June 25, 2009 12:00am
WHETHER to ban the burka is back on the political agenda, thanks to French President Nicolas Sarkozy and US President Barack Obama.
Sarkozy told his nation in a speech at Versailles this week that the burka was not welcome in France.
Stopping short of banning the most extreme form of dress for Muslim women, he described the face-covering, floor-length black garment as a symbol of subservience that turns women into prisoners behind a screen.
Sarkozy's performance made quite a statement, delivered as it was in a place renowned for extreme dress -- powdered wigs and all -- and attended by his glamorous wife Carla Bruni, who in a previous incarnation was known to shed all her kit at the drop of a chapeau.
France's attitude to the burka is understandable -- the country thrives on the appreciation of fashion and physical beauty.
No matter what your personal views about the burka -- a symbol of oppression or expression of religious identity -- it is an undeniably ugly item of clothing.
Burkas also make life hard for the women who wear them, being stiflingly hot in summer, and extremely restricting vision.
Only a masochist would opt to wear one, designed as they are by sadists.
It is no coincidence that Muslim men in Saudi Arabia, for example, drape themselves in cooling white while insisting their women bake in black.
Why would it be disrespectful to God for women to also cover up in white?
It's all such a load of male supremacist tosh.
A Muslim friend who chooses to wear a (rather foxy) headscarf told me about a hilarious incident last week where she rushed up and hugged a woman she thought was a close friend, only to find the black shape was a stranger.
How very embarrassing. And how very ludicrous.
I'm with Sarkozy on this -- the burka sends all sorts of messages that are anathema to ideals of freedom and gender equality.
Sure, there are women who say it's their right to dress as they like, but there are also women who think they should have the right to slice off their daughters' clitorises.
Such controls on women's sexuality are pointless, and that should be condemned along with other mumbo-jumbo still practised across the world.
Sarkozy's speech came hot on the heels of Mr Obama's address to the Muslim world from Cairo, in which he supported women's right to wear the burka.
His view is that decisions such as what to wear are not matters to be imposed upon people by the state.
Inspired by Obama, French Muslim women subsequently rushed to drag their black tents from out of le closet.
Australian politicians tend to tread very carefully on the issue of burkas.
And really, what's the best you could say about them in the Australian climate -- they keep the flies and sun off?
Former PM John Howard tested the waters by stating his belief that he found the full covering pretty confronting.
It caused a stir at the time and triggered allegations of religious intolerance.
The political leaders who have followed him are more cautious, apart of course from former Democrats leader Natasha Stott-Despoya, who once donned a scarf in public in solidarity with her oppressed Muslim sisters.
She didn't wear the full catastrophe of course because it would have kind of spoiled the photo opportunity.
Wind the clock forward and what do PM Kevin Rudd and Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull have to say on the matter?
Well, nothing in public, but I am privy to emails from both of them, admittedly of dubious authenticity.
The Rudd email was sent (allegedly) from his office to that of Julia Gillard: "Fair Sheik of the Sauce Bottle you crazy Ranga, I'm not stating my position on the burka without a full Senate inquiry!"
Turnbull's private views, however, do appear well developed, and align more closely with those of Obama than Sarkozy.
In an email leaked by Turnbull's newest adviser, a Mr Godwin Grech, we discover that Turnbull is being advised to tone down his private rhetoric about Sarkozy.
"It is perhaps immoderate and politically premature," writes Grech to Turnbull, "for you to consider calling for the public execution by guillotine of France's President Nicholas Sarkozy, based only on the rumour that Ms Bruni is in receipt of a free burka from a second-hand burka dealer."
Sound unlikely? After this week in politics, anything is believable.