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Kiwi Muslim Women On Wearing Headscarves in New Zealand

The first episode of new season STATES OF UNDRESS explores Islamophobia in France. We asked Kiwi Muslims how attitudes compare here.

Our VICELAND show STATES OF UNDRESS explores global fashion and the issues the industry often ignores. In the new season premiere 'Beyond the Burkini" airing tonight 7.30 PM on VICELAND SKY Channel 13, host Hailey Gates heads to France to see how the ban on traditional Islamic clothing in public spaces and schools has impacted on Muslim women and girls. When France passed a law banning the burqa in 2010, it sparked, among other things, a TVNZ Facebook poll: should we ban the burqa in New Zealand? The poll was a misfire, and generated a fair share of clap back. In 2011, Prime Minister John Key said there was "no need" for a ban. He said that in any occasion where practical or security reasons might require people's faces to be seen could be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. In general, stories of prejudice or discrimination towards people wearing veils or headscarves are rare. But they do exist, and there is even a "Ban the burqa in New Zealand" Facebook page, with 111 followers. Just this week, a lecturer at Waikato University said that it would be a mistake to hire Muslim people because they would need too many breaks to pray. Anjum Rahman, spokeswoman for the Islamic Women's Council New Zealand, said that his comments were damaging, since Muslim women already face discrimination in the workforce. So what is it like for Kiwi women who wear a headscarf, some of the most visibly Muslim people in New Zealand? Zabiyyah decided to wear a hijab when she was seven. "It was a personal decision, it was about my identity and it was a way to express myself," she says. "I feel like it connects me to myself, it can be a source of strength for me." She first started wearing it a few years before 9/11, and she says that before then no one really knew what it was. "People thought I was a brown Jehovah's Witness, or a brown nun," she says. Unfortunately, that didn't last. After 9/11, she began experiencing bullying at school. But she never took it off, she says. "It was about resilience, this is my identity and no one can change it." She says her headscarf now is a reminder that she can make it through anything life throws at her, which still includes discrimination. "I'm always the last person people want to sit next to on public transport," she says. Once, someone even told her that she would "never be a real New Zealander", even though she was born and raised here. "It was like a little identity crisis. Like, well, I think I'm a New Zealander, I don't know what you're talking about!" Despite this, Zabiyyah says that wearing the scarf has become a part of her identity. "It's become a sign of strength. No matter what discrimination I face, I know I've been through worse and survived." Amina started wearing a headscarf when she was five years old. She used to watch her mother putting on her hijab, and wanted to be just like her. Her scarf was a crucial accessory in her wardrobe for 14 years. She had dozens, in different colours and patterns, to match any outfit. For years, her and her mother's scarf-collection took up half a closet. Amina took off her headscarf when she was 19. She says it just didn't suit her personality anymore, and she'd been thinking about taking it off for a while. It was a big step to take. Even though she didn't feel like the scarf was true to herself anymore, it had become a comfortable habit. "It felt quite protective for me," she says. It was something she had worn constantly throughout her whole childhood. "And it meant I didn't have to do anything with my hair!" Amina says the only time she ever felt singled out for her scarf was after the 9/11 attacks. Until then, the scarf had just been a normal part of her wardrobe and identity. Afterwards, she says, she felt like the scarf took on a new meaning for people, and she became an accidental representative of an entire religion. Once, when she was walking home from her bus stop, she says some boys chased her. "They threw rocks at me, not big ones, like, pebbles and gravel." She says it very calmly now, like it's just a fact. But at the time she was very upset. She says her school at the time was very understanding and supportive. "After that day they changed the bus route to drop me off right outside my house."


That extreme reaction was very rare for Amina. Mostly, she says, people were just surprised to find her so outgoing and friendly. "I think when people see you in the scarf, they assume that you're very conservative," she says. Initially, non-muslim people would be quite awkward when they first met her, which she thought was just because people were always awkward when meeting new people, but she noticed that people were a lot more relaxed at first meetings when she wasn't wearing the scarf. When she did eventually take the scarf off, though, "people actually didn't treat me as nicely as before," she says. "People would always be making eye-contact and smiling at me before. I guess maybe because they were looking at me, and then I looked back."

"Ultimately, I think New Zealand is generally an accepting place, I think it's a great place to express yourself, whether you wear a headscarf or not."

READ MORE: Two Hijabi Girls on How the Headscarf Ban is Disrupting Their Lives

And remember, watch STATES OF UNDRESS tonight on VICELAND, SKY Channel 13.