’d rather see Christianity’s men defending the freedoms of women by simply stating that Islamic women should be given choice by Islamic and non-Islamic men, family, law makers and culture and I would REALLY like to see the Christianity’s men defend openly the idea that men’s sexual thoughts are ultimately not controlled by covering a woman’s face, they’re about men being responsible for their thoughts and their sexual activity. Because if a woman feels she has to cover up her whole body in order to feel sexually safe, or protected, or not taken advantage of, there is something very wrong and it isn’t her body…..

    • hi Naomi, thanks for your comment.
      I think, to be fair, Christians do speak up about these issues but obviously not in your own context.
      I think, also, that your recognition that the real issue with sexual thoughts is in the mind, not anywhere else. However, that being the case, modesty is still something to be strived for.
      It’s good for us to remember, too, that not every woman in that situation has a choice. But also good to be reminded that many do.

      Nevertheless, if these things were sorted out there is still the more basic concept of freedom of religious expression. Glad to hear you’re in favour of it.

  7. You will always have an issue in a culture where the only time people cover their face is at the snow, on a motorbike or when they don’t want to be identified, ie stealing, etc.
    Another problem is that communication is mostly non-verbal. If I can’t see your face then communication becomes fraught with problems
    No one seems to address these issues in this debate.
    As long as you cover your face things will be problematic. Head coverings, I have no issue with.
    I’m not entirely comfortable with your comments on ‘rights to choose’, David but i will have to give it further thought.

    • I’m not sure we can force anyone to communicate with us. I entirely agree that most communication is non-verbal. But then what’s our best way to progress communication with someone who has chosen (let’s assume for good reasons) this bar to communication?

  8. Which Romans? The male ones? The Jewish ones? The left-leaning vegetarian ones? Culture has never been monolithic and in my "Rome" there has always been room for difference, and thank God for that.

  9. Not all women who wear a face covering do it by choice. Likewise not all women get to choose their husbands, the age they wish to marry, or have a say in whether or not they want to be circumcised. There are still many who are barred from getting an education and more than we realise who are part of a polygamous relationship. Most of these women risk their lives or their family relationships if they even consider the possibility that another religion makes more sense than the one they are in. I certainly have problems with adding further restrictions to their lives by alienating them for wearing clothes they may, or may not choose to wear but lets not allow ourselves too much self righteousness on this issue when we know that the reason for the concern is that we have suspicions that are not unreasonably founded in a world where most terrorists are Muslim. Australia is an infinitely safer place to live in than the one most of them escaped from and one of the reasons for that is that most of us are happy to forego minor ‘freedoms’ to keep it that way. When I visit a foreign country, I go out of my way not to offend my hosts – I would never dream of wearing shoes in a Mosque (for example), its a shame that we have to get heavy handed to ensure our visitors adopt the same attitude.

  10. There is no requirement in the quran for a woman to wear the burqa. However many currently circulating photos, including the one above shpws the woman staring out at the camera. The quran however does say that the women should lower their gaze (sura 24:31). So the photo above is portraying doing something that is not a religious requirement and not doing something that is. The intention is modesty. I have lived and worked in countries where various forms of the veil/buqa is common. In Iran in major cities few young women even wear a headscarf, an occasional older woman may just wear a hair covering, The veil is more common in rural areas.

    In Zanzibar, the most Islamic (90%) of the Tanzanian districts the full burqa is often only worn by the women of the night as it is considered a sexual fetish.

    In Abu Dhabi where women wearing the burqa more commonly, you will often see them walking in the same street as (inappropriately) clad tourists in string tops and shorts and less in beach areas. Confirming the decadense of the west, or in the locals eyes. decadence of the christians. But many times, not always, if you look carefully past the eye slot you will notice bruising as violence to women within the marriage is unfortunately too common.

    However in Australia I don’t think wearing a full covering is appropriate and am always troubled when one christian group publicly takes another to task instead of taking others to task first.

