The issue came closer to home yesterday when [Australian] Opposition Leader Tony Abbott responded to calls by Liberal senator Cory Bernardi for a ban on the burqa by saying there is ''understandable community concern'' about the attire. The common thread in these cases is the attempt at state intervention in the personal spheres of women's clothing and expression.
France, Belgium, Italy and Sudan seem to be cut from the same cloth on the issue of women's expression and participation in society. Each country criminalises certain items of clothing - but one country is a traditionalist theocracy and the others are Western liberal democracies, so why are they so similar?
Ironically, France condemned Sudan for punishing the woman for wearing trousers. Belgium - with its impending ban of the burqa - has on countless occasions, through the UN Human Rights Council, criticised countries such as Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan because of their treatment of women and called for the end of discrimination against women.
While it can be said that fundamentalist right-wing Muslims only claim and fight for human rights when it suits their agenda, the same selectivity can be seen by feminists, given their failure to defend Muslim women's choices. The burqa is obligatory for women in Yemen or Afghanistan, but this cannot be the case for all women in France, Italy or Belgium who have clearly asserted their personal choices in wearing the full veil.
Despite their views of the burqa, the defence of women's autonomy and choice should be enough to stir feminists. Yet there is silence from this quarter. Strong Muslim women who wear the burqa are speaking out, but the debate is still disproportionately dominated by the misogynistic voices of male politicians and conservative Muslim men.
Why should any state determine what women should wear? And how is this in line with liberalism and the republic? What about Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the rights of minority groups to preserve their culture?
Is a ban the right way to go for ''liberation''? Human rights experts say no. They have warned that these bans are counterproductive in their aims of ''liberating'' Muslim women who are coerced into wearing the burqa or niqab.
This ban would only serve to confine vulnerable women who are forced into wearing the full veil and whose movements and freedoms are already restricted. The long-term effects of such bans will limit the participation of Muslim women in public life.
Last year, during a presentation given to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, we reported on the state of the Muslim minority in Australia. Among the issues raised was the intolerance and bigotry that had been a feature of previous government policies and rhetoric, but what was also highlighted was the various responses from Muslim Australians, notably the burkini - Muslim Australia's very own creation.
This specially made swimsuit for Muslim women has encouraged the participation of Muslim women in Australia's iconic beach culture, an unlikely immersion. The European diplomats and UN human rights officers were surprised such an innovation could emerge from a country with one of the smallest Muslim populations in Western democracies. Months after our presentation, the burkini was banned in several European cities.
As hijabi-wearing women, we understand the significance the hijab has on our identity, lifestyle and how we are perceived. What bewilders us, however, is why a piece of cloth has become the centre of a cultural war in societies with a small number of veiled Muslim women.
It becomes clearer when we look at the political context surrounding these European countries. In France, for instance, there is an evident attempt on the part of the Sarkozy administration to pander to xenophobic segments of the French voting public.
This exploitation of anti-Muslim sentiments and targeting of such a small but visible group is cheap politics aimed at gaining popularity among the ultra-right voter base.
We say to the misogynists on the political right and to fundamentalist Muslims, stop sacrificing women for your causes.
Samah Hadid is the 2010 Australian Youth Representative to the United Nations. Rayann Bekdache is a freelance journalist.