The federal opposition has backed a West Australian minister's controversial comments on the burka, saying the dress goes against Australian culture and should not be worn. West Australian Minister for Women's Interests Robyn McSweeney sparked heated debate when she spoke out against the burka at the weekend, labelling it "alien" to Australia's way of life. "I'm saying that it's confronting when somebody's face is not showing and I personally think that they're being oppressed," Ms McSweeney told The Australian yesterday. "I would just love for them to have the freedom to show their faces." Opposition parliamentary secretary for the status of women Michaelia Cash, has given her support to the comment, saying that the burka had nothing to do with religion because Islam stipulated modesty only, not the wearing of a face covering. She said the dress deprived women of their identity and isolated them from society. "It is inconsistent with our culture and values and I truly believe that women should not do it," she said. Both Senator Cash and Ms McSweeney said they were not advocating legislation to ban the burka but wanted Australians to have a "conversation" about whether it should be worn. Minister for the Status of Women Kate Ellis said the government was not considering a burka ban and there were differing views about the covering. She said her view was that governments should support a person's choice in dress and encourage understanding of diversity. Queensland Minister for Women Karen Struthers said Australians respected cultural traditions "as long as no one is being hurt". South Australian Minister for the Status of Women Gail Gago said there was no reason to influence a Muslim woman's choice if it were made freely. West Australian opposition women's interests spokeswoman Sue Ellery claimed Ms McSweeney was playing the race card. Victorian opposition women's affairs spokeswoman Jill Hennessy accused Ms McSweeney of engaging in "dog whistle politics". Meanwhile, Liberal senator Cory Bernardi renewed his calls for a burka ban because the garment was a security threat and restricted social interaction. Currently in Europe to monitor France's anti-burka law -- under which veiled women will be fined E150 ($205) from today -- he conveyed his support to Ms McSweeney. Transport Minister Troy Buswell has also backed her comments. Muslim women have hit back at Ms McSweeney's claims that members of their faith are forced to wear full-face veils such as the burqa and niqab. Sydney woman Umm Jamaal (pictured), who has worn the burka for 18 years, said she wanted to meet the West Australian politician because this would change the minister's perception. She said none of the women she knew had been forced to wear the garment and usually begged their husbands to let them wear the burka. "We wear it because we want to be closer to God," she said. Perth mother of two, Sibel, 28, said she chose to wear a niqab, which covered every part of her body except her eyes, because it gave her freedom. "It's far from oppressive," she said. "Muslim women are very educated women who in no way whatsoever will take any menfolk oppressing them." In many cases, men were asking their wives to stop covering up because they worried that wearing a niqab in public would expose them to verbal abuse and violence. Born and raised in West Australia, Sibel started wearing the niqab at 17 even though it was not a religious requirement to cover her face and despite the wishes of her family. "It makes me feel comfortable," she said. "I hide my beauty for myself and my husband." She said hardly anyone in Australia wore a burqa, which covers a woman's entire body and has a mesh screen over the eyes. And only a handful wore niqabs. "If I want to wear a bikini and walk down the street, that should be my right," she said. "If I want to cover myself from head to toe, including my face, that should be my freedom to do so." Australian Islamic College administration assistant Aliyyah Cornish-Ward is a former Christian who converted to Islam two years ago. She said the women's liberation movement had given women the right to wear whatever they wished. Another Muslim convert, Angela O'Brien, said she chose not to cover her face but supported the right of others to do so.
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