even the queen of england wears headscarves

Q&A is an Australian television programme where guests debate a given topic. Once, while following the debate, I noticed the mention of the attack in Australia of a woman wearing a headscarf, around two hundred cases. It elicited no response from the panel; which made me wonder whether the failure to condemn the attack is akin to acknowledging a vein of extremism. Indeed, history has shown that extremism is often not about religion, politics or women, but rather a show of might in the quest for the kind of power that is authoritarian in nature.

On the Q&A panel the debate continued heedless of the violence a woman experienced; she counted in the same way as a multitude of victims. Neither did it pay attention to the attacker. It was as if the intention of the perpetrator was clear and needed no exposition: to overpower, humiliate and gain control. It’s an agenda that needs no explanation when it is explicated within the culture of a dominant ideology that harbours authoritarianism. And so there is no reason for an outcry, no need to expose the features, traits and adherence of each perpetrator. It is unnecessary to talk about the colour of their skin, or their religious upbringing, or their names.

In society, when it comes to violence against women, an attacker acts on the basis of commonly held views; views that are shared, supported by institutional discrimination and amplified by the media. Furthermore, an attacker acts on the basis of processes that precipitate conflict rather than resolve it, especially in the quest for the kind of control that is authoritarian in nature. Could we conjecture then, that the failure to bring to account the perpetrators of extreme violence is a symptom of society, where victims are victims of humiliation and perpetrators dissolve into the canon, their actions tacitly sanctioned? It’s true to say that extreme acts of violence are the tip of the iceberg, pointing to a culture beneath the surface that harbours the violence that feeds the vein of extremism. In this, the media plays a role in dehumanising people on the basis of skin, nationality, religious adherence, gender and so on, while failing to bring to account the perpetrators of attacks that take place on the very basis of race, colour, religion, gender, status.

Even if a majority might be against violence, when the violent act of a perpetrator falls within the culture of a dominant ideology, it’s accepted as a part of society. In the case of the attacks on a woman with a headscarf in Australia, the perpetrators aren’t considered extremists since they are acting within the confines of a culture where violence aimed at “gaining control” within a climate of fear is legitimate. Uncannily, and unbeknownst to the attacker, he (or she) was not attacking a “religion”, or “another culture”, or a “non-Australian”, if that was the motivation, instead they were attacking a person, a human being. It is important to understand that religion is independent of visible signs; it is enough to think of the diversity of Christian people from nation to nation, region to region, city to city; the diversity of Buddhist people, the diversity of Muslim people and so on.* I wouldn’t doubt that the sacredness of a human being is paramount to religion, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as created by the United Nations states that, regardless of “…race, gender, religion, nation and any other status” people are entitled to fundamental human rights.

Thus, on hearing that each individual woman attacked in the two hundred cases mentioned was wearing a headscarf, I could only assume that the respective attacker failed to see the person behind the veil, they failed the person. When a woman wears a headscarf, a jacket, a ring or any other clothing or ornament, religious connotations aside, she is dressing in the way that makes her comfortable. A woman wearing a headscarf is not on her way to a religious occasion; rather she is in society. Here I’d like to make an analogy, taking the practice of wearing a tie. A man will wear a tie when it suits him, most probably for the completion of the attire he is wearing in a particular social setting. It would be true to say that the tie makes him feel comfortable as well as legitimated among the people he is in the company of, the occasion he is participating in and the place he is at. If a man is on his way to work, or anywhere else, could he fear being attacked because he is wearing a tie? Would anyone dream of tearing the tie off a man? What would happen to his dignity as a human being? And, indeed, to his fundamental human rights?

When it comes to violence, there are two vulnerable groups: those that are prone to be victims of violence and those who might adopt violence as a means of expression because they perceive it is sanctioned. Hence, it is vital to account for the “culture” that has nurtured the violence**. The kind of culture where authoritarianism lingers in the name of…. the father, a patriarchal order, the quest for domination? And which adopts a strategy of silence in the public arena before acts of violence on the vulnerable.

Ripping the clothing off a person is a barbaric act. Even more so if it’s a woman. The desacralisation of the body of a woman is, indeed, the tragedy of our time. It is the one that claims much silence, but never for a minute.

Silvana Tuccio, August 2017

Postscript: Up to a decade or more ago, the headscarf, or veil, was an item of clothing of our European grandmothers. Even the Queen of England wears headscarves.

*The way a religion is expressed is determined by its practice within a milieu, since religion depends on the history of the place in which it has been established. In contrast, the philosophy of a religion is shared between people of varying cultural, national or even political backgrounds.
**Often we talk about violence, extreme acts, and intolerance, but the failure to act is also condemnable. Diffidence, failure to assist, ignoring the needs of the other and turning one’s back is indirect violence.
Sculpture in a Toorak shop window, May 2017, photo Silvana Tuccio
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