Discourse Structure of the Debate

Banning the Burqa[ii]

The debate about Banning the Burqa on 21 September 2010 was aired by SBS (Australia) in their discussion program INSIGHT, which had vetted participants and included both special guests within the discussion forum and invited speakers in Doha and Paris by video link. Information, including the official transcript, can be found at theINSIGHT webpage.

The transcript of the debate this study will examine is split into five broad sections, the first involving interaction between the presenter and Uthman Bader, a spokesman for Hizb at-Tahrir, one of the Muslim political wings. The second involves the presenter, again, with Ruby Ahmad, a feminist woman with Lebanese Muslim roots but western styles of dress and philosophy. The third starts as an interaction between the presenter and Khadija al Khaddour, whose mother is a convert. However, the presenter quickly abandons her and allows free interaction mainly with Ruby. Interestingly, Ruby is finally silenced not by Khadija, but by Sibil, a western white convert to Islam, and this sequence is given in the fourth section. The fifth section involves the presenter again, having re-established control of the proceedings, interacting with Sheikh Omran, the chairman of the Sunni Muslim mainstream association in Australia.

Mediatised Language

Structural Sequence


As the presenter, Jenny Brockie, holds the privileged position. She knows who the participants are and what their opinions might be through the abbreviated biographies she holds in her hands.  She has the authority as the controller at the centre of the web of discourse to challenge, and sometimes contradict the views and information the participants present.  As is typical of this genre, this is done by interrupting, overlapping, citation and reformulation.[iii]


Her interaction with Uthman can be represented in the following structural sequence:[iv]

Host:                     Introduction of the speaker (1)

Topic Question (1)

Speaker 1:           Topic Introduction (4-6)

1st Position Statement (6-9)

Description (10-16)

Criticism of previous speakers position (11-12)

Wrapping up (17-18) [overlapped]

Host:                     Citation of previously posed Topic Question (19) [overlapping]

Contextualizing the speaker (20) [negatively]

1st Reformulation Topic Question (21-22) [in more detail]

Speaker 1:            Acknowledgement (23)

2nd Position Statement (24-25]

Wrapping up (26) [overlapped]

Host:                     2nd Reformulation Topic Question (27) [overlapping]

Speaker 1:             Initiates response (28) [overlapped]

Host:                      Initiates new explanation of the context for Topic Question (29)


Speaker 1:           1st Challenge (30-32) [overlapping/overlapped]

Host:                     Explains the context of the required answer (33) [overlapping]

Speaker 1:           Initiates response (34) [interrupting/overlapped]

Host:                     Continues explanation of context (35) [overlapping]

Speaker 1:           2nd Challenge (37-38) [overlapped]

Host:                     3rd Reformulation Topic Question (39) [overlapping]

Speaker 1:           States a clear answer that avoids the exact question (40-41)

This structure of the discourse is a fairly common feature of Jenny’s style of hosting. She introduces the guest, poses a question and allows a free answer. She then restates the question (if it has not been answered) or develops the question more deeply to focus the response. She does not allow a prolonged second digression and shortens the time the guest has to respond subsequently until the question is answered or refused. She is also quite aggressive in focussing the guest’s answers, interrupting or overlapping them either before they have settled or before they have finished wrapping  up their statements.

In this sequence, the speaker avoids making a direct answer (line 40-41), so the host stops interacting with him. Instead, she allows members of the audience to challenge him as her proxies. She then chooses one of these proxies to be the next speaker.

Because the host is able to dictate who gets to answer and when, she effectively acts as a censor to the ideas being expressed. Her aggressive technique allows her to unbalance the speaker and focus his or her attention on what is being asked rather than their own agenda. This technique is used effectively on Uthman Badar in lines 18 and 19, 28 and 29, 32 and 33, 34 and 35, and 38 and 39. It finally elicits his position in line 40 to 41: “Islam … says the hijab is obligatory on everyone.”

