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My mother's burqa: an irreverent history

  • 14 December 2016


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