Crossing borders with a burka. How does that work then?



While travelling from Oman to Qatar, we stand at the immigration desk watching the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) residents at the Omani passport control. Three *fully* veiled women approach, accompanied by a more western dressed (i.e. not thobed) male. Since moving to the Middle East, I have a greater appreciation of the privacy these women both seek and receive and I look on, curious if (or rather how) they will unveil to show their faces to Omani passport control – they are crossing country borders after all. Huh. They don’t. Their passports are checked and they walk straight through. And then straight through the security metal detectors with their faces totally covered.

Huh. That gets us talking. How can that be? We’re talking burkas, so *fully veiled* from head to toe, no eye holes, nothing – they have black scarves entirely covering their heads and faces, I’m surprised they can even see where they are going. (I’ve been told the view is similar to wearing dark sunglasses and you can indeed see just fine!)

On closer inspection, I do notice that they have two layers to the head veil and one (just one) of the women appears to lift the outer one up and over her head, while the inner veil remains – however it is still black and still blocking full view of her face.

Having been brought up in a country at the, let’s say, more paranoid end of the security scale, we’re frantically asking each other questions:- How can they match those women to their photos? How do they know who is under there? How is that not a security risk? How can that be allowed?

Then, acknowledging the local need for modesty, we try to work out how immigration could respect that, yet still maintain secure immigration procedures. We happen to be answering for this particular airport, but our conversation soon turns to our airports back home. The answers come fast; separate rooms, female staff of the same religion, privacy glass etc. So why doesn’t the Omani border have that? What would London do? New York? Washington DC? We’d never considered it before. All are international airports, catering to multi-religion residents and visitors after all. What experience would these woman have at Heathrow, or JFK? We guess that they would have to unveil?

So….  if they are ok to unveil in other international airports, then why not here? What exactly are the privacy rules for women in the GCC and how come it is ok for these rules to be relaxed during international travel?

While we fill the next hour with some dull airport shopping looking for camel themed trinkets and giggling at camel milk chocolate (yes, we’re still amused), we google what other countries have decided to do. The UK is undecided but there are vague recommendations going through parliament at the moment. It seems to try to address the issue while in court, in police custody and at border control, and recommends that individual employers or educational establishments should make their own rules according to their needs. Fence sitting? We notice that Australia, Italy and France have made some actual decisions about when it is against the law to be veiled. This article shows veil bans by country, as at Sept 2013.

The bigger question for me, is…. why wear a face veil at all?  The Quran has no requirement that women cover their faces with a veil, or cover their bodies with the full-body burka. According to Wikipedia (must be true) many Muslims believe that the collected traditions of the life of Muhammed, require both men and women to ‘dress and behave modestly in public.’ That’s quite different to ‘must wear a face veil’. Hmmm. Furrowed brow. Chinese whispers over multiple decades? Or perhaps ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’? I found this article on the subject: “Does the Quran require women to wear the veil?”  The short answer is no. The long answer is no.

Anyhow, on entry into Doha, I notice that Qatar immigration does indeed have a booth with privacy glass around it – so, that’s how they have solved the problem. Qatar has a strict immigration process which includes photos on entry and exit, so it doesn’t surprise me that they have found a solution. I’ll watch next time I’m in other international airports, particularly more western ones, to see how (I mean if) they have a solution for this issue.


Photo: Omani dolls we found in the Muscat Souq


  1. Funnily enough I had exactly the same conversation with my parter on Saturday as we watched a woman wearing a full niqab with extremely dark sunglasses on walk through passport control at Delhi IGI without ever having to shows anyone here face.

  2. Found this really interesting. I am now voyeuristically (sp?) scouring the rest of your blog, when I really should be clearing up breakfast – sigh.

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