Religion and public transport sparked a sharp debate recently as Hillsbus (the largest privately owned bus company in Sydney) considered the knee jerk reactions of the media to the action of one of its drivers in Western Sydney’s suburb of Greystanes.
The driver in question, still unnamed, at first denied, and then delayed a female passenger from boarding while wearing the niqab (a veil that fully covered her face). The driver is alleged to have asked the passenger, Ms Khadijah Ouararhni-Grech, to take off her "mask" because it was “against the law to wear it on board”. The passenger argued that she was not wearing a “mask”.
Whether it’s against the law to conceal one’s face in a public space is a good question. If it isn’t, it should be.
In due course expect the shawarma to hit the fan. Arguments will be made in favour of, and in opposition to, the concealment of faces in public spaces.
On the one hand, fraud and safety on public transport will be championed as the priority and hence people must be forbidden from concealing their faces. After all, if they can hide their identities, why bother with travel passes with photos, if niqabs allow such passes to be freely exchanged between passengers? For that matter, if faces can be lawfully hidden from view, why bother with security cameras? And why stop at buses. Let patrons who want to conceal their face do so: at airports, at bars and on cruise ships and for that matter allow staff at restaurants to similarly obfuscate.
On the other hand, many will no doubt loudly disagree saying that the ban on such face wear denies them the right to freely practice their religion.
It’s a debate whose time has come.
Before going on, let’s skim over the different types of “female Muslim headwear”.
The hijab (veil or headscarf) and other covering forms of the female dress code, like the jilbab (full black dress head to toe), the burqa (cloak covering the whole body including the face) and the niqab (face veil) are practices derived from specific verses of the Holy Koran but are not among the “pillars”, i.e. the fundamental precepts of Islam. Experts relate the following key controversial Surahs (“chapters” in the Koran) for the elaboration of these norms:
Surah XXIV: Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and be modest. […] And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and to display of their adornment only that which is apparent, and to draw their veils over their bosoms …
Surah IV: Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women). So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah hath guarded …
Seen in the light of the culture of the region and of the epoch when Mohammed lived (and when all female bodies were controlled), these requirements for women, it is argued, seem less of an imposition, or a way to oppress them, and more of a standardisation of the fashion and custom of the time. On the other hand, the historical submission of Muslim women to male guardians as well as verses like the one above suggesting that men have the right to control their wives have, unsurprisingly, provoked many animosities towards Islam. However, apologists have argued that very often Muslim male social domination, rather than Islamic teaching, is repsonsible for putting Muslim women in a situation of submission and deficiency vis-à-vis men.
The wearing of Islamic headdress is but one challenge western societies. How have other societies reacted to such confrontations? Both Denmark and the United States have lessons to impart. If only we pay attention.
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