Everything you know about burqas is probably wrong

The choice to wear (or not wear) a hijab.

The choice to wear (or not wear) a hijab. Photo: Powerhouse Museum

Arguably it’s a pointless exercise to mock a segment on Today Tonight, because the line between satire and reportage is already wafer thin and the humour just writes itself. However, its recent coverage on the supposed revival of the “burqa ban” leaves me compelled to hover my media-watch microscope over its journalistic integrity in the hope of finding a semblance of either. 

In a recent segment, reporter David Ecclestone gravely intoned that the “burqa debate has blown up again” because a woman wearing a face veil was refused service at a BP service station and launched a complaint with the Queensland Anti-Discrimination Commission. Apparently, “the facts are as obscure as the face behind the veil”, which only gives the merest hint of just how ridiculous this segment gets as TT trots out the usual creeping-shariah-Muslims-are-different tropes.

The facts are also short-changed by the end of the segment, with Eccleston not only clueless as to what an actual burqa is, but also ignorant on basic etiquette to human beings.


Presenting quietly racist hysteria at its best, the segment offered up its usual share of staged shots, Concerned Parties and dramatic music. However, not content to consult BP and interview the complainant and her lawyer, Eccleston proceeds to parade a completely veiled woman (who I’m guessing is an unpaid intern) around a variety of businesses, prodding the assistant on whether he would “prefer to see her face” when serving her.


Not surprisingly, most of the interviewees said yes, given that in Australia, it’s not common to see completely veiled women and the overwhelming majority of people show their faces. When Eccleston finally happens upon one man who says he doesn’t mind her face being covered, he rejigs the question, just in case the man misunderstood.

Eccleston: Would you have an issue serving someone if they came in with their identity covered this way.

Man: No.

Eccleston: No?

(Pause while woman stands there on show like an animal in a display case)

Eccleston: Would there ever be a situation where you’d prefer to see the person’s face?

Man: Yes and no.

Eccleston (getting excited): So what kind of circumstances would that be a problem for you?

Man: Well if I couldn’t determine if it was a male or female. That’d be a problem for me.

Lacking a real “expert”, TT then employs the commentary of Derryn Hinch, who expresses his total opposition to a ban on the “burqa”, which is a completely useful argument in France (or Afghanistan where it’s worn). He does believe, however, that sometimes showing your face is necessary. While this is true, I’m sure we can agree it’s achievable with respect for a woman’s religious beliefs.

Cut to footage of an old incident in which a policeman is being abused by a veiled woman, followed by Angry Muslim Men chanting and looking as bloodthirsty as the hyenas in The Lion King. Then something-something media kerfuffle.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why there is such an attachment to the term ‘burqa’, when it’s actually not an accurate description of what many Muslim women wear, and particularly not the woman at the centre of this story who is wearing a niqab.

A burqa is actually is a loose robe, usually light blue, with a face covering that includes a mesh plate over the eyes – common only in Afghanistan. What’s slightly more common here is the niqab – a face covering, often black, often with eyes exposed – but most of the time when you see a Muslim woman in  Australia she’s wearing a hijab (please refer to the bottom of the article for how threatened by each of these you should feel).

It’s a mistake that’s ingrained in the lexicon, because discrimination doesn’t require accuracy. ‘Burqa’ has become shorthand for ‘face veil – of any variety’, and I’d suggest it was birthed during France’s ban on religious symbols, which everyone took as really being an assault on Muslim women’s dress. And it seems to have gained global currency

‘Ban the burqa’ is such a catchy phrase for shows like TT but it’s a wholly misappropriated and clumsy term that only further discredits (I know it’s hard to believe that’s even possible) the work of stories like Ecclestons.

Interestingly, too, is just how small the proportion of women who actually wear face veils is - in the UK there are certain Muslim-populated communities in which niqab is a common sight, yet in Australia, there’s hardly a swarm of face-veiled women descending on unsuspecting service station assistants demanding to pay for their petrol.

There’s a certain level of social embarrassment when someone uses a completely incorrect term to describe something in public – sometimes it might be OK to point it out – other times we let it slide.  One can’t help but cringe at the long drawn out debate Australia has had over an item of clothing that doesn’t actually exist here.

Such disregard to fact would never be tolerated in the fashion world, so in the interests of getting the “debate” right, let’s consider the primary types of veil worn by Muslim women around the world. And perhaps the crew at TT can take a look before they launch the next round of rage about burqas and call on the Australian public to grab their cyber pitchforks on FANGO.




This is the most common form of head covering worn by Muslim women around the world, though the style differs. Some will wear flowing fabrics in different colours, while other women favour a close-fitting cotton type scarf with cap.

This generally covers the neck and chest, leaving the face visible. Hijabis generally cover all of their body except for their hands (and sometimes feet). They don’t usually alarm customer service staff.




Often mistaken for the niqab, the burqa is predominant amongst women in Afghanistan. The burqa is a loose robe, usually in light blue, with a face covering that includes a mesh plate over the eyes. The correct terminology is, apparently, the ‘shuttlecock burqa’.




The niqab is what you see on just about every book cover that involves Muslim women and has the word ‘veiled’ or ‘hidden’ or ‘honour’ on it. It’s a full-body, shapeless robe and veil, with a face covering. Sometimes women will also cover their eyes, but it’s common for only the eyes to be visible. This is predominantly seen in the Arab world (think Saudi Arabia, etc).

In Australia, you may encounter a woman in niqab. Despite Eccelston’s concerns, you need not be alarmed, nor should it be mistaken for a burqa (which, while not common to Australian fashion, is also no cause for discrimination).


A loose-fitting scarf that goes down to the thighs, also commonly used for prayer. It’s a bit cape-like, and the face is uncovered. This is worn around the world, and is usually worn over a jilbab/abaya (full-length robe).

Once again, not a threat to your safety.


Most commonly worn in Iran, this is a full-length, shapeless cloak that is worn over other clothing and has an opening at the front. It falls down to the ankles, and the woman wearing it wouldn’t be covering her face. It’s uncertain how she’d be received at a service station.