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Thursday, 23 May 2019 11:15 pm

Staring’s rude – but Kiwis do it anyway

WHEN Helen Donnelly (above) became curious about Muslims in NZ, there was only one thing to do.

To get first-hand experience of life “behind the veil”, the Wellington librarian – with the help of local Muslims – wore a hijab to the Kilbirnie mosque.

“It was fascinating because I completely blended in,” she says.

“No-one blinked an eyelid.  I was completely, not invisible, but no-one noticed me. It was bizarre. You become part of them. It’s an identification. Once you put that on, you become Muslim.”

A Victoria film theory graduate (now working at Newtown Public Library), Helen decided to make a DVD about the Islamic culture in the capital city.

Called Our place – Your place, and based on her ethnic exploration, it helped Wellington City Libraries win an award for its contribution to race relations at the Human Rights Commission’s annual New Zealand Diversity Action Awards this year.

Helen’s interest began when she noticed that headscarves and ethnic dress were becoming a regular sight in the library.

Inspired by the diverse range of ethnicities and religions she dealt with daily, Helen sought to learn more about the people.

Visiting the Kilbirnie Mosque to get a taste of Islam was the logical place to start.

“Working at Newtown we get so many cultures coming into the library and I was just really interested, fascinated.

“It was partly because Islam is such a loaded topic at the moment, so I was really curious – what are the Muslims really like?”

She had previously made a film, A taste of Nineveh, which explores the Assyrian culture.

This motivated her to learn more about the diverse Islamic community in Wellington.

“The Assyrians are an entity in themselves, and the Muslims are quite different – I wanted to explore the other side.”

Her interest in learning about minority cultures living in Wellington originates from the portrayal of religions and foreign cultures in the media.

“There are so many stereotypes and preconceptions that you are given, you form, that I was really curious as to how they would stack up in reality.”

She adds our culture is quite feminist-based, and wearing headscarves or other concealing garb is seen as a sign of oppression.

The welcome atmosphere at the mosque and interaction with the women allayed her doubts on how she would be received.

“It was nice to throw some of these preconceptions away and see them as individuals. As people.”

The ethnic diversity at the Kilbirnie mosque is quite surprising.  Many have refugee backgrounds and lack confidence in their new country.

“You have to walk in their shoes a little bit before they will trust you.”

Following her positive experiences at the mosque, Helen visited a café in Lyall Bay and got the opposite reaction.

“Everyone stared.  It wasn’t glancing, it was directly staring for quite a while, and a lot of people did it.”

The waitress forgot her order, bought out the wrong thing and then forgot her cutlery.

“It was really weird.  It made me think – how difficult that would be dealing with that on a daily basis if you were a Muslim.”

Helen is fair-skinned, and her impression was Kiwis were disturbed seeing one of their own in Muslim garb.

“It’s just amazing how, you know just what you wear, completely affects how people see you and treat you, but it’s just a piece of cloth.”

So she was not treated as well as she expected?

“No, no, staring at someone directly is not respectful really.  It’s not treating you like you’re an equal.  It was bordering on rude.

“I don’t think you tend to see Muslims as people and that’s the problem with different ethnicities anyway, in a hijab makes it even more so.  People just look on them as something foreign.”

CorrineWearing a niqab is something Corinne Poole (left) does every day.

A blue-eyed, fair-skinned, born and bred Kiwi, she converted to Islam six years ago.

Islam and the lifestyle obligations which go with it – no drinking, wearing headscarves – were alien to her before becoming Muslim.

Compared to the multi-ethnic crowds at the Kilbirnie mosque she stands out starkly – until she puts on her headdress.

Wearing a nijab or headscarf is an essential part of daily life as a Muslim, although how much you cover up in NZ differs between individuals.

Walking the street in her religious garb with her light complexion, she has found reactions are not always complimentary, but she simply ignores the jibes.

“The people who make comments would shout things at anyone who is different.”

Staring is rude…butHelenFEATURE

STARING is rude and New Zealanders aren’t wont to do it.

Celebrities love that about us.

But what’s it like to wear something out of the ordinary every day?

To gauge the reception people in full Muslim dress receive, NewsWire conducted a social experiment on Cuba St passers-by.

Dressed in a burqa with NewsWire cameraman ready, we captured the reaction of the public – and our perception was people were merely curious.

There were no derogatory comments or aggressive actions.

But there were a few prolonged stares (captured below), and most of the public gave a brief, discreet glance before looking away.


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is a Whitireia Journalism student.
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  1. A very well written article!

    I would be curious? But staring is rude!


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