Australia: Under cover, under a veil and under suspicion

Muslim women wearing face veils can board passenger planes without having to show their face or produce identification.

But they may draw loud taunts as they walk along Melbourne’s streets.

The veil, or niqab, is at the centre of controversy in many Western nations. It is said to make non-Muslims uncomfortable.

I dressed “under cover” this week for the Sunday Herald Sun to test reactions to the garment from different sections of the community.

While wearing the face covering, I was singled out for a random explosive-trace test at Melbourne Airport.

At no stage did security ask that the veil be lifted. Express electronic check-in meant an identity check was avoided.

But at Sydney’s domestic airport I was told to lift the veil during a conventional counter check-in, the attendant politely explaining photo ID was required and requesting I reveal my face.

Bank staff at a busy inner-city institution were indifferent, but a young Caucasian man hurled abuse at me at a busy city intersection.

And a male passenger in a passing ute yelled: “This is Australia love, you don’t wear that sort of s— around here.”

I overheard a street performer at Flinders St Station mutter “terrorist” as I walked past.

A truck driver thrust his upper body out the window and glared as he drove past.

Several pedestrians sharply turned around to stare and teenagers giggled.

Two people — a young man and a middle-aged woman — nodded kindly, but others scoffed, including two young men of Middle Eastern appearance.

A man in his mid-20s yelled “ninja” as he walked past me, while his group of mates sniggered.

Other people appeared either indifferent or not to notice.

At Melbourne Airport, security staff watched the explosive-trace test intently.

On the flight to Sydney, attendants were polite and treated me no differently to other passengers.

At Sydney, passengers stared but said nothing.

The niqab is one of a range of head coverings worn by Muslim women.

President of the Islamic Women’s Welfare Council Tasneem Chopra said few chose a niqab, preferring instead the face-baring hijab.

There were no special rules governing the wearing of a niqab.

“Women choose to wear these as an affirmation of their faith, so to what extent they wear it is up to them,” Ms Chopra said. “It is viewed by some as a sign of modesty.

“It is a personal choice. It’s not a requirement that they cover their face. Some interpret that as more orthodox, but it’s really an individual’s choice.

“The diversity within the Muslim community cannot be overstated.”

Last week, British Prime Minister Tony Blair controversially labelled the niqab a “mark of separation“. Mr Blair said the head dress made non-Muslims uncomfortable.

And leader of Britain’s House of Commons Jack Straw earlier called for Muslim women to remove their veils to stop cultural segregation taking root in Britain.

Mr Straw revealed he ordered them removed during constituency meetings with him.

His comments sparked an angry response from the Muslim community.

A Muslim teaching assistant in London lost her discrimination case this week after being suspended for refusing to remove a veil during lessons.

She had been suspended after children complained they could not understand her when she taught behind the veil.

But the teacher, Aishah Azmi, claimed the veil was a moral necessity and did not hamper her performance in the classroom.

In 2003, a US woman unsuccessfully tried to sue the state of Florida for refusing to allow her to wear a veil in her driver’s licence photograph.

And a terrorism suspect in Britain allegedly evaded capture for days by disguising himself as a woman wearing a burqa.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Carly Crawford, Sunday Herald Sun, Oct. 22, 2006,

Religion News Blog posted this on Monday October 23, 2006.
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