Although Uthman Bader is allowed, at first, to make his Position Statement, which contextualizes his response (lines 4-18), the host, Jenny, puts this statement into question by mentioning he is from a political party “banned in some other countries”. Uthman tries to evade this indirect criticism by founding his next position statement in mainstream Islam:  “Islam allows for difference of opinion”, so that he could state some groups in Islam regard the niqab[v] as essential while others do not. However, this second Position Statement (lines 23-26) is much shorter than the first and is interrupted and overlapped. Thereafter, Jenny constantly keeps him off balance by rewording the Topic Question until he makes a clear genuine response. He does make one more attempt to follow up his second Position Statement by introducing the notion of de facto and de jure legality (line 32-33), and does so by interrupting the host and overlapping her attempt to fluster him, but Jenny sweeps this aside: “answer from your perspective, from your group…” (line 35).

In the way she harries Uthman, it is clear that Jenny is working her own agenda. She is not interested in the Islamic perspective, but only in whether or not his particular group of Muslims think women have no choice but to wear the veil. Even before receiving the expected response, she has manoeuvred to cast his group’s opinion in a bad light because of their status as political pariah.


Her interaction with Ruby is represented structurally as follows:

Host:                     Introduction of the speaker (52)

Speaker 2:           Topic Introduction (53) [interrupted]

Host:                     Protects Ruby from interruption (55)

Speaker 2:           Position Statement (56-59)

Description (60-63 & 65-66) [interrupted]

Host:                    Protects Ruby from interruption (68)

Speaker 2:          Description (69-70)

Wrapping up (70-72) [interrupted]

Host:                   Introduction to next speaker (75)

Jenny has introduced Ruby much earlier in the program,  so we already know she is an Australian Lebanese feminist, originally from a Muslim family, and believes wearing the niqab, or even the hijab, is a cultural practice:  a symbol that is used to keep women oppressed, segregated and out of public life under the excuse of religion. Therefore, when she calls on her, she simply names her.  Ruby’s previous turn had followed the style I mentioned earlier, but here she is not being ‘asked a question’. Rather, she is being asked to comment on what she heard.

The style Jenny uses in these situations is to ensure enough space is given for her guest to express his or her opinion. If the comment is too long or goes off topic, she will harry the guest to finish, but otherwise she gives  the guest a free reign.  In this case, Jenny ensures that Ruby can speak her whole thesis.

Ruby is interrupted three times during the delivery of her discourse. The first time, many voices try to drown out her introduction to the topic of her Position Statement. The second time she is challenged to prove her statement (line 64) and the third time she is overlapped by rising general comments that cover her response to the challenge (line 66).  In the first and third cases, because the second was simply two words interjected (“prove it!”), when it seems she will be forced to stop through lack of hearers, Jenny demands she is given the space to speak.  The first of Jenny’s demands is phrased politely, “Can I ask you to be quiet for a second!” The second (line 68), however, reflects Ruby’s own demand of “Let me finish!”  changing the “me” for “her” (“Let her finish!”). The fourth time Ruby is interrupted and overlapped is right at the end of her wrapping up, so this time Jenny lets it go. Instead, she channels the sentiments being expressed by picking on a spokesman, Ahmad Saghir, the husband of one of her special guests (line 75). The sentiments he voices adequately reflect those of many Muslims on western history: “No, that is not history; that is not history at all; that is not true. Stop making up stories” (lines 76-77). This judgment is diametrically opposite to Ruby’s assurance of “No, that’s absolutely true!”(line 74) in response to the final interruption.


The Interaction involving Khadija includes three people: The host , Speaker 3 (Khadija), and Speaker 2 (Ruby), and is structurally represented below.

Host:                     Calls on the speaker (79)

Speaker 3:           Topic Introduction (80) [interrupted]

Host:                     Protects Khadija from interruption (81)

Speaker 3:           Position Statement (82)

Description (82-84) [interrupted]

Speaker 2:           1st Challenge topic (85) [overlapped]

Speaker 3:           Description (86-87) [overlapping/overlapped]

Speaker 2:           2nd Challenge to the topic (88) [overlapping]

Speaker 3:           Description (89-90) [overlapped]

Speaker 2:           3rd Challenge to the topic (91-92 [overlapping/overlapped]

Speaker 3:           Appeals for room to speak (93-94) [overlapping]

Stops speaking (94) [looks away and smiles wryly]

Host:                   Mediates contributions  (95)

What stands out about Khadija’s turn is that it is hardly mediated by the host at all. At first it follows the same style as the previous guest, but Jenny then completely abandons her. This is a serious deviation from her ‘normal’ style.

