Another day, another hijab row — the first one of the post-Howard era, I think.

This one was sparked by Queensland radio host Michael Smith, who is apparently auditioning for the role of the Alan Jones of the North. And it isn’t quite clear just which garment is at the centre of this row, which has conflated not only various forms of Islamic dress, but also bike helmets and hoodies.

Smith sparked the row during his show by describing the hijab as “offensive” and a “security issue” because it obscures the face. That would come as news to the vast majority of hijabis, who use their scarves to conceal their hair, not their faces. In his blog, Smith refines his description by referring to the “full-on hijab”. Hijab in its broadest meaning just refers to modest clothing, but in contemporary usage it generally refers to a headscarf. Smith’s “full-on hijab” seems to be refer to what is more usually termed a niqab, or face-veil.

The story gathered pace after Scott Driscoll of the Retailer’s Association (also known as the Queensland Retails Traders and Shopkeepers Association) said that retailers should be able to require customers to remove “identity-obscuring headwear”, such as hijabs, hoodies, and bike-helmets because of the danger of armed hold-ups.

A word of caution to any wanna-be armed robbers out there: a niqab might hide your face from the security camera, but in Australia, it has serious limitations as a disguise in that it attracts attention rather than deflects it. You might as well save yourself the trip out to Lakemba and just stick to the old-fashioned stocking-over-the-head — you can pick up that outfit at Woolies.

And retailers seem to know that the minuscule risk of niqab-clad stick-up artists pales into insignificance in comparison to the risk of alienating customers by embroiling themselves in hijab rows. The Australian Retailer’s Association today put out a press release disassociating themselves from Driscoll’s association. Executive Director Richard Evans said:

We understand banks and many other retail environments such as petrol stations display signs to ask customers to remove full faced motorcycle helmets and hoodies yet Mr Driscoll’s comments are extreme and harking back to a day when xenophobia was rife and serves to create a culture of angst, anger and mistrust.

Crikey phoned Westfield for a response to Smith’s fulminations about hijabs in shopping centres, and was told “We can’t speak for retailers or individual store policies, but Westfield does not have a dress code.”

This hijab/niqab will die down soon enough — until the next time. The problem is that every such row takes it toll, increasing the sense of unease among Muslims and forcing Muslim women into a defensive position. Many hijabis themselves privately refer to the niqab as being “over the top”, but when it is attacked in such alarmist terms, they feel obligated to defend a woman’s entitlement to wear it if she chooses. And having a garment attacked by the likes of Smith and Driscoll can only add to its appeal among young woman looking to make a fashion statement with edge.

Shakira Hussein is a contributor to the forthcoming “Beyond the Hijab Debates: New Conversations on Gender, Race and Religion“, (ed Tanja Dreher and Christina Ho, Cambridge Scholars Press). 

Peter Fray

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