This article appeared in the Australian Wednesday 22 November 2006 p16

EditorialPic - traditional muslim veil

You won't see me: The niqab, or veil, has proved to be one of the most contentious aspects of traditional Muslim attire in the West

In the face of hostility

Muslim veils have caused ructions in various parts of the world.
Elisabeth Wynhausen goes under cover to gain a different perspective

The word burka didn't ring a bell. "What's a burka?" asked the 17-year-old salesgirl at Malsi Enterprises, a shop in Lakemba in Sydney's western suburbs, where I had gone to buy traditional Islamic clothing.

I was about to enter the world of a devout Muslim woman for half a day, wearing not only the full-length black cloak and headscarf but the niqab or veil that conceals everything but the eyes.

The shop was an unexpected treasure trove of bargain-priced beaded and embroidered cloaks: abayas, not burkas, a Persian word for the head-to-toe covering even Islamic guides describe as an "encompassing shroud", but the helpful salesgirl sent me next door to grandmotherly Fatima and her daughter for the niqab.

They were in headscarves but they never wore niqabs, Fatima's daughter said. Not many Lebanese Muslims do, the salesgirl added, as the three of them took turns helping out, painstakingly arranging the embroidered abaya, pinning the scarf and tucking my hair under the tight-fitting cap, all part of the outfit I had bought for $93.

Next the straps of the $25 niqab were tied tightly, before one of the two squares of scratchy polyester material was pulled over my head, leaving the other piece covering my face, Fatima adjusted my new veil to leave a slit for the eyes.

The head-to-toe covering is sometimes referred to as wearing hijab, confusingly enough, as that word is also used for the headscarves. In this country the tiny minority of Muslim women who wear veils said to include Indonesians, Saudis, Egyptians and local Muslim converts such as Rabiyah Hutchinson, the former wife of alleged Jemaah Islamiah leader in Australia Abdul Rahim Ayub and the mother of two of the terrorism suspects charged in Yemen who lived only a couple of streets from where I was buying my encompassing shroud.

Zaiba Malik , a correspondent for Britain's The Guardian who went on a similar mission a few weeks earlier, commented that she was horrified when she looked in the mirror to find she didn't recognise herself, instead seeing a figure easier to associate with television and newspaper images from the mountains of Afghanistan or from Saudi Arabia.

I stifled the impulse to tear off the uncomfortable, intensely constricting garments, which were so physically constraining that they gave me the sense of confining my spirit.

Women from the Muslim world sometimes say that being behind the vale is liberating because they can go where they like and do as they like without being identified, but that is a freedom a Western woman may take for granted. Instead I found that even on a mild spring day, the outfit was suffocatingly hot.

The cloak restricted my movements. The veil restricted my vision. The straps pressed on my eyeballs. With my head swaddled in cloth and my face covered, I felt I could scarcely breath. The sense that I had become an alien being was more oppressive still.

The burka and other garments that veil the face have become the subject of a furious debate in Europe. The government of The Netherlands, once a bastion of tolerance, is in the process of banning such attire from public spaces. Dutch Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk, a hardliner, told Britain's The Sunday Times, that wearing "face-covering clothing, including the burka" would be banned in the interests of "public order" and the "protection of citizens."

In France, Muslim girls may not wear headscarves to school. A scattering of towns in Belgium imposes fines on women caught wearing a burka or niqab in public. To Westerners, the veil, long the symbol of the oppression of Muslim women, has paradoxically become the means of forcing those women to integrate, at least superficially, by removing the garment.

In Britain, former foreign secretary Jack Straw recently said he asks Muslim women to remove their veils during constituency meetings so he can talk with them face-to-face.

John Howard had beaten Straw to it. Though there was no talk of a ban, our Prime Minister stirred up some nativist sentiment after the Cronulla riots last summer. "I don't mind the headscarf but it's really the whole outfit," Howard said, "I think most Australians would find it confronting."

Lakemba is the one suburb in Sydney where women who cover their faces can be seen every day, especially in the streets around the mosque; but as photographer Alan Pryke and I passed the Under the Veil Hair and Beauty Salon to walk the short distance from the shops on Haldon Street to my car, a grizzled older man turned on his heel to stare, his face frozen into a mask of disapproval. He was still staring as I climbed into the car, plucking at the abaya.

Not even burkas are one-size-fits-all. On the internet, I found an advertisement for custom-made burkas from Pakistan that said: "When ordering please specify desired head circumference and length from head to hem."

The challenge of driving in the traffic squinting through the veil meant I was too focused on the road to do more than sense the stares of other drivers, but after we had parked and entered a shopping centre in the neighbouring suburb of Bankstown I realised that I was being followed: not only by Pryke, who was nervously looking about as he primed his camera, but by a gangling security guard who was muttering into the walkie-talkie he nursed against his cheek.

I feel strangely exposed despite the fact that I was covered up. The attire forced me into an entirely unnatural self-conscious relationship with the rest of the world. People coming towards me sought out my eyes, even as their own faces were arranging themselves in expressions that range from studied neutrality to undisguised hostility. Muslim women who cover themselves are expected to confine their gaze. The last thing they would do is meet the glance of a man they do not know. I kept forgetting. I looked people straight in the face, as I usually do. I hadn't managed to adapt my movements to the restraint required of a woman dressed as I was.

The veil concealing my face attracted attention, only to repel it, or so I gathered from the response of other shoppers, even in the echoing atrium of Centro Bankstown, where one sees veiled women from time to time. I had expected some animosity but was shocked nonetheless at the overwhelming sense of hostility I felt directed towards me. The only audible comment came from a bloke who said: "Aussie Aussie oi," half under his breath as he passed by, but many people stared, faces fixed in what was fast becoming a familiar expression of disapproval mixed with distate.

When Pryke dropped the camera and moved off to the side to watch the reactions, he noticed the same thing; even some Muslim women in headscarves and long skirts glared.

I later spoke to a 35-year-old Australian Muslim, a convert who has worn the niqab for years, who ascribed the response from other Muslims to the fact that I hadn't put on the scarf or veil correctly. However, I wondered whether the insignia of excessive religious faith made them feel more vulnerable themselves, especially in the present political climate.

I had asked the women dressing me in Lakemba how one was supposed to drink coffee while wearing the veil. "You don't," Fatima's daughter said, shaking her head when I made as if to lift the veil to sip from a cup or a glass.

In a coffee shop, in desperation, I asked for an iced coffee with a straw and sipped it, holding the glass against me, under the veil, constantly putting down the glass to tug my sleeves down, before taking another sip. Only later, when a friend mentioned it, did I realise I was supposed to cover my hands as well.

I was still clutching at the abay every minute or two, my anxiety about tripping over the garment alternating with fear that it would get caught in the machinery of the escalator. I was nervous, though I didn't think I was in any danger in a shopping centre, with knots of security guards about. But some days later when I covered up again and wandered around downtown Sydney on my own, making my way from the newspaper offices past Central railway station, I was plagued by the thought that the outfit was provocative enough to spur some madman to drive straight at me.

This time I wore sunglasses, as many veiled women do. The response was unexpected. Confronted with a woman in a black tent with sunglasses over her eyes, many people screwed up their faces in helpless amusement.

Yet there was unease behind the smiles. A woman with her face covered will always arouse a range of emotions in the West, from suspicion to outright disdain.

For many Muslim women, though, covering their faces is considered a religious obligation. Whether the chasm will ever be bridged remains open to question.