A Saudi Arabian student was left crying on the street after a bus driver refused to let her board because of her Muslim veil.
The Consulate-General of Saudi Arabia has written to the Government to complain about the incident, and another, two days earlier, when a driver for the same company told another woman to remove her veil.
NZ Bus said both drivers had been sent on counselling programmes – and had been found to be suffering from "maskophobia".
"Both drivers ... claim it's not religious ... but they genuinely have a phobia of people wearing masks, hence why we have not dismissed them," general manager Jon Calder said yesterday.
Sameer Aljabri, the husband of one of the women, said he would lodge an official complaint with the Human Rights Commission on behalf of his wife, whom he would not name. She had been travelling with the couple's one-year-old son in Auckland in May.
Dr Aljabri said the driver was opposed to her "full hijab" – a face veil with only the eyes exposed. The driver told her: "I do not want you on my bus but I have to serve you. Take off your face cover because I need to see your face."
The letter from the Saudi consulate to the Foreign Affairs and Trade Ministry said that, two days later, student Gawheer Saud Al Thaubity was left crying on a street in Auckland.
"As she stepped on to the crowded bus, the driver shouted, `Out!' She asked why and was told, `Because you cover your face'. He insisted that she get off the bus, then closed the door and drove off."
Labour ethnic affairs associate spokesman Ashraf Choudhary said he had spoken to the Saudi consul-general, who warned that such incidents could jeopardise New Zealand's ability to attract Muslim students.
Saudi students were worth about $300million a year to the economy, he said.
Dr Aljabri, who works at the Saudi Arabia Cultural Mission in Auckland, said the incident had affected his opinion of New Zealand, where he had lived for about seven months. "It feels like this country is at the end of the world and knows nothing about the rest of the world."
A Human Rights Commission spokesman said the incidents appeared to amount to discrimination on religious grounds.
There might be some cases in which it was acceptable to ask a Muslim woman to remove her veil, for example in court, "but certainly not for travel on a bus".
Mr Calder said NZ Bus had no policies on clothing.
One driver had completed counselling programmes, had visited a mosque and had apologised to Dr Aljabri's wife. The other was undergoing the same programme.
Both men had received final warnings and would be monitored, he said. Drivers were asked about mental disorders as part of a health check conducted before they were employed.
The Phobic Trust chief executive Marcia Read said people could be phobic of anything, and phobias could affect anyone at any time.
"I can't believe that anyone would make it up ... you'd have to be a small-minded lay person to think they're putting this on."
Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully said last night that the ministry's protocol division had dealt with the matter by discussing it with the consulate-general in May.
"It has not been necessary for me to intervene. I believe New Zealanders are tolerant and respectful of other cultures and these are isolated events.
"I would hope New Zealand is seen as a safe and welcoming place to live."
WHY WEAR A HIJAB?
Muslim women wear veils to protect themselves and hide their beauty, says the Religious Scholars of New Zealand chairman and Wellington Islamic Centre imam, Mohammad Amir.
Women had a range of veils to choose from, with a "minimum requirement" allowing a woman to expose her face and hands, and a "maximum requirement" in which she was covered from head to toe.
"This is an Islamic approach ... to protect the society and protect the dignity of the male and the female."
There were legitimate situations, such as appearing in court or for identification, in which women could be asked to remove their veils, but it had to be a "necessity" or it encroached on their rights. "It would be insulting if there was not any reason to remove the veil."
He believed New Zealand was a much more tolerant country than many European countries, and said the great majority of Kiwis saw cultural diversity as a positive thing. "You always find some funny people."
Porirua woman Adeeba Jabbar, who moved from Pakistan in 2009, said she wore her full hijab as it was in accordance with the will of Allah.
She had not had any problems wearing it, aside from people staring at her. However, she would have taken great insult if a bus driver had asked her to remove her hijab.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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