travel and life with lee mylne

Buying into the ‘burqa’ debate

At the back of my wardrobe, in a place that no-one ever sees, hangs a shiny voluminous black cloak. It’s an abaya – or what many people in Australia would call (incorrectly), a burqa.

Most of the time, I forget it’s there. But in the current political climate in this country, I’ve been very conscious of it lately. I bought my abaya, and the black headscarf and veil (niqab) that go with it, when I was living in Saudi Arabia in the mid-1980s. I’ve seldom worn it, but the debate over “banning the burqa” in Australia has stirred me to talk about it.

Long and loose…this is the kind of dress I wore in public while living in Saudi Arabia.

For two years, when my then-husband was employed on a major construction project in Saudi Arabia’s strictly religious Eastern Province, I lived under Islamic law. This meant that, because I am a woman, I could not legally drive a car and had to dress “modestly” in a manner acceptable to the country in which I was a guest.

I knew these things before I went there. I accepted them and conformed to them. As a visitor to Saudi Arabia, I accepted that I should obey the laws of that country even if I did not agree with them. And of course, I knew that for me it was a temporary situation.

As a Western woman, I was not required to wear an abaya or niqab (the veil which covers all of the face except the eyes). But in public I did have to wear clothing that covered my legs and arms and which was not revealing (no tight jeans, t-shirts or plunging necklines). Kaftans ruled among the expat women! Behind closed doors, Western dress was fine.

But the burqa debate that’s raging in Australia at the moment seems out of hand to me. Any woman in Australia should, I believe, have the right to wear whatever she wishes. Those in Australia who rail against Islamic countries’ laws that require the women to dress in a certain way should consider that any country that wants to ban the burqa is doing exactly the same: prescribing what women can or cannot wear.

Today the Australian Federal Parliament decreed that Muslim women wearing burqas would not be allowed to sit in the main public gallery at Parliament. Instead they will be isolated in a separate glass-enclosed area usually reserved for visiting school children. All in the interests of better security.

This denies any female Australian citizen – who happens to be Muslim, and who choses for cultural or religious reasons to wear her traditional dress – the right to do so while visiting the Parliament of her country and to be treated in a fashion equal to those of her fellow citizens. Very few Muslim women in Australia wear burqas, which have grilles to conceal the eyes. Most wear the niqab, which have openings for the eyes, or hijab, a headscarf that shows the face.

It would not be too hard to have security controls that allow ID to be checked in private (as security checks at some Middle Eastern airports are carried out, in a screened area, by female officials). Metal detectors and X-rays are already carried out on everyone entering Parliament House.

Last night on television, I heard Prime Minister Tony Abbott say he “was not aware” of anyone wearing a burqa ever seeking entry to Parliament House. If that’s the case (or even if it is fairly uncommon), then why the need for this new rule? To my mind, it’s simply another case of creating division and fear for political ends. And for the PM to say he personally finds Islamic dress “confronting” is just pathetic.

When I first went to Saudi Arabia I was intrigued by these black-clad women, who at first glance all looked the same. How could I engage with someone whose face I couldn’t see? Another expat woman gave me a piece of advice: just look into their eyes and pretend the veil isn’t there. And she was right. So I made full eye contact with Saudi women in the street and in shops, soon learning that even a stranger’s eyes can give a lot away. Invariably, what I got was smiles behind the niqabs.

I have a great memory of the day I bought my abaya and niqab. It was at a Bedouin market in the town of Nuariyah. Sitting on a dusty rug, I haggled half-heartedly with the elderly woman selling them. She took a gold-trimmed black scarf out of my hands, replacing it with one with silver trim; we both laughed, and she nodded with satisfaction, knowing it suited me much better. It is a warm memory; two women of different ages, places and cultures, sharing a very female moment.

So next time you encounter a Muslim woman in the street, meet her eyes, smile, and treat her the same as you would any other fellow Australian. In the end, despite our religious beliefs (or lack of them) and the differences in our cultural backgrounds, we are all the same. She is simply wearing a different dress.

28 Responses to “Buying into the ‘burqa’ debate”

  1. Rob

    Terrific post Lee. Fascinating to read about your time in Saudi Arabia compared to all the ignorant comments in the media.

  2. Tommy

    A well written and very sensible piece. But dare I stop and chat with the lady or ladies wearing their appropriate attire on the streets of the Gold Coast. Of course I should – I talk to everyone, why not them. I may get a photo for my beloved ‘Bastards I Have Met’ page.

