It doesn't surprise me to see Muslim women in Oakland; I see the standard wrapped headscarf all the time. It did startle me, the other day, to see a woman walking along Telegraph Avenue wearing the full niqaab. This isn't the full-coverage Afghan burqa, but you've probably seen photos of Saudi women wearing something similar - full black, head to toe, except for a narrow slit over her eyes. She was pushing a double stroller and accompanied by a small boy, about 4 or 5 years old. Since I was driving a car, I didn't get a photo, but I did think about taking one.
On one level, it's her religion, and I defend her right to practice it. But on another level, the niqaab really gets to me. Islam as a religion imposes a great deal of physical modesty - men and women are both expected to keep themselves covered except in the presence of spouses. But you'll never see a Muslim man who covers his entire body except for his eyes; only women are expected to do that.
I don't know enough about Islam to evaluate the differences among the various requirements to cover the hair, or more; and I've read interviews in which Muslim women explain that covering themselves makes them comfortable, and if so, more power to them. But it bothers me. It disturbs me in a way I can't quite define, that has to do with personal empowerment, and equality, and the absence of choice.
It also disturbs me in a way I can define: concealment of identity and purpose. I don't really know whether that was a woman pushing that stroller. It was a human being wearing an all-enveloping black robe that revealed only the eyes. (I don't recall whether I could see the hands or not.) I assumed it was a woman because men don't wear the niqaab. But there've been cases in Afghanistan when male suicide bombers disguised themselves in burqas to get past checkpoints.