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.



  • A much needed story Amal. The level of ignorance on this matter is rather high. This type of reporting just reminds me of the hysteria that Fox "News" in the States spews out every day.

    I think this has been fairly common in countries where a new group of immigrants start settling in. From memory I read about the same thing happening to the Irish Catholics first, then the Italians, Greeks and Asians as well.

    Date and time
    May 09, 2013, 8:52AM
    • Today Tonight ridiculousness aside, thank you for the guide to Islamic coverings. My three-year-old daughter recently asked about a picture on a postcard from Afghanistan, in which two women are wearing what I can now correctly identify as Burqas. There was a bit of a debate in my house about the correct terminology so I can now go home and give her the right information. I think simple communication like this article can lead to much greater cultural understanding and cooperation - thank you so much for writing and publishing it.

      Date and time
      May 09, 2013, 9:02AM
      • I'm glad to see this articld address the hysteria promoted by ignoramuses and also clear up the general misunderstanding between the different garments worn by Muslim women.

        One of my besties is a Muslima. She started wearing a hijab after doing the Hajj two years ago. I love her hijabs and she and her husband are giving their two daughters the choice when they get older (they're currently 8 and 10). I honestly have to ask, if the M word wasn't mentioned, would it be a drama? I'm an Orthdox Jewess and we cover our hair when we get married too. I don't see anyone jumping up and down over Jews covering out here (we just get our chocolate stores picketed a lot :P).

        I _DO_ have one genuine question that I'd love to hear Amal expound on if possible. I understand the differences in rules and regulations between here and the Middle East on many different things, but can you elaborate on how we can get around the issue of requiring to see a woman's face without disrespecting/disregarding her faith if she wears a niqab or burqa? EG Driver's License and Passport? it's something I think we need to resolve out here with genuine understanding, not the contentious attitude many seem to take :(

        Date and time
        May 09, 2013, 9:04AM
        • They can show their face to another woman if required

          Real World
          Date and time
          May 09, 2013, 11:30AM
      • I love how the image uses the term "headgear"

        Real World
        Date and time
        May 09, 2013, 9:17AM
        • Very well written article that will hopefully quash some of the ignorant comments that are bound to be left here. I grew up in a very typical Australian middle class "white bread" setting, and so my interactions with practioners of the Muslim faith was limited by logistics alone, however I do not share the same views and ideologies spouted by ignorant, close minded people who's greatest source of information comes from ever reliable tabloid "journalism" such as Today Tonight. I see no issue in someone practicing their faith, so long as it doesn't harm themselves or others, live and let live! My life has only been enriched by exposure to difference, it is something to be embraced, not to be afraid of! It seems that our Judeo-Christian centric holds severe double standards; taking offence to a head covering when worn by a Muslim woman, but not when worn by a Catholic nun? I say as long as it's the woman's choice, long live the "burqa" (which as mentioned by the author is more than likely a hijab or niqab!)

          Date and time
          May 09, 2013, 9:17AM
          • ' I say as long as it's the woman's choice, long live the "burqa" '

            Except that the only places where women widely wear burqas, it is because they are forced to by extreme theocracies, and there is little "choice" involved. I am very skeptical of the notion that any significant number of women would consent to wearing this oppressive garment of their own free will, if they were given any decent amount of choice or exposure to alternatives. The entire point of a burqa is to diminish a woman's personhood and ability to interact with others - it's not just some mild variation on a hijab, it's an abuse of human rights.

            (Before you call me racist, RAWA seem to agree with me...)

            Red Pony
            Date and time
            May 09, 2013, 10:19AM
          • "I say as long as it's the woman's choice, "

            Yes. Choice. When you're indoctrinated from birth and often threatened with violence/death if you don't adhere strictly to the requirements, that's certainly a choice. Much like women who were told that their place was in the kitchen and that they should always obey the man, under threat of violence in bygone western times were exercising a choice to do so when they did. They should have just chosen to do otherwise, as should women who are in abusive relationships.

            Feminists of all people should understand that "choice" is not such a simple issue when cultural and personal pressures are involved.

            Tim the Toolman
            Date and time
            May 09, 2013, 10:26AM
          • Red Pony, excellent comment.

            Tim, agree completely.

            The idea that Islamic women make this decision on what to wear without any pressure or influence from family or community is clearly ridiculous.

            A couple of years ago, I was in the home of a Muslim friend, a girl who wears the hijab. Her English is excellent. I was the only male present in a group of females who were very interested in the foreigner.

            After much discussion, they arrived at a question for me: "Do you think that it is possible for women to live without men?" I laughed and sarcastically said that it would never be possible, that nothing would work and that women simply aren't capable of running things. As it was translated, I could see all the women nodding their covered heads sadly in agreement.

            The men in their culture follow no dress code.

            These restrictive dress codes are just a way of enforcing patriarchy. The left needs to stand up on this issue. Equality should not be a choice that women have the option to take or refuse. Not in my country.

            Party Stooge
            Date and time
            May 09, 2013, 12:05PM
        • Great article, Amal. These point of view articles should be written more often to enlighten people who are curious. As a Muslim woman who chose not to wear a head cover, I still feel annoyed at tv shows (as mentioned, TT) or public perceptions on Muslim women who choose to cover up. It's certainly odd when it is ok to wear revealing clothes while a woman who wants to cover up is considered a threat. I believe it is free for anyone to wear anything in Australia, that's why we love this country.

          What's with the fear of women wearing a niqab? I asked my non-Muslim friend in a naive discussion, in his opinion he reckons it can be an armor for crimes and you won't be able to identify the person. Hmmmm, I didn't realise that there are gangs of niqab wearing bandits out there threatening people for their money? In his defense, i can see that my friend is simply a victim of the media. He was scared because of an idea that was fed to him, that really doesn't exist. There are truths out there in the media and there are some that are merely rubbish propaganda.

          A note to everyone, please always read from a different point of view before making a judgment.

          Date and time
          May 09, 2013, 9:58AM

          More comments

          Comments are now closed