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.
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.