I’m off on holidays very soon to Iran. When I tell people this it has been pretty much the same response -why Iran? To understand the turmoil in the world today I think you need to have a deeper appreciation of religious tension. To understand the complexity of the conflict in Syria, or the ‘below the radar’ horrors of Yemen you need an appreciation of the schism that is Sunni versus Shia. Whereas the world’s Muslim population is around 85% Sunni, Iran is 95% Shia.
Given its location along the silk road between East and West, Iran (Persia) has been at the centre of the development of civilisation. As a result Iran is generously endowed with UN World Heritage sites, in fact more per capita than any other country. Its historical religious connections are immense including the early foundations of Christianity, the Ishmalis and the pre-Christian ancient religion of Zoroastrianism. I found myself with a connection to the Ishmalis who were protection by much feared assassins. I once considered working for the Aga Khan Network (the spiritual leader of the Ishmalis) in Kenya.
What perhaps has perturbed people most about my upcoming trip is the fact that my travelling partner, my wife, will have to wear certain dress particularly head covering. These discussions were a not infrequent topic in the lunch room when our Queensland Senator, Pauline Hanson, the leader of the One Nation political party, decided to make a point and wore a burqa into the Senate. As you might expect this sparked off a whole debate about whether women should be allowed to wear this full face covering in public.
At times people have commented to me that my wife should not have to be subjected to wearing the burqa and they wouldn’t travel under such circumstances. Actually my wife will not be wearing a burqa she will wear, when necessary, a hijab. Different thing altogether. The clothing of Muslim women appears to be such a polarising aspect in society. In fact if you think about it there is a much greater emphasis on female clothing than men’s the whole world over. In recent days Labour (and opposition) leader running in the New Zealand national election has been asked what ‘outfit’ (clothes) she will be wearing in a to be televised debate with the Prime Minister. To further illustrate my point Channel 9 morning TV host Karl Stefanovic wore the same suit for a year without fail and it wasn’t commented on once. His female colleague Lisa Wilkinson continues to endure comments about what she is wearing on a regular basis.
While comments about women’s attire might be ubiquitous there are undertones to comments made about the clothing worn by Muslim women that don’t exist outside of this religious community. What should be widely understood, but clearly isn’t, is that the dress reflects local customs and culture much more than religious dictates. I think it is beholden on managers to be across the nuances of such things as part of what I would describe as their Cultural Quotient. Good managers are aware of cultural mores especially when they have an ethnically diverse workforce.
My blogs are primarily aimed to provoke reflection not preach/teach but on this topic it might be worth just re-stating some of the issues of female attire worn by Muslim women to inform the debate around the water cooler. The birthplace of Islam is Saudi Arabia and those who most strictly interpret the Quran are the Wahabis (who strictly speaking are a minority but influential sect of Islam). They see their role as purifying the religion and have a very austere approach to matters of life and worship. This is perhaps understandable given it took root amongst desert dwelling Bedouin. The life of the Bedouin is, by its very nature, an austere one and where women’s garb has a certain practicality outside of its religious undertones. So the first learning point is that dress for women is based on geography and culture more than just a literal reading of the Quran or Haddiths. Put simply, because I am neither a Muslim nor an Islamic scholar, the Quran requires a woman to cover her head and bosom. Contention remains over the degree of covering and different countries and cultures have different customs. One thing is clear – not all dress is the same.
When Pauline Hanson of the One Nation Party wore the burqa into the Senate she was not making a point with respect to all Muslim women, but primarily those who hail from Afghanistan. The list below, while not exhaustive gives a flavor of the diversity of dress worn within the Muslim world.
Arabian peninsular – Abaya which is black and involves covering from head to toe. The head covering component is often a shayla. At one end there is a small opening for the eyes and gloves may be worn (black) to hide the flesh. At the other end of the spectrum the head is covered by a separate veil showing quite a bit of hair and wrapped loosely underneath the neck, full face showing. In my experience both extremes and everything in between exist in Saudi Arabia with no real issue. If you think the abaya doesn’t afford much in the way of fashion license for Arab women Google ‘Dubai Style Abaya’.
Persia – Chador which is more like a house coat held together by the hands in black or other colour. Quite often it reveals brightly colored ‘western’ clothing including jeans underneath. The degree to which the hair is covered varies greatly. The face is almost always visible. A hijab which is a scarf that covers the hair may also be worn rather than a scarf.
Afghanistan – Burqa which is from head to toe with a mesh panel to enable some vision. It is generally blue but can be black. No face is seen.
Jordan – Kaftans often have detailed embroidery on the neck sleeve and hem. The headscarf associated with this is the asba which is cloth wrapped around the head like a wheel then draped in a decorative fashion.
Palestine – A heavily embroidered cross-stitched material is worn by Palestinian women. The complexity and structure of the embroidery will vary depending on the town or village from which the person comes.
Turkey – Jilbab which is like an overcoat buttoned down the middle. They can be quite snug fitting showing a sense of style. A silk scarf tied beneath the chin is quite often the head covering of choice.
Indonesia/Malaysia – Dupatta which is a long scarf draped across the head and shoulders often paired with matching garments.
Morocco – Jalabiya is a robe with a pointed hood often has a belt, or string enabling shape to be given to the garment.
There’s lots more too, with variations within regions and between countries. It’s a rich tapestry and funnily enough tapestry is often involved!
The final thing to remember is that modest dress and head covering is not the preserve of Muslim women. In fact were you to visit areas in Pennsylvania in the US you would encounter Amish women wearing quite severe head-covering bonnets. Mennonite women, Catholic nuns, Irish and Spanish Catholic women, orthodox Jewish women, Sikhs, Hindus, Taoist and Buddhist nuns and Eastern orthodox women, for example, all wear some form of head covering.
The key issue is whether the woman wearing their particular dress and/or head covering is comfortable doing so and whether we can park our conscious or unconscious bias for long enough to interact with them in an authentic, equitable and compassionate way. Knowing the cultural nuances of your workplace and community, and appreciating the richness that diversity imparts, is a necessary part of our managerial and leadership toolkit. It’s also a great elevator answer for why I’m heading to Iran in a few days’ time.