Why do we fear the veil?
One young Iraqi woman tells of her experience of wearing a hijab around the streets of Dublin
When my son was small he got a fright when three women passed by in black burkas. Covered head to toe, their faces obscured and their eyes behind mesh, they were indeed impressive sights. They floated by like ships, a flotilla of children behind them, even the smallest girls wearing head scarves. What, wondered my four-year-old, was the story?
I struggled to answer because a jumble of facts and assumptions and judgments went through my head. Religion has got complicated, Islamic dress code is controversial. There is a lot tied up in extreme forms of religious observance, especially from an Irish perspective. Having for so long, and only so recently (largely) shed the shackles of an oppressive national religion, it is difficult to see religion objectively, especially when it comes to its treatment of women.
Many women - and men - struggle with the notion that so many religions target women for most oppression and punishment. Fewer rights are granted, more observance expected. It is standard issue in all fundamentalism that the biggest transgression of all is sexual and the person most punished for perceived sexual transgression is the woman.
A burka feels like the representation of that kind of repression of women in another religion.
Many countries have centuries-old laws prohibiting people from covering their faces fully with masks at Carnival. Designed to stop crime, those laws have been resurrected to ban the face veil, and perhaps sum up European distrust of covered identities - why, and what are you hiding? Attitudes to the headscarf, the hijab, are quite different.
Sara is 23 and arrived from Iraq seven years ago. She and her mother both wear a hijab, which she refers to as a scarf.
"My dad asked me to start wearing the scarf when I was 10. I was really happy to wear it. That was in Iraq and most of the girls we wearing them, but when we came here I said to my dad that I didn't want to wear it," she says.
"My worst nightmare when I started school was that people wouldn't talk to me because I was different. I was the first Muslim in the school but everyone was so friendly, they asked lots of questions. Some of them were a bit silly, like did I have to wear the scarf in the shower, but no one said anything bad.
"We're only supposed to wear the scarf in front of strange men - men we could marry; but at home I would be fine in front of my brothers or my father or my uncle, it's just if I'm outside, in a shopping centre or something, I have to wear it.
"I would feel weird walking down the street without it, but there are times when I wonder what it would be like, but my dad wouldn't like that. He says, 'If you take off your scarf that's not you any more. If you take it off people wouldn't know you're Muslim'. It's like wearing a cross for Christians.
"I've heard of girls who had the veil pulled off their heads or something, but I've never been in a horrible situation. Compared to other countries I think Ireland might be one of the places where people are more flexible. My mother was in Germany and she said people in the street were looking at her like she was an alien. Here people are respectful."
That's not to say that Islam is the sole religion that can be viewed as oppressive towards women. In Ireland, at the behest of the Catholic Church, women were for so long denied any control over their own fertility. Women were not allowed to say no to sex with their husbands, they were not allowed to do anything to prevent pregnancy, even if that pregnancy would threaten their health or they lived in atrocious poverty.
A priest could deny absolution to any woman who confessed to refusing her husband. A priest could ask a woman about her sex life.
From a modern perspective, it seems unthinkable and somewhat maddening. And although some things have changed, Catholicism still does not allow equal rights for women
On the day my four-year-old asked about the burka, I was also acutely aware of the fact I was wearing a halter top. These women's eyes were hidden and my back and shoulders were bare, the contrast felt sharp. Not least because I heard, but never from a Muslim, that there is a dim view taken of the morals of western women.
Thirty years ago Islam was a religion about which we knew little and with which we had little contact. Now it has become fodder for every propaganda machine in the west. When I was a child the baddies in films were always Russians. They had taken over from the Nazis and, after Perestroika, Glasnost and the fall of Communism in Europe in the 1990s there was a baddie vacuum into which Arabs first and then Muslims in general conveniently stepped.
Where IRA baddies in films were always handsome, Arab baddies were always ugly, usually pock-marked and full-on mental. There are all kinds of theories about propaganda and power plays but the end result is that Islam, the second largest religion in the world, gets horrible press.
The most visible part of Islam for many people is the hijab. The literal meaning of hijab is to cover. It has come to mean also the head scarf, worn by most Muslim women in the West, which covers the hair, ears and neck but leaves the face clear.
There is relatively little mention of clothing in the Koran. There is an exhortation for women, and men, to dress "modestly". The interpretation of "modestly" varies, and while most Muslim scholars agree that covering the hair is a vital observance, rarely is greater coverage demanded.
The al-Amira and shayla are two slightly different versions which achieve the same coverage as the hijab. The khimar is a long, cape-like veil which hangs down to the waist, covering the hair and shoulders but leaving the face free. The chador, often worn in Iran, is a full-length version of this. The Niqab is full-length and covers all of the face leaving only the eyes uncovered, while the burka covers the eyes too.
The full-face veil has been banned in public places in France since 2011, the logic being that as it is gender-based it breaks equality legislation and any woman wearing one in public is liable for a €150 fine. Anyone found obliging a woman to wear one can be fined €30,000.
Headscarves of all kinds, like any religious symbols, are banned in public schools in France. Bans in other countries have come up against religious freedom legislation and it's clear that the debate has no simple solution. What is clear, however, is that non-Muslim objection to Muslim forms of dress is almost exclusively towards the covering of the face.
Sara does feel, as do other Muslim women, that in a job interview situation there might be issues. "I know Pakistani girls who have taken off their scarves when going for an interview and then if they get the job they wear it, or a version of it," she says.
"We think that if there was a choice of two girls for a job, one wearing a scarf and one not wearing a scarf, that the one not wearing the scarf would get the job even if she was less qualified."
Sara's scarves cover all of her hair, her ears and neck. They are part of her look and she matches them to whatever she's wearing that day. I wonder if perhaps her largely positive experience as a Muslim woman in Ireland would be shared by women who wear the niqab or burka. A short unscientific poll suggests women in burkas are regarded as repressed, powerless and uneducated.
"According to the correct interpretation of Islam, we don't agree that a woman should have to cover her face or her hands," says Sara.
"I think the niqab gives the wrong picture of Islam. It is not in the Koran, it's a cultural thing. We are asked to cover our hair and parts of our body, like the neck and chest. I couldn't wear shorts or a tank top, but we're not asked to hide the face or wear gloves. I think you should adapt to the society you're in. It's one thing to be covered up in an Islamic country, it's another thing here."