Extremist activity: a feminist argues for religious discrimination laws in NSW

It may seem strange timing to argue for anti-discrimination laws to protect Muslims in NSW. The memory of Sydney’s Hyde Park protests lingers, and the debate is still going over how and why these violent clashes happened, what a response looks like.

Now that the initial flames have cooled to red coals, I think this is the perfect time to talk about it. It is a moment where wounded pride stings, and fretting over multiculturalism has gone from hand wringing to loud wails.

So let’s talk. Muslims (and people from many other religions) don’t have anti-discrimination protection in NSW, and I suggest that they should.

Why would you listen to me on the issue of religious discrimination? You probably shouldn’t. I am a working-class, white girl feminist. I was raised on the atheist side of agnosticism.

I have, however, spent time listening to my activist colleague Cigdem Aydemir: installation and performance artist; inner western Sydney resident; Turkish Muslim; human rights and feminist activist.

Cigdem’s art, activism and everyday life deals with the intertwining issues of Islamophobia, public and private space, nationalism, and women’s bodies.

Photo by Alex Wisser, Performance piece by Cigdem Aydemir

For a long time there was a very public anti-burqa mural facing the train line as you pull into Newtown station from the west of Sydney. The mural was by Sergio Redegalli, owner of Cydonia Glass Studio in Newtown. He had to repaint it over and over, as it has been defaced more than 20 times. More recently he has changed it to read ‘Say no to submission’.

Cigdem’s sister-in-law wears a burqa, and Cigdem herself wore a veil for over ten years.

[W]hile I don’t anymore it is something I hold very close to my heart.

Islamophobia is a weird kind of discrimination. When I wore the veil people assumed I was this stereotypical Muslim and would respond in certain ways. But when the veil came off, people who didn’t know I was Muslim revealed more in an explicit way and would say things like “fucking Muslims” and all sorts of other insults. At the gym once, a veiled woman walked past and a friend of a friend leant over to me to tell me how weird and strange it was and how much he hated it. Suddenly everything was explicit as opposed to implicit discrimination and stereotypes.

Last year, Cigdem lodged a formal complaint about the anti-burqa mural. Neither the police nor the council could help her, as it was on Redegalli’s property, and finally she approached the Anti-Discrimination Board. Though the case went through several hearings, Cigdem eventually withdrew the case. Legal Aid also expressed fear that a negative result in the case would make it harder for Muslims to take cases in future.

Why was there such a slim hope of victory when this mural obviously seems to target Muslims, and Muslim women in particular? The NSW Anti-Discrimination Act only covers religion when it is an ethno-religious group, for example Jews or Sikhs. Muslims come from many parts of Asia, the Balkans and Russia, the Middle East, and yes, Australia, just to name a few places of origin.

As Cigdem says, “[if] someone is discriminated against as a Lebanese Muslim or Turkish Muslim, then they have protection. But this is rarely the case.” She argues that a category of religious discrimination is needed in the face of “these really strong views about Muslims.” John Laws once referred to Muslims as vermin on public radio. The current limits of law on religious discrimination meant he was not held to account.

Initially I was skeptical of the need for legal recourse on hate speech. Judith Butler, feminist philosopher, raised Jewish and always writing against the spectre of the holocaust, argues against regulation of hate speech. She suggests that hate speech can’t be controlled, illustrating with the example of pornography. More than this, she argues that attempts to “control the onslaught of hateful words” by “recourse to the law – now set against power and imagined as neutral” fail because they imagine the hate speaker as singular rather than social. Butler says that the speaker of hate “chimes in with a chorus of racists” producing an imagined (or in Laws’ case, tangible) communion with other racists to whom such speech is intelligible. The speaker produces the hate that he or she speaks, just as the law is imagined to produce the sovereign power it ‘speaks’. Thus, she argues, the individualistic recourse of the law in fact vests the speaking racist with power, validating the community of racists invoked in such speech.

It seems to me that Butler’s argument fails on a number of levels. While she is correct that the law is not neutral. However, if this is the case, it can be used to provide a bulwark of insistence that those on the margins of a society (for whatever reason) are in fact valued members of that society. This is the case with Islamophobia.

Secondly she argues that the law is an enforcement of racists’ individuality (ignoring all those who could have spoken in their place) while at the same time a legitimising of their community (imagining them as powerful and in need of punishment). It is not the contradiction in this statement that gives me pause, but the idea that others could have spoken in place of Laws. While there is no shortage of racists in our community, there is a shortage of racists with access to Laws’ and Redegalli’s audience. Cutting off the head of the monster means it can no longer direct the body.

Failing to provide recourse to marginalised members of a community strikes me as deeply individualist and perhaps reflective of the peculiar political context of the United States, where the military is a legitimate expression of sovereignty but universal health care, for example, is seen as a threat to individual liberty. The Australian public has a far greater reliance on the state as the upholder of social standards in the redistribution of wealth to questions of community values, and so perhaps for us the question is not one of the legitimacy of legal intervention on matters of discrimination, but of the form of that intervention. As Butler says, the state is not neutral. So I suggest we use it to support those who are marginalised and strengthen our inclusiveness as a society.

The letter of the law is a pernickety thing. Cigdem suggests that in NSW, including Muslims under the ethno-religious category would involve the least change to the law, but a category for purely religious discrimination could also be an option:

[I]n Victoria the religious category is in place in their Act, and there have been evangelical Christians who have taken cases both against Muslims and vice versa. While I don’t want Muslims or Christians to be preaching their faiths by making derogatory comments to each other, these kinds of cases take over the debate and genuine instances of discrimination get lost… People who are Muslim are so diverse. But the gist of the matter is to gain protection for the Muslim identity. We need our rights written into our laws.

The veiled woman is the focal point of much angst about Islam. The body or face covering marks the women wearing it as threatening outsiders, while at the same time they remain the embodiment of sexist attitudes about women. Many of us see the veil-wearers as passive victims, oppressed sack-wearers whose crucial liberal individuality is being masked. While some of this attitude comes from atheists who might have similar objections to a Catholic nun, I think that mostly the reaction is visceral, not thought through. Fear of the veil, and attacks on its wearers fit with a more general anxiety, such as that of Melinda Tankard Reist regarding sexualisation, over women’s bodies. Both extremes of this debate aim to police women. In my view both sides are wrong. As a feminist, I am steered by the desire to open avenues of expression for all women, rather than shut them down. A veil or a short skirt may seem trivial, but if harassment and discrimination for the wearing of a short skirt is illegal, and I believe it should be, I also think the decision to wear a veil should be respected and protected.

Cigdem’s artwork dwells on these bodily anxieties. Earlier this year, I went to a performance installation in which she clothed her attendees in a huge joined burqa. Rather than feeling anxious and smothered by the black sheet as I expected, I could only laugh as I put on the cloth with the other art patrons who suddenly became my confidantes. I held my friend’s hand inside the cloth. We were pulled by the burqa and linked to each other. We took up almost the entire room.

Though the images of the weekend’s protests were of violent masculinity, inevitably this event will have impact on visible Muslims, usually women who wear the burqa or veil. In these moments it is important to consider how we can create more inclusivity and push back against a line of argument that says Australia doesn’t value its Muslim community. It is time to talk about including our Muslim population in our anti-discrimination laws. As Cigdem shows, legal change along with humour and artistic expression can help us combat marginalisation and a religious and cultural divide. Using the law as an expression of valuing all our community members is one defence amongst many against exclusion and hate.

Cigdem’s next exhibition can be found here.

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