It is not uncommon to see an accused person being led out of court or out of a paddy wagon with their face covered. It could be a rolled up t-shirt or a cardigan loosely draped over one’s face.
Regardless of whether an accused is eventually found innocent, a photograph in a newspaper or a glimpse on a TV screen can condemn an accused to life imprisonment by the court of public opinion.
It is little wonder, therefore, that Australian model Michelle Leslie chose to cover her face when appearing in public. Yet rumours concerning her motivation reveal a disturbing undercurrent of ignorance and prejudice of the type that recently led 2 Liberal backbenchers to call for a reversal of 30 years of legislative human rights consensus.
Has Michelle Leslie converted to Islam? Is her adoption of a “burqa” a reflection of a conversion on the road to Denpasar? Is she trying to get out of life imprisonment? Or is she perhaps attempting to escape the firing squad?
A few points need to be remembered. Indonesia may be the largest Muslim country in the world. But Bali is a Hindu-majority island.
Indonesian Muslims and Hindus traditionally cover their hair with a tudung. This is a piece of cloth also commonly worn in Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. It has only incidental relevance to religious faith.
Many Indonesian Muslim women do not cover their hair. And hardly any would wear a black “burqa” as worn more commonly in Saudi Arabia. Indonesian Islam tends to be far more liberal when it comes to relations between the sexes. It is not uncommon to see unmarried Indonesian couples openly dating and holding hands in public.
Of course, there is a minority interpretation of Islam which encourages women to cover their face. If indeed Ms Leslie has adopted Islam, she may be following this interpretation on the issue of covering her hair.
But is religious conversion such a big deal? After all, Schapelle Corby is known to have adopted Christianity during her detention. It has been reported that she regularly attends church services in prison. Her conversion raised few eyebrows in Australia or Indonesia.
Indeed, the chief judge who sentenced Ms Corby (and who will more than likely hear the Leslie trial) is a Christian who said he could sleep soundly at night after delivering the harsh sentence.
The media frenzy surrounding Leslie’s dress must prove unhelpful to her lawyers. Religion is a sensitive issue in Indonesia at the best of times. Yet some newspapers are making a huge issue of Leslie’s “burqa”, perhaps for the same base reasons that Mrs Bishop described supporters of hijabs as akin to Nazis.
Following the Corby trial, many Australians were dismayed when a parcel containing suspicious white powder was delivered to the Indonesian Embassy in Canberra. The incident, perhaps a direct result of irresponsible media storm, proved exceedingly embarrassing to the Australian government. Even more embarrassing were calls made by some Australians for the government to seek a refund of tsunami-related aid.
The frenzy did Ms Corby’s cause no good. The current frenzy over Ms Leslie’s head dress does her cause no good either. Some Australian media outlets should decide whether they wish to compromise the life of an Australian citizen simply because of her alleged conversion to an undesirable religion.
But worse still, the reactions and comments regarding Ms Leslie’s alleged conversion and dress must be exceptionally distressing to her family. It is hard enough knowing that your daughter or sister could face the firing squad. To then see her dress and presumed choice of religion being lampooned only serves to multiply the trauma.
Australian media outlets should display a far greater degree of sensitivity in how they report such matters. They should remember that selling newspapers and generating advertising revenue are not as important as ensuring the life and liberty of a citizen. In the long run, throwing cheap shots at an accused person’s dress does little to improve our image amongst our neighbours.
Just as we would not like Indonesians to stereotype our culture, we should not stereotype what we presume to be their religion.
© Irfan Yusuf 2005