Our reporter dons full Muslim dress and encounters open racism

InvestigationsBy Lynne Kelleher
Our reporter on the streets in Limerick
Our reporter on the streets in Limerick

Ireland may not be among a growing list of countries banning burkinis and full-face veils, but racist sentiment was bubbling under the surface when we took to the streets in the Muslim dress of a burqa and niqab face-covering veil.

The controversial burkini ban on French beaches this week inflamed an already raging debate over anti-Islamic feeling, with photographs of armed French police making a woman remove her Muslim swimsuit on a Nice beach causing outrage.

The Sunday World found the public reaction to the traditional, but ultra-conservative, Islamic dress code provoked a number of bigoted outbursts on Limerick’s streets this week.

The feeling of fastening the black niqab veil and donning the hijab head scarf and burqa is claustrophobic, as I change in the dressing room in the country’s first Islamic clothing store.

When I opted to briefly put the full veil covering over my eyes, it was surprisingly easy to see through the thin black material.

After two hours walking around in the heat in Limerick city with only my eyes visible to the outside world, I felt hot and stuffy, but also discovered the head and face coverings prompted mainly averted gazes, outright gawking and a few blatantly racist comments.

A few minutes after donning the Islamic dress, I walked past two men sitting on steps on Hartstonge Street next to an empty bottle of spirits, who asked for change before shouting: “Is it Halloween yet? Disgraceful…”

While passing the Penneys store on O’Connell Street shortly afterwards, one young man pointed, saying: “Watch that!” 

His friend jeered: “I know. Is there a bomb underneath there, is there?”.

They had brushed by and gone quickly down the street before the comment registered.

In McDonald’s, the friendly server greeted me with the usual “how can I help you?” while in the Spar down the street from the Al Hayaa clothes shop, a young employee enquired about my day and thanked me for coming in to the shop.

A Middle Eastern man in a suit said a friendly “hello, how are you?” as he passed.

In Burger King, I ordered a coffee, but only tried a few sips as the effort behind keeping my face covered while trying to drink the hot liquid nearly unfastened my veil.

Walking around appeared to make passers-by uncomfortable, either because they didn’t want to be caught staring openly or because they were unsettled by the sight of the face-covering niqab.

Snatches of comments like “her face is fully covered” or “look at her” filter through as I walk along on the busy Friday afternoon – but most people studiously avoid eye contact.

Outside Dunnes, an elderly man stopped on the street and openly stared, putting his hand over his eyes to get a better look. On the way back, a brisk-walking middle-aged lady crossly muttered what sounded like: “What kind of a get-up is that?” But when I stopped, asking “what did you say?”, she hurried away.

At shop counters, assistants in the high street stores seemed unsure about approaching with the usual ‘how can I help you?’, but were very friendly and pleasant once presented with a query.

While turning towards Henry Street, two heavy-set middle-aged men shouted across the street.  

As I turned one of the men waved his arms and jeered, shouting “Boo!” in a Scottish accent.

After returning to the dressing room in the country’s first Islamic clothing store on Henry Street, shop owner Foysal Khan was not surprised.

“You were there for two hours,” he noted. “Our wives, mothers and sisters have this every day. They have no voice. 

“They can just come home and tell their husbands. It’s very sad.”

The Bangladeshi father, who is on leave from his role as a research assistant in the areas of physics and energy in the University of Limerick, said he gets very frustrated by the hit-and-run comments by people who rush off after calling out insults.

“They just accuse and run. It makes me so crazy sometimes, so sad.

“They call you ‘Taliban’, ‘Bin Laden’, ‘terrorist’.”

He said women wearing the face veil and men sporting beards get the worst abuse. 

Despite beards having a resurgence in popularity among Irish men, he said his beard is viewed very differently.

“It’s the fashion with a white face, but if you do it with our face it’s a terrorist act,” he said.