The Prime Minister has attracted some ire previously by calling himself a feminist. This week he once again proved he either definitively is one or definitely isn’t one—depending on which of the increasingly varied schools of feminism one subscribes to.
The Prime Minister is, in my view, a Beyonce Feminist. He believes in the political and legal equality of women and men. This is the feminism described by Annie Lennox as "Feminism Lite". I'd call it a minimalist feminism. It's the sort of basic legal rights feminism that was radical when the Prime Minister and Germaine Greer were at university.
Greer was known for flouting convention by being intellectually exhilarating and verbally terrifying – and also for showing off her rather fine legs in controversially short skirts. 'First Wave' feminists threw off the modest dress of patriarchy and let the sun warm their gloriously liberated skin.
The feminism I grew up with rejected girdles, corsets, hats, gloves, pantyhose, low hems and high collars as symbols of patriarchal oppression. Partly because freedom means self-expression and partly because modest dress is strongly associated with sexist philosophies of sexuality which hold a woman must cover her temptress flesh lest she incite a good man to temptation.
This is the sort of thinking expressed in the move by Uganda to criminalise the wearing of Greer-esque mini-skirts. The Guardian reported Ugandan Minister for Ethics and Integrity Simon Lokodo as saying the measures were necessary to prevent men from being encouraged to sexually assault women.
Many Muslim women argue that wearing the headscarf has become a feminist act. The new language of 'intersectionality' is used to position it as a gesture against western-defined notions of women's empowerment. Headscarves are posited against the Beyonce school offeminism, which it can be argued does nothing to fight the tyranny of women being judged by their gendered qualities.
However, as a writer at Feministe pointed out "There are certainly oppressive aspects to any article of clothing that is required to be worn by women under patriarchal authority".
Raised on a feminism that rejected modest dress, I am – like the Prime Minister – uncomfortable with the burka and the niqab. I wouldn't dream of banning them. I wouldn't ever want a woman excluded from her parliament simply because she covers her head or even her whole face. I certainly don't want girls excluded from school for how they dress or women kept at home because they can't reconcile their faith with public life. But that doesn't mean I have to celebrate modest dress. It doesn't mean I want to join Everybody-wear-a-hijab Day.
Freedom of religion must include the freedom (within the law) to practice that religion, or it means very little. That means a turban for some, orange robes for others and, for a small minority, a burka. Since it is women who wear the more obvious symbols of Islamic faith, hysteria about dress codes punishes all Muslim women for the actions of a small minority of Muslim men. It is a profoundly sexist reaction to fears about Islam.
Feminism has been appropriated and overcomplicated and adapted to so many new causes in recent years that the simple straightforward feminism of the 1970s is long gone. Were it still holding sway today, the PM's discomfort with extreme modest dress would have been viewed as pretty unremarkable. Tony Abbott may not be everybody's kind of feminist but on this one issue at least, he is my kind of feminist.
Cassandra Wilkinson is External Relations Manager at The Centre for Independent Studies.