real life

A normal face

I’m a shocking starer. Truly disgraceful. When someone sparks my interest, I’m seized by desperate curiosity, a need for behind-the-scenes information and the stupid hope it will magically appear if I keep looking. People simply fascinate me.

Imagine my delight when I boarded a recent flight and noticed the woman across the aisle was wearing a niqab, swathed completely in black with only her eyes showing through a slit in the fabric. She was travelling with her husband and their three kids and I was beside myself with fascination.

I’ve only ever had two opportunities to look closely at someone in niqab. Both times in shops. The first was at GAP in Paris when a dozen refrigerator-sized men wearing earpieces walked into the store ahead of five veiled women.

Once inside, the bodyguards fanned out, surrounding the women who wandered around excitedly, choosing t-shirts, maternity jeans and accessories. All I could see were their hands which were decorated with some serious sparklers. Their eyes sparkled too.

A few years later, in my local Best & Less, two women walked in wearing niqab. After they left, I overheard the woman in front of me say to the sales assistant, “Goodness, I was worried they were going to blow us up!” I cringed at this, appalled.

Still, like many, I’ve always suspected that women who wear niqab are oppressed, downtrodden and mind-controlled by extremist husbands, fathers and other male relatives.
Now on the plane, I was within a couple of feet of one such woman and I had eight hours to consider her plight.

Here are some of the things I thought:

1. Poor thing. Her husband must be a scary man.
2. How sad for her children to not see their mother’s face in public. What must that little girl think about her own future?
3. I wish I could talk to her and liberate her from this oppression.
4. I wonder what she thinks of me sitting here in my singlet and cardi with my fluoro purple bra strap showing.
5. Her husband must think I am a disgrace and disappointment to my own husband. I bet he wishes I’d cover up.


There was more but you get the drift. When I glanced back shortly after take off, I was shocked to notice she’d taken off her face veil. Her hair and neck were still covered but the niqab part was gone. I nearly choked on my airline blanket.

She had a pretty, open face, warm and expressive and…normal. A normal face. And suddenly, she was demystified to me.

I don’t know what I’d imagined would be behind that veil. Why was I so surprised?

I was also confused. Didn’t women wearing niqab believe it was wrong to have strangers see their face? Should I look away?

A bit before we landed, I fell into conversation with her husband who offered me some of his daughter’s chocolate when my son began to cry. His name was Emad.

Within three seconds, I asked Emad about his wife, who was sleeping. “I noticed she took off her niqab after she got on the plane,” I began. “How come?” He smiled. “Because I asked her to.” I looked at him quizzically and he rolled his eyes in that affectionately resigned way spouses often do. “I hate it! She wants to wear it all the time and I wish she wouldn’t!”

Emad met his wife Houda in Beirut when she was 18. Soon after, she migrated to Australia and they married. Now she was 26, he was 29 and they have three kids. After their first child was born, Houda put on Niqab. Her husband was not happy with her decision but Houda was insistent and eight years later, her will still prevails.

He shrugged and laughed, “We went on holidays to the Gold Coast once. To the beach. Even then she wore it. Can you imagine?”


Houda had woken up and joined the conversation, laughing and teasing her husband as we chatted.

“Emad told me you love to shop. But…” I gestured to her niqab, “You can’t see it!” “I buy jewellery and bags,” she replied, “and different coloured veils”.

The couple explained there is division in the Muslim community over the niqab. Some of their own family were horrified when Houda chose to wear it. “What can I do?” shrugged Emad. “It’s her decision.” “So you don’t force her to wear it?” I pushed. Nobody forces her? “Are you kidding? My wife is very strong. Her father is not around. She has no brother. There are no men who factor into it at all.”

I turn to Houda. Why do you want to wear it? “I just feel naked without it. Not right. I like it! Even though it would be so much easier to take it off. People give you bad looks always. Swear at you. I’ve had it pulled off my face before.” She seems untroubled by all this and I feel my preconceptions about her float away as we chat.

A week later, boarding our flight home from Borneo, I noticed another woman with her family in the security line beside me, also wearing niqab. This time I didn’t stare. I didn’t need to. I knew there was no great threat or mystery underneath her veil.

POSTSCRIPT: As many commenters below have pointed out, not all women who wear the niqab do so out of choice and this was never meant to suggest anything other than my personal experience with one woman and her family. To generalise that all women wearing the niqab are doing so of their own free will, like Houda, would be as incorrect as the belief that they’re all wearing it AGAINST their will.
I guess my point was that there are a million shades of grey under the veil and that’s something that I had not truly understood previously…

We have looked at burqas and niqabs before on Mamamia – go here to get all the facts