I can understand why many Australians, Germans or other Western people would find women who cover their faces unsettling. The Malay wife of one of my religious teachers caused a stir once by turning up to a youth event wearing a niqab (a face veil that leaves at least the eyes uncovered) and sunglasses.
Still many of us took it in our stride, referring to her as 'Darth Vader'. She no longer wears the niqab, but if the day is hot enough then the sunnies are always on.
But of course, we all know the difference between a niqab, a hijab and a burqa, don't we? I should hope so, given the amount of media attention devoted to the head coverings worn by a minority of Muslim women. It's true: only a minority of Muslim women in Australia wear something on their head when they hit the streets, whether to go shopping or to party or for some other purpose.
Most Muslim women I grew up with never wore anything on their head, apart from my siblings who wore berets on the way to their Anglican private school. The only exception was when something religious was going on, such as prayers or recitation of scripture. In which case they would have a loosely draped translucent 'dupatta' of the kind their Sikh and Hindu friends would wear on similar occasions.
Quite a few wore their dupatta in the 'Benazir' style (in honour of Pakistan's fashionable former prime minister whose dupatta rarely covered more than ten per cent of her hair).
Some of my South Asian 'aunties' are very much opposed to wearing any religious head covering. Mum has only recently started wearing a tiny Egyptian number she picked up during her last Haj. Like many South Asians, she has become a bit more religiously observant as she gets older. She grew up in the Indian university town of Aligarh, located some 140km South East of Delhi.
Aligarh was a very conservative town. Her father, a professor of geography at the local university, was a rather conservative chap. He insisted his daughters hardly be seen in public. When she would go to classes, my mother would be carried in a curtained palanquin. Her brothers would carry the palanquin to her classroom and her burqa would do the rest.
With a full compliment of female students, there would have been some awesome palanquin traffic jams on campus. Or perhaps mum's palanquin was more a result of her being the daughter of a professor. But for the Muslim female students, burqas were generally the fashion, even if the Hindu and Sikh students went burqa-less.
"The idea of putting on a burqa in Canberra never entered mum's mind. She maintained her fashionable saris which must have made the hippy women of Canberra rather jealous."
The burqa in the traditional India of the 1940s and 50s was part of a package of segregation known as 'purdah'. Under this social convention, women would only appear in public in a burqa and (if their brothers or male servants had the strength) were carried by a palanquin. Each house had a women's quarters which menfolk had to seek permission before entering. Mum has fond memories of the women's quarters where the ladies could sit gossiping all day and grow fat and lazy as servants would prepare and serve food whose ingredients were purchased by the menfolk. Women would only go shopping to buy the latest fashions (at their husband's expense, of course).
The luxury continued when my mother moved to Pakistan to pursue a postgraduate degree. However, off came the burqa and out went the palanquin. Mum lived with her aunt who had just arrived back from England and enjoyed wearing fashionable clothes. Later mum met this dashing young scholar who was heading off to Australia to pursue his PhD. The idea of putting on a burqa in Canberra never entered mum's mind. She maintained her fashionable saris which must have made the hippy women of Canberra rather jealous.
Few female Aligarh students or staff today wouldn be seen dead in a burqa. True, some wear hijab while others have a dupatta ready to drape if the occasion demanded. The style of hijab common in Arab countries has become fashionable in South Asia as families living in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States are returning with a favourable exchange rate differential. For these women, hijab is often more a symbol of status than religion.
The first time I saw a woman in a burqa was in the inside cover of an English language religious book published in Pakistan. The author was an American who had converted from Judaism to Islam and had some very nasty things to write about her old faith. In terms of being a convert who taught followers of her adopted belief to despise her ancestral one, Maryam Jameelah (originally Margaret Marcus) beat Ayaan Hirsi Ali by 40 years. The inside cover of her book showed Jameelah totally covered in a black cloth.
I was in my early teens at the time and found the photo off-putting. I showed it to mum. 'She is an extremist!' declared the woman who grew up wearing the same garb in Aligarh.
Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney based lawyer and blogger.