Balking at burkini bans misses nearer prejudices

10:52 am on 27 August 2016

Opinion - In response to recent terrorist attacks on French soil, several towns have banned the burkini - swimwear often worn by Muslim women and people avoiding the sun.

Muslim models display burkini swimsuits at a shop in western Sydney

Muslim models display burkini swimsuits at a shop in western Sydney Photo: AFP

This week, New Zealand responded by putting a burkini on the runway at New Zealand Fashion Week.

We Kiwis may pat ourselves on the back for our small act of defiance and its representation of our tolerant society but we would only be fooling ourselves.

The burkini on the catwalk at NZFW.

The burkini on the catwalk at New Zealand Fashion Week. Photo: Supplied / Michael Ng

Islamophobia is on the rise in the Western world and Muslims and ethnic minorities who "look Muslim" are feeling the brunt of it. New Zealand is certainly not immune.

We have blamed Chinese immigrants for the housing crisis, barred a woman from applying for a job because she wore a hijab, defaced the billboard of a Sikh candidate running for City Council with "ISIS", and have barely increased our refugee quota in response to a massive crisis in Syria.

Do we really deserve that pat on the back?

While slogans like "Britain First" and "Make America Great Again" are associated with xenophobic nationalism, New Zealand actually has a party in Parliament called New Zealand First.

One of its MPs Richard Prosser suggested back in 2013, well before Brexit or Donald Trump's presidential bid, that Muslim men should not be welcome to travel on Western airlines.

He eventually had to apologise, conceding most Muslims were not terrorists, but then suggested most terrorists were Muslims - despite FBI figures showing non-Muslims make up 94 percent of terrorist attacks in the US.

He continues to be an MP.

The party's leader Winston Peters has since called for immigrants to be interviewed "to check their attitude" if they come from countries who "treat their women like cattle", while ACT's David Seymour has called for refugees to have toliterally sign up to "Kiwi values".

Both might be talking around race and religion to escape accusations of bigotry, but there is no doubt they refer to Muslims.

The primary effect of the burkini ban in France is not reduced terrorism or liberation of women - it is removal of Muslim women from public spaces.

This might not be successful as it gets tested in the courts but if it were, it would only further marginalize the Muslim community, which can only lead to more radicalization.

How North & South magazine's June issue covered refugees and Muslims in New Zealand.

How North & South magazine's June issue covered refugees and Muslims in New Zealand. Photo: no metadata

Islamic clothing is wrapped in cultural, national, religious, and gendered connotations and the effect is marginalization of women but also Muslims in general, especially non-white Muslims.

It doesn't matter that nuns can go to the beach or that people can still wear wet suits. What matters is the racial association with Muslims devalues all who don't fall into the narrow white definition of a "liberated woman".

North and South magazine in its June issue covered refugees and Muslims in New Zealand, but the cover had a menacing photo subtly equating the niqab to something sinister and dangerous with the headline "Radical Islam".

Nobody has a problem with a white woman in Wellington covering up from head to toe on a cold July morning as the wind and rain comes in from all directions.

But a Muslim woman is somehow seen as a threat to society by virtue of her modest clothing choices.

Muslim women wearing various types of Islamic veils: a hijab (top L), a niqab (top R) a tchador (bottom L) and a burqa.

Muslim women wearing various types of Islamic veils: a hijab (top L), a niqab (top R) a tchador (bottom L) and a burqa. Photo: AFP

- Lamia Imam was born in New Zealand. She grew up in Bangladesh and the United States. She attended the University of Canterbury in Christchurch majoring in Political Science and Law. She worked for the Labour Party and the Ministry of Justice in Wellington after graduation. She received her Masters from the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and currently works as a Communications Consultant in Austin, Texas. Lamia recently contributed to The Interregnum, a book of essays by young writers commenting on the current state of political uncertainty.

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