The hijab and niqab

The Herald editorial:

The young Muslim woman refused a job at an Auckland jewellers because of her (headscarf) has been the subject of an important debate since her story appeared in the Weekend Herald last Saturday. Letters to the editor have questioned whether it is fair to expect a shop hiring counter staff to ignore a garment that may make some customers uncomfortable. They praised the Stewart Dawsons/Pascoes outlet for at least being honest with the woman.

Many employers might turn her down on a false pretext. But the James Pascoe group was quick to disown the decision. “This is by no means how we run our business,” said a spokesman. “We have employees who wear the hijab.”

I don’t think most people have any problem with the hijab. Criticising a Muslim woman for wearing a hijab is like criticising a nun for wearing a coif.

There may be a small set of jobs where a hijab would not be appropriate, as in a job where any headgear is banned – possibly for safety reasons. But these would be very few.

Those who are unsettled by Islamic women covering their head, and even their face in some cases, will need to get used to it.

Head yes, face no.

But tolerance does not preclude debate about the meaning and purpose of covering up in this way. insists on the hijab (covering hair) but not the covering all but the eyes, which some adherents choose to wear as part of the full body covering, the burqa. To Western minds it is profoundly sad that any women should want to cover their face in public or cover themselves completely, especially if their religion would otherwise blame them for arousing male interest.

I view the niqab very different to the hijab. Apart from the fact is is more a political than a religious requirement, it is an incredibly hostile garment as it means you can not make any sort of visual identification with a person wearing that – something that cuts to the core of most societies.

I find the niqab as anti-social as a balaclava.

One of them, British-born, Iranian-bred New Zealand citizen Donna Miles-Mojab, described the niqab in the Herald on Thursday as a rejection of “the objectification of women and manufactured views of beauty and liberty”.

There are many ways to reject manufactured views of beauty and objectification of women, without covering up every piece of skin except your eyes.

It is almost a signal that I don’t want any contact with anyone. If you were not sure of where you were going and wanted to ask someone directions, you wouldn’t ask someone in a niqab. You wouldn’t make casual conversation with them at say a bus stop. And it is almost beyond belief that someone wearing a niqab would ever get hired in a job, as almost all employers and employees value the norm of visual identification.

More seriously, they are a social barrier to others. We are not accustomed to people around us in public being hooded or masked and it is not easy to get used to. If we must, of course, we can. Tolerance will prevail.

We should tolerate it in the legal sense. Any NZers should have the right to wear what they want, within decency standards. But I don’t think we should shy away from making it clear that wearing a niqab in New Zealand is a socially unacceptable thing to do (even if legally acceptable) and that it is the equivalent of someone in a Middle Eastern country walking around in say cut off shorts and a t-shirt.

When we visit or live in other countries we respect the cultural norms around dress. If people choose to live in NZ it is my hope they will respect our cultural norms around dress – which is being able to have visual identification of people you interact with. It should not be a legal requirement, but to me it is a sign that someone doesn’t want to integrate into NZ society.

Western governments who have tried to discourage these dress codes have not achieved very much.

Tolerance is the only fair and sensible response and with it, immigrants are more likely to find the space and confidence to discard some encumbrances and embrace new ways.

We should have legal tolerance, but that is different from societal tolerance. And I am only talking about the niqab, not the hijab. So long as I can see someone’s face, I don’t care what else they’re wearing – overalls, a nun’s habit, a hijab or a dinner suit. But a society where a large number of people walking down street are showing their eyes only, is not one I want for New Zealand.

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