In a Lift Surrounded by Giggling Burqas

Wandering around my hotel in Kuala Lumpur it is strange to see so many women dressed in long black robes and with their faces fully veiled, with just a narrow gap for the eyes (called a nijab rather than a burqa). I am used to seeing the faces of people around me, their smiles and frowns, raised or furrowed eyebrows, the kempt or unkempt nature of their hair, the tan of their skin, all at a glance communicating something of who they are and how they’re feeling. But it is impossible to read anything from these veiled women.

And in the absence of visual clues I am left not knowing how to respond – is the woman I pass in the lobby happy or sad, wanting to engage in a friendly hello or keep her distance, seeing me as an infidel or a fellow traveller? Do I make eye contact or avoid it? Say g’day or pass by in silence?

Perhaps most disturbing is how easy it is to imagine there is a gulf between us, that we are as different as our dress. In the absence of self-disclosure I inevitably constructed my own narrative. Having previously met some wonderful Muslim people my narrative wasn’t dark and fearful but it was empty. I didn’t know what to make of these women covered from head to toe.

Yesterday a group of the women got into the lift I was in. They were giggling with one another the whole way down. It was a restrained yet infectious giggling, the sort of giggling you have when you’re trying hard to stop but can’t. And at that moment the distance between us collapsed. Instead of a veiled silence there was a connection. Slender and brief, but a moment of commonality across which we were all people who laugh at something silly in the company of family and friends and strangers.

I think we need to spend our lives building connections. It struck me not only in the veiled muslim women I have encountered but in refugees I met here. Hearing the stories of why they fled their homeland and the difficulty of life in Malaysia left me saddened, yet awestruck at the resilience, faith, perseverance and determination they showed. I can’t help but think how different Australians would feel about refugees if they could meet these extraordinary people and hear their stories.

Points of connection. I think we need more of them. With our neighbours, our workmates, with people of other cultures, with refugees, with indigenous Australians, with people of other faiths. They come to us in person-to-person encounters, in good books and movies. I remember reading somewhere that a great society is not built on tolerance but on mutual understanding. And that is what connections, even be they slender as giggling in a lift, have the capacity to bring us.

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