The "conservative, literal and narrow interpretation" of Sharia law by Muslim leaders is the real problem facing Muslims, an Auckland public forum on human rights was told last night.
Ratna Osman, acting executive director of the Malaysian-based group Sisters of Islam, said debate was needed for Islam to be better understood.
"But fear has been instilled ... and we don't talk about things that Muslims are sensitive about," she said.
About 40 people, mainly non-Muslims, attended the "Muslim Women Rights is Human Rights" forum at the Auckland University of Technology.
Ms Osman's group is opposed to the traditional Muslim teaching that men are superior to women, and criticises Sharia (Islamic) law as being "human constructed" and "not divine".
Group founder Zainah Anwar said the law was therefore "fallible, changeable, given a different time and context".
The group also says Islam has no laws making burqa-wearing compulsory.
Race Relations Commissioner Joris de Bres, who has previously said laws banning Muslims from wearing veils amount to discrimination on grounds of religious belief, would not comment on whether those forcing women to wear burqas were in breach of NZ's human rights laws.
Javed Khan, vice-president of the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand, said he did not share many of the views of Sisters of Islam, which he described as a "splinter group".
He said a public debate on matters such as the burqa would just raise further confusion about Islam and further isolate Muslim women who wore the garment.
Mr Khan reckoned only about 100 women, from a Muslim population in New Zealand estimated at between 45,000 and 55,000, wore a niqab or a burqa.