Dame Susan Devoy: Cultural diversity

By Dame Susan Devoy

This week, a Saudi Arabian student was left crying on an Auckland street when the bus driver refused to let her board the bus because of her Muslim veil commonly known as a burqa.
The Race Relations Commissioner says this is a clear case of discrimination but the bus company - very cleverly I might add - has said that it wasn't because the driver didn't like Muslims but because the driver had "mask phobia".
The reason NZ Bus were so quick to spin this as mask phobia is because banning someone from riding on your bus is fairly culturally insensitive and could be seen as a breach of human rights.
It is ironic that in Saudi Arabia women are fighting for the right to drive and yet here in Auckland they can't get on a bus.
In Islam, it is deemed compulsory that females should cover their head with a hijab. Veiling whether it be hijab or the burqa is a complex matter and the cause of much debate not only in the Western world but also among Muslims. There is a lot of confusion between the burqa and the head scarf.
A burqa is a whole body garment which covers the entire body including the head and face and the hijab is a head covering or scarf which does not cover the face.
New Zealand, or so I thought, is a tolerant and inclusive society but reading some of the threads online about this issue I would suggest that this is not necessarily the case.
Unless our actions are offensive to others, I generally believe in the right for people to do as they please. This includes wearing what they want.
Obviously there are times when this is not appropriate and, as much as we wish to respect their culture, perhaps there needs to be some give and take.


Common sense should prevail and if a person is required to formally identify themselves then a Muslim women or anyone for that matter should do so.
Muslim women need to respect the need to sometimes de robe in order to allow identification while New Zealanders should respect the personal choice made by these women without being ignorant and abusive. As a female I found it intriguing that we seldom discuss the attire of our male counterparts.
When I was growing up, a friend of mine was forbidden by her parents to wear anything above the knee. When we went out she would always hurriedly change in the car prior to going out on the town.
Similarly, I know of girls from cultures who were prevented from leaving the house with any part of their bodies exposed. Different cultures but similar attitudes.
The burqa debate in New Zealand is relatively absent because the wearing of them is so rare but, all over the world, the debate is raging with countries having already banned them and others contemplating such legislation.
I wouldn't want to see us legislate the ban of the burqa as much as I find them disconcerting. But I do believe that we should work hard to develop a society that is genuinely inclusive and tolerant of other people's cultures and beliefs.
On Thursday, I attended the Tauranga Intermediate School production.
Aside from all the fabulous singing, dancing and acting, I was overwhelmed by the cultural diversity of the production. Director Carole Storey wanted to embrace the diverse cultures and talents of the students in the musical Who Does That and she succeeded. The combination of Maori Pacifika and Asian was simply a wonderful sight and anyone in a burqa would have been welcome.
Our tolerance and empathy for others is in safe hands if this next generation is anything to go by. It isn't everyday we can learn from our young ones.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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