    • A Glass Half Full

      Thank you Tommy. You could try, but many Muslim women – especially those wearing this type of dress – would not be comfortable talking to a strange man, much less having their photo taken. However, those showing their faces – wearing the hijab – would possibly be happy to, as they were on the ABC last night when stopped in the street. They want their side of it told. Good luck – and I hope to see a lovely Muslim Australian woman on your page!

      • Tommy

        Nice comment A Glass Half Full, I’ll keep my eye out for a Muslim lady and try and have a chat. Cheers.

  3. campertrailertravels

    This should be read by everyone……we don’t try to tell some of our young women in their short, short, short skirts etc to cover up do we? So why do we find someone’s traditional dress so confronting?

  4. Virginia

    Ha! I had a very similar debate with a group of girls yesterday. I think I was the only one who had even met a Muslim woman who chose or was required to veil or wear an abaya, and I guess with 16 years of living on and off in The Gulf, I can count on many of these women as friends.

    I had a similar experience to you, Lee. I was in Qatar, in the Mac shop, checking out lipsticks. The lady beside me was “letterbox” style – only her eyes were visible. As we mutually tested the lipsticks on the backs of our hands, I turned to her and said “I hate buying lipsticks. they look great in the shop but when you get home and put them on, they look awful. I have a drawer full of nearly new, unused lipsticks.”

    She looked at me with a serious look, then said “I know exactly what you mean. I have the same problem.” Big smile from her eyes. We chatted sociably as we continued our perusing.

    Let’s remember – Underneath every abaya, niqab, chador, burka or veil is a woman, pure and simple. Treat her with the grace you would used meeting any other woman anywhere in the world.

    • A Glass Half Full

      Love that story, Virginia. I was waiting, hoping you would have something to bring to this discussion – and as always, you did not disappoint! This has drawn a lot of discussion, not just on my social media outlets, but on those of people who have chosen to share my post. Views are many and varied – and I didn’t expect everyone to agree with me, but am heartened by the number who do!

  5. melanieb107

    My niece, sister, father and I had a rather heated conversation/argument about this very topic the other day, as is the tradition in the Ball household. Your post has made me reconsider some of my preconceptions and beliefs.

    • A Glass Half Full

      In that case, I have done what I set out to do, Melanie! If just one person reconsiders, that’s made it worthwhile for me. Thanks so much for your comment. It is a really contentious issue, and I certainly don’t expect everyone will agree with me, but debate is important in this society of ours!

      • melanieb107

        I am not a convert, so to speak, and we could probably still have a lively discussion about aspects of it, but we are fortunate to live in a society where we can do this. Not like many millions of others!

  6. candidkay

    Ah. Here I have an issue. I am all for religious freedom but find the custom of women having to cover themselves to save men from their appetites so antiquated. And sexist. I’m all for freedoms but have a hard time when those freedoms make women second-class citizens. It’s just what it feels like to me.

      • A Glass Half Full

        I think this is a different aspect of the debate. My issue was not whether or not they should be forced to wear it (some may be, others choose to because of their own religious beliefs, based on their culture and upbringing). My issue was that if they wear it (for whatever reason), they should not be segregated in the Parliament of their country or made to feel second-class citizens by that Parliament because of the way they dress. And let’s not forget there are some Christian places that expect women to cover up to some degree – I’m thinking of places like the Vatican, or cathedrals, where tourists must dress modestly (no shorts, bare arms etc) when visiting. Muslims are not the only ones to require this demonstration of respect in their holy places. But in the street, I don’t think that a free society like Australia should be telling anyone how they can dress.

  7. Sarah Derrig

    I’m an Australian expat living in Doha, Qatar. I have been so saddened by the news back home. My day-to-day life is being surrounded by women who wear abaya’s and I never feel threatened or uncomfortable. Many of the abayas are incredibly beautiful and intricately designed. I really think it comes down to fear mongering in Australian society at the moment and that is just very sad.

  8. anchorkeidi

    Very educated and enlightened post. Some people don’t get that we Muslim ladies want to wear the hijab. I cannot do without mine. I’m glad you get it though!

  9. Ashlee

    Dear Lee,

    My name is Ashlee. I’m co-founder of The Youshare Project, with the mission to connect people around the world through stories. I recently stumbled across your blog and read the above post entitled “Buying into the ‘burqa’ debate.” It’s beautifully written and incredibly compelling. I think it would make a wonderful youshare, as this is a topic that touches many people throughout the world, and I am wondering if you would be interested in adapting it to our site? If this sounds interesting to you, I would love to email you directly with more information and formally invite you to share your story with the project.

    You have my email address and website (although please note the site is still under development). I hope to hear from you soon.

    Warm regards,


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