A bikini ban for a Ramadan event at a public pool should not be taken lightly as it puts fundamental freedoms of Western society on the line.
A COUPLE of weeks ago a report surfaced about families being ordered to cover up before attending a public event to avoid offending Muslims during next year’s Ramadan in August. It involved VCAT approving a bikini ban for a community event to be held at Dandenong Oasis, a municipal pool. Dandenong Council, and pool managers YMCA, successfully sought an exemption from the Equal Opportunity Act to compel ”participants aged 10 and over” to ”ensure their bodies are covered from waist to knee and the entire torso extending to the upper arms”, and to refrain from wearing ”transparent clothing”.
Controversy erupted: tabloid TV lapped it up, talkback callers fulminated, bloggers pontificated, politicians, including Premier John Brumby, were quizzed. Amid the outrage came the predictable and inflammatory warnings that the ruling was evidence of a sinister plan to ”Islamise” Australia.
The ruling enforcing what VCAT described as ”minimum dress requirements” for Muslims was certainly novel. I’m not aware of any other instance in which the tribunal has made a religious dress code mandatory at a public venue – as opposed to a place of worship – let alone at the local swimming pool. In fact, the ruling was so novel that for some it simply couldn’t sink in.
Perhaps this is why some of the fair-minded people in my orbit initially doubted the story’s veracity. After reluctantly conceding it was indeed true, they still thought the thunderous response over the top. We’re talking about a one-off, two-hour event, they argued. It will be held when the pool is closed to the public and normally used for a women-only swimming session, the attendees of which are almost all Muslims. And hey, aren’t we all covering up to be sun-smart now anyway? (OK, maybe not in the middle of August.) Let’s keep things in perspective, they said.
Well, I agree perspective is crucial. And seen from a wider and deeper perspective, the Dandenong pool episode is neither trivial nor insignificant. It is but one example of human rights laws producing outcomes that restrict rights. It raises tough questions about how far public authorities ought to go in accommodating cultural practices that sit uneasily with mainstream Western values.
And it exposes some disturbing and hypocritical currents in progressive thought, a point best and fittingly made by a Dandenong-based Muslim women’s group, set up to help newly arrived Afghan migrants integrate into Australian society. ”I’ve spoken to a lot of women; they don’t want this,” Women’s Better World president Mandy Ahmadi told the Dandenong suburban newspaper, flagging her campaign to overturn the ruling. ”Enough is enough … why run from the Taliban to come to this?”