The young Muslim woman refused a job at an Auckland jewellers because of her hijab (headscarf) has been the subject of an important debate since her story appeared in the Weekend Herald last Saturday. Letters to the editor have questioned whether it is fair to expect a shop hiring counter staff to ignore a garment that may make some customers uncomfortable. They praised the Stewart Dawsons/Pascoes outlet for at least being honest with the woman.
Many employers might turn her down on a false pretext. But the James Pascoe group was quick to disown the decision. "This is by no means how we run our business," said a spokesman. "We have employees who wear the hijab."
All Western countries are having to come to grips with Islamic culture as strife in Afghanistan and the Middle East turns millions of their citizens into refugees. Many of the displaced are going to be highly successful in their adopted country.
The woman who went for the job interview at the jewellers, Fatima Mohammadi, was deputy head girl of Kelston Girls College and aspires to be a lawyer.
Now 20, she came to New Zealand with her family at the age of 7. She has grown up here yet retains her religious headwear. Those who are unsettled by Islamic women covering their head, and even their face in some cases, will need to get used to it.
But tolerance does not preclude debate about the meaning and purpose of covering up in this way. Islam insists on the hijab (covering hair) but not the niqab covering all but the eyes, which some adherents choose to wear as part of the full body covering, the burqa. To Western minds it is profoundly sad that any women should want to cover their face in public or cover themselves completely, especially if their religion would otherwise blame them for arousing male interest.
It is an attitude completely at odds with the rights asserted by women in the West to dress as they wish and it is a wonder feminism in countries like ours is not openly challenging it. Instead there are feminists among the Islamic immigrant community who are defending the religious dress code as a liberating device. One of them, British-born, Iranian-bred New Zealand citizen Donna Miles-Mojab, described the niqab in the Herald on Thursday as a rejection of "the objectification of women and manufactured views of beauty and liberty".
It certainly is that. There is no beauty or liberty, manufactured or not, in a veil that conceals all facial features and leaves no part of the body free to feel the sun and air on the skin.
These garments may be accepted without question in the Middle East but in the West, especially in temperate climate, they look oppressively hot and uncomfortable.
More seriously, they are a social barrier to others. We are not accustomed to people around us in public being hooded or masked and it is not easy to get used to. If we must, of course, we can. Tolerance will prevail.
Western governments who have tried to discourage these dress codes have not achieved very much.
Tolerance is the only fair and sensible response and with it, immigrants are more likely to find the space and confidence to discard some encumbrances and embrace new ways.
Debate on this article is now closed.