In a week in which the government decided that Muslim women wearing what the Prime Minister described as a “confronting” form of attire should be instructed to sit in a glass enclosure with the noisy schoolchildren (and I was certainly looking forward to reading the outraged letters from parents whose offspring were forced to sit next to the scary terrorist lady), it’s pedantic to get uptight over issues of terminology.
But other people have been getting pedantic over the “correct” words for burqa/niqab/chador, etc, and their pedantry has let my pedant off the leash. Various Muslim writers (hello, Waleed Aly) have written op-eds explaining that “it’s not a burqa, it’s a niqab, a burqa is that blue Afghan thingy”, while “know your veil” explain-o-grams are blossoming throughout the media. Even Richard Roxburgh gave a little sermon on the correct term during an episode of Rake, in which he defended a face-veiled client:
Greene: Your Honour, what sort of madness is this that here and now, in the twenty-first century, in this palazzo of justice we call court 11 C, we three men are debating the right of a woman to choose her own clothes? The tyranny of misogyny, Your Honour, must be consigned to the wastebasket —
Judge: Mr Green, are you daring to suggest that wearing a burqa is somehow an expression of your client’s feminism?
Greene: With due respect Your Honour, my client doesn’t wear a burqa. She wears a niqab.
Judge: The difference being?
Greene: The former to all intents and purposes is a body bag, the latter a simple veil.
Judge: Be that as it may, Mr Green, the jury and the court both have a right to be able to scrutinise the disposition of any witness.
However, I managed to restrain myself until I saw that even Crikey has taken to putting the word “burqa” in inverted commas in acknowledgement of the term’s presumed misuse.
Actually, whether or not it’s a burqa (or a niqab or a chador or whatever) very much depends on which part of the Muslim world you are in (#Arabethnocentrism, Waleed). The style of burqa that gained international headlines when the Taliban attempted to mandate its use is often referred to in Pakistan as the “shuttlecock burqa” — a label that aptly describes its appearance and signals that there are multiple garments that go by that name. A random trawl of the south Asian media brings up many articles to illustrate this point. This one from Pakistan about the transition from “blue to black burqas” (the black burqa being what recent Australian op-eds would describe as a niqab) is a good example.
I try to avoid the issue by using the term “face-veiling”, but I’ll use the word burqa or niqab as well, if that’s the term being used in the story under discussion. That’s because I, too, believe that language matters — and that it’s therefore important not to propagate the myth that there is a global Muslim community who share a common vocabulary (let alone opinion) with regard to women’s dress — or anything else, for that matter.