The first clue to this deviation is that when Jenny calls on Khadija to speak (line 79), she does so not by name, but by the word “yes” (presumably meeting her eye as she does so – but that is not clear on the video). Thereafter she intervenes only once (line 82) to ask a rival Muslim speaker, Sheikh Omran, to wait his turn. Khadija is then given the floor, but left on her own when Ruby interrupts, overlaps and generally stops her from completing what she has to say. In contrast to the host’s role when mediating Ruby’s turn, where the speaker was protected from such intervention, Khadija was left unprotected to deal with it herself.

The main characteristic of this discourse is the way Khadija tries to ignore Ruby’s repeated challenges. The first challenge seems to be motivated by the fact that she was not responding to Ruby’s own thesis. Rather, Khadija was embarked on relating the story of her spiritual journey in a measured rhythm, introducing herself and describing her mother, and both of their choices to use and/or discard the niqab. Her technique was simply to talk through the challenges.  The third challenge, however, was prolonged and developing a discourse of its own, drowning out Khadija’s story. Annoyed, Khadija appeals directly to Ruby to allow her space: “Will you let me talk? Could you please give me the opportunity to speak? {Why don’t you} let other people {have their say}?” but Ruby ignores her appeals just as Khadija had ignored her challenges. When the appeals fail, Khadija stops talking and looks away, leaving the stage to Ruby.

After Khadija  gives up, the host appeals to the forum members to speak “one at a time.” (line 95).


Related to the transaction above is another that also involves three people: Speaker 2 (Ruby), Speaker 4 (Sibel ) and Speaker 5 (an unnamed man).

Sibel, who had spoken earlier in the program twice, takes advantage of the gap created by the host to give Ruby a taste of her own medicine. The structure of the transaction can be broken down as follows.

Speaker 4:           Challenges Speaker 2 (line 96)

Speaker 2:           Responds to challenge (line 97) [overlapped]

Speaker 4:           Challenges Speaker 2  (line 98) [overlapping]

Speaker 2:           Responds to challenge (line 99) [overlapped]

Speaker 4:           Challenges Speaker 2  (line 100) [overlapping]

Speaker 5:           Challenges Topic (line 101)

Speaker 4:           Confirms Speaker 5’s challenge (line 102)

Speaker 2:           Gives up talking [sits back with a wry grin].

Sibel barely listens to what Ruby has to say. Rather, her objective seems to be to unsettle her as she had unsettled Khadija. Her third challenge exactly repeats her second challenge, “why do you wear what you wear?”, and this is noticed by the unnamed man, who parodies the question by asking, possibly in reference to Senator Cory Bernadi, “why does he wear a suit?” In other words, both Sibel and the unnamed man agree that this line of questioning is futile, especially when the answer is not listened to. Perhaps Ruby recognizes this too, as she stops answering and sits back in her chair, grinning.

Once Ruby had given up as Khadija had, the host takes  control of affairs again (lines 104-105) and invites Sheikh Muhammad Omran to speak.


This particular sequence of discourse is markedly different from the previous sequences in that no interruption or overlapping takes place except when the people at the forum start to talk among themselves on the Sheikh’s reiterated citation of Jenny’s focus of the Topic Question. This is overridden by Jenny herself, when she explains her focus.  The unnamed man also features in the structural sequence with his judgment of the Muslims’ understanding of the Topic Question.

The structure of the conversational sequence is as follows:

Host:                     Introduces speaker (line 105)

Speaker 6:           Topic introduction (lines 106-107)

Description  of topic (lines 107-109)

Position Statement (lines 109-112)

Speaker 5:           Comments  (line 113)

Speaker 6:           Responds (line 114)

Speaker 5:           Restates his Judgment (line 115)

Host:                     Reformulates the Topic Question earlier posed to Speaker 1

(lines 116-117)

Speaker 6:           Challenges, citing the Host (line 118)

Host:                     Denies citation (line 119)

Speaker 6:           Repeats citation  (line 120) [overlapped by rising general hubbub]

Host:                     Explains citation and reformulates the Topic Question (lines 122-123)

[overlapping general hubbub]

Speaker 6:           Answers the Topic Question (line 124).

Here Jenny’s style is mixed. At first, she uses the opinion/comment style referred to earlier. But when the unnamed man makes his judgment,  “I think you guys misunderstood the question,” (line 115) she seizes the moment to change styles to the question style.

Read On: Individual Speech Acts

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