Bursting Veil Misconceptions

This article was originally published at Right Now: Human Rights in Australia
What Is Veiling cover image cropped

Book review by Maya Borom

What is Veiling? | Edinburgh University Press

Front cover of the book, What Is Veiling?In the past month Australia has appeared preoccupied with ‘the veil’. The burqa, the niqab and the hijab have been catapulted somewhat unkindly into mainstream media due to misinformed political opinions, fear of the unknown or the ‘other’, and general misinformation about the role that it has in Muslim culture, society and religion.

Given the current environment in Australia and arguably the Western World, Sahar Amer, Professor and Chair of the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Sydney, is well placed to write a book on Islamic veiling that will introduce readers to the history and complex socio-cultural practices surrounding it in an accessible, easy to read way.

What is Veiling? is a fascinating read that traces the history of the veil from urban Mesopotamia to discussion of hijab references and it’s meaning in the Qur’an, to Islamic fashion and everything in between. When Amer talks of veiling, it means everything from the burqa to the Oman burgu (metal face veil), the leather lithma from the Gulf region and the Senegalese moussor’s (headscarf). Veiling is a diverse practice that attracts many opinions and the book aims to deepen the reader’s understanding of it through a careful exploration of the past as well as analysing contemporary practices and attitudes – from Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Divided into three parts, the book not only explores Muslim attitudes to the veil, but also critiques Western approaches such as the popularity of Orientalist imagery that helped define an image of the stereotypical Middle Eastern woman of the nineteenth century – the medium changing to film once the power of Hollywood became evident. In fact, Amer points out that “Only since the nineteenth century has it been an integral part of Euro-American discourses on Islam and the Middle East”.

Indeed, she notes that negative attitudes to veiling in Europe have resulted in the banning or restriction of the burqa or niqab in numerous countries such as France with threat of imprisonment or fines of upwards of $38,000 or Belgium where it is banned from all public spaces. Such vehement opposition to a practice that has, as Amer points out, roots in traditions other than just Islam is worrying and indeed frightening. She also looks at veiling practices in the United States from a civil liberties or human rights perspective noting, in particular, the battle between the notion of freedom and the constitutional protection afforded to citizens under the First Amendment to issues of national security and distrust arising from 9/11 onwards.

The last part of the book is devoted to veiling and women, touching upon themes such as the early feminist movement in Egypt in the 1920s to stand-up comedy like The Hijabi Monologues which tried to move past audience fixation on the hijab to focus it on the woman underneath and their personal stories. Amer is also careful to include the fine arts and visual representation of veiling from Muslim artists challenging orientalist representations of themselves. The book presents both sides of the coin – women who veil and women who do not – so as to present a holistic picture of the complexities surrounding the practice.

What is Veiling? is an excellent resource that provides the reader with a great foundation on which to explore issues surrounding veiling – it is accessible, contemporary and provides recent examples about the practice, which is essential if one is to come to an understanding how veiling fits into the modern world.

Book Review of The Tribe

This article was originally published at Right Now: Human Rights in Australia


The Tribe cover

Book review by Maya Borom

The Tribe | Giramondo Publishing

Much has been made in the past couple of weeks of Muslim cultures in Australia, pointing towards their difference rather than similarities. Rhetoric that encourages an attitude of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and breeds religious and cultural intolerance and misunderstandings.

But what happens to Arab-Australian children who are born in Australia but whose parents and family have strong ties to their homeland? Are they any less Australian than those born to Anglo parents? Are they conflicted as to where they belong and do they seem themselves as part of a wider ‘Australian’ community?

In the fictional book The Tribe by Michael Mohammed Ahmad, we are offered a glimpse into the world of a young Arab-Australian who is growing up with the traditions of his family whispered in his ear and the culture of contemporary Australia at his immediate doorstep. Written from the perspective of Bani at age seven and ending at eleven, the narrative is honest in his observations of family and school life, and it’s this honesty that allows the reader to relate instantly to the themes in the book. Universal themes such as love, death and everything in between that shapes and makes families what they are.

The Tribe is divided into three chapters, each covering an important part of Bani’s family life, from his strong relationship with his grandmother, to a family wedding, and finally to something every family goes through, grief at losing a loved one. Ahmad has captured the essence of a boy on the cusp of young adulthood and opens up a world seen infrequently in Australian fiction – and in doing so invites the reader to recognise the same issues and emotions that befall families regardless of their socio-cultural or religious background.

Ahmad’s book is an interesting read, due in equal measure to the personalities of his characters as well as to the exploration of Arab-Australian culture in a fictional setting.

The Asylum Debate Put Simply

This article was originally published at Right Now: Human Rights in Australia


Book review by Maya Borom

Refugees: Why Seeking Asylum is Legal and Australia’s Policies Are Not | NewSouth Publishing

'Refugees' book coverThe aim of Jane McAdam and Fiona Chong’s book Refugees: Why Seeking Asylum is Legal and Australia’s Policies Are Not is to educate the general public on the often complex and highly emotional issue of asylum seekers and how Australian law and policy is often at odds with it’s international legal obligations.

McAdam and Chong state from the beginning that the book is intended to appeal to a general audience. It’s not overtly academic in nature nor is it too simplistic in it’s approach to such a controversial issue in Australia. It also draws on examples from real refugees to illustrate the decisive and devastating impact of current Australian law and policy on those who are most vulnerable and who should, under international law, be protected.

Refugees sets out to introduce the reader first to the international definition of refugee, and by extension discussing the rights that are inherent with such recognition. It then moves into a discussion of temporary protection visas and whether these are consistent with Australia’s international legal obligations to provide permanent protection to refugees. McAdam and Chong take the reader on a logical journey of discovery, from identifying refugees to offshore detention and to “turning back the boats” – topics that pervade much of mainstream media and which has disturbingly, in Australia, resulted in the major political parties fighting to create the most inhuman asylum policies and laws imaginable.

The book also seeks to dispel common myths around seeking asylum that has gained media traction and is promoted heavily by the successive Australian governments, such as the idea of the “economic migrant” and Australia being “flooded” by asylum seekers. McAdam and Chong are careful to provide evidence against these claims so that the reader is able to independently verify their veracity.

Refugees frames Australia’s approach to asylum seekers in a way that is easy to read and approachable – this is essential given the controversial nature of the topic and hopefully lends itself to being read by not only those interested in human rights and Australia but also those wanting to know a little bit more about Australian refugee law and policy and international law but was always afraid to ask.