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"I was trying so hard not to stare. And then I saw her face."

By MIA FREEDMAN

For the past three weeks I’ve been overseas on holidays with my family. Never willing or able to disconnect from home, I kept an eye on the news and, of course, on Mamamia. With distance comes perspective and not always the good kind.

The terrorism arrests were alarming. More so, what came after. With growing dismay and deja vu, I watched fear of terror morph quickly into intolerance and bigotry. With incredulity, I watched as Australian Muslim women and their choice of dress become the focus of national attention.

Forget ISIS and their grotesque death cult of beheadings. What we must really fear and reject and isolate and segregate are women who chose to wear niqab – or ‘burqa’ which, despite it describing a different form of muslim dress, has become shorthand for everything ‘other’ about the Muslim culture which must be ‘banned’.

I’ve watched as legislation to ‘ban the burqa’ has been vomited into the public discussion by ill-informed fools like Jacqui Lambie who have jumped recklessly and deliberately to mix debates about religious dress, terrorism and national security into a single brainless idea.

I’ve watched our Prime Minister seemingly test the wind of public opinion before rightly rejecting calls to segregate Muslim women wearing the niqab in parliament house, even though nobody from any side of politics can ever remember seeing a person dressed that way.

I will admit to having wrestled with my own prejudice and confusion around Muslim women’s choice of dress. My friend Susan Carland has been instrumental in helping to educate me (below is an interview we did a couple of years ago) and I must say I still have mixed thoughts:

I understand that “choice” is the operative word here. For every woman in Australia who chooses to cover her head or her face, there are many in other parts of the world to whom choice in any aspect of her life is impossible.

This is the kind of covering the woman on the plane was wearing.

Still, I was reminded of an encounter the last time I went overseas, a few years ago, that opened my eyes about the situation here. At the time, I wrote this:

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 overcome with an overwhelming desire to stare – something I tried to keep in check as much as possible so as not to appear rude or make her uncomfortable.

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

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It was not an uncommon site in Paris, impossibly wealthy women from Arab countries visiting with their families and bodyguards for a spot of French shopping.

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 sparkled with major bling. Their eyes sparkled too.

A few months 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, 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. In many countries, this is true.

But 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. The poor woman. Her husband must be a scary, controlling 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 pink bra strap showing.
5. Her husband must think I am a disgrace and disappointment to my own husband not to mention God. 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.

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Source: ABC News
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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? And ashamed of my initial prejudice.

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.”

Mia Freedman with Susan Carland

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?”

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

I had questions for her. “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?” he laughed. “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. But why do you want to wear it? “I just feel naked without it” she shrugged. “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.

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