  11. The head scarves are no problem at all, quite pretty really, similar to first Century Jewish women, but the Muslim women’s face coverings inhibit the forming of friendships with non-Muslim women, communication, becoming part of the wider culture etc., or so it seems to me.

    • hi Marie Jo. Yes, in our culture it’s a barrier to communication but then our culture is just one particular one. Obviously for many women it’s an acceptable barrier or actually none at all since they don’t understand it that way.

      • Hi David, true, but just as when we travel abroad we dress according to the sensitivities of the cultures we visit (I know these are Australian Muslims so Oz is their home too) so I just think life in a western democracy calls for some adaptation to the contemporary culture. Maybe I’m wrong, I don’t know, I don’t want to offend anyone if it is so important to them to cover their faces, but it does make it harder to acculturate. In Malaysia. e.g.,many Muslims don’t cover their faces it is more a Middle Eastern custom so it is optional. That is unless the community they live in insists on deference to men in a code of shame foisted on women because of their gender.

        • P.S. A good book I studied at Uni about this is, “Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society” by Lila Abu-Lugod an anthropologist who lived with Bedouin tribes in Egypt. it is respectful and eye opening regarding veils, shame, and honour.

        • Yes, it certainly makes acculturasation (is that a word?!) harder. But that’s a choice. I think we all have choices of conscience that we recognise put us at a disadvantage or even may make other unhappy. But that’s what such choices do.

          Is there a code of shame? I’m sure in some instances there is. But for other women it’s a freely-made choice.

          • Yes ‘acculturate’ is a funny old word and I guess acculturation would do for a noun. It is the ability to become part of and adapt to a new culture what I think makes multiculturalism work in Oz,while keeping your home country’s culture, which seems especially important to 1st and 2nd generation Aussies.I have taught ESL and like working with different cultures.

            I think it is true to say there is a code of shame aka an honour code as shame and honour are two sides of the same deal. As far as I remember from Abu-Lugoud’s study with Egyptian Bedouins (and there are many complexities and I am no expert), but the idea was roughly that men were naturally distanced from nature (biological/reproductive) and so had intrinsic honour, especially because they are the source of seed; whereas women are closer to nature and cannot control aspects of their reproductive biology (although they get some credit for having a womb), but otherwise their ways to earn honour are through veiling their faces in a complex deference system that honours men. Female compliance with this system earns them honour as does their poetry, which allows women to ventilate their emotions in a culturally acceptable way and therefore honoured. The point about choice is, I guess, called into question as there are not a lot of options. Islam is a vast religion, the book I referred to is case specific, so honour codes/customs probably vary from country to country.

  12. Last week I returned from overseas and I would like to share my experience with everyone .

    In Britain , Radical Islam / Sharia Law is disliked by the British people . The wearing of the Burqa is intimidating , but because the British Government doesn’t want to upset the Radicals , they don’t care what the majority wants , so the British people have to put up with that intimidation and being pushed around by a minority cult !.

    In 2011 France banned the Burqa ………..life goes on and now no one complains, no intimidation what so ever, the Burqa is nowhere to be seen ,the Radicals have to abide by the Law of the Land (the Government’s Law ) NOT Radical Islam’s law

    In 2013 the Netherlands banned the Burqa and like France the rules are being obeyed .

    I went to Switzerland and also Malta , I saw no one wearing Burqas , I don’t think it’s been banned in those Countries , but no one wears those intimidating outfits . !!!!

    Our Australian Government/s of both Parties seem to be afraid of Radical Muslims so they follow what Britain does and allow us to be pushed around , making the majority of people unhappy for the sake of being “Politically Correct ” .
    We are being walked over because our Politicians have not learnt anything from the problems of Britain .

    I am not against any Religion , but I am fed up of Islam being pushed in our faces , whether it’s their “special foods” HALAL introduced in just about every product we consume which they receive $$$ Mega Millions in Commission for having “their emblem” displayed on products .

    What did these people live on before the HALAL name was pushed upon us ? Don’t they know that many medicines and beauty products that they used contain pig products ?

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