Experiencing A Mother’s Burqa

burqa1In the final week of Women’s History Month, I have decided to tackle a topic that has been on my mind for awhile. It is not so much a topic actually but rather an item of clothing. A few years back, my father returned from his time in Afghanistan with a gift. He brought his westernized, feminist, know it all daughter something extraordinary and like nothing I owned. He brought me a burqa. I want to share this burqa with you and try to respectfully encourage some awareness about the experience of wearing this article of clothing in a country very different from our own.

Truth be told, this is my second burqa. When I was a child, my father went to Afghanistan and brought me back a smaller burqa, one that actually fit on one of my Barbie’s perfectly. This burqa seemed part of another world, a piece of clothing I didn’t exactly understand but my Barbie wore from time to time while she went about her very important Barbie business.

While I was pregnant with my second child, my father brought me my second burqa. This time is was large enough for me to wear. I couldn‘t thank him enough, I was grateful to finally own one myself.

Why would that be?

First let me explain the burqa – or try to. The burka is worn by women in Afghanistan. Traditionally, it has been expected that women cover themselves entirely in a burqa whenever in public. It is said to be a matter of honor and one both men and women have upheld respectfully. And while this tradition has given way to western influences and fashion trends in recent years – perhaps with simple head coverings rather than a full length burqa – the Taliban do enforce the burka. In fact, in the eyes of the Taliban, it has meant a woman’s death if she doesn’t wear one in public. Regardless, enforced or not, women in provinces all over Afghanistan wear these coverings. (Please note that women cover themselves in many Islamic countries also, each garment having different names and social expectations.)

Are you a mother? If so, imagine yourself doing what you do: working, chasing down children, doing errands, cleaning, cooking, caring for your families entirely covered head to toe in a burka while in public. It is an awesome feat. Whether a cultural choice or not, I truly respect the women who wear them.

But you see this is all I understand about the burqa. I know what my father tells me and what I have read in books. So what do I really know or truly understand about its history or its meaning – positive or otherwise? I don’t. All that I do know now is what it feels like to wear one – and that has only been briefly.

(Oh yes, here I am. A privileged, American woman – annoyed when she has to wear a bra in public – and now I have a burqa and I want to see what its like. Groan. How condescending that sounds. But I don’t mean it that way. I am simply wanting to learn, to get it, to share this experience, if only for a moment.)

burqa2So I have tried on my burqa many times and here is what this western woman experienced. First of all, the burqa is hot. I guess they used to be made of more breathable cotton but newer ones are made with synthetic material so that they keep their color and their creases. And it is very hard to see through the burqa, but maybe I’m just not used to it. Also I initially thought my head was really big because the top of the burqa did not fit on my head well, it was constricting. After doing further research, I have learned this is typical for most women wearing one and it is not comfortable at all. And finally, its not at all easy to breathe in. There is no vent for the nose or mouth. I just can’t breathe in it for long. That’s why I always take it right off. I can’t breathe. I feel claustrophobic and closed in. So chasing children? Carrying food back from the store? I can’t imagine.

Now I am sure there are readers ready to discuss the matter of women’s repression in Afghanistan. And I am sure there are readers who feel offended by any lack of respect for the burqa and its place in Afghanistan tradition. While I certainly have my views, my post is not meant to judge the purpose behind the burqa. I am simply sharing the experience of a burqa, an experience many women have daily and I don’t. If you ever have the chance to try one on, please do if only to honor a woman’s lifestyle someplace far from our streets of Main Street, U.S.A.

burqa3And finally, a quick note. Do you know where I keep my burqa? It is kept in my closet, draped over the box which contains my carefully preserved wedding dress. It just seems fitting. After all, we too wear constricting garments which are expected of us. It’s just what women do here.

Cross posted at Type A Moms.

17 comments ↓

#1 Mary@Everyday Baby Steps on 03.28.09 at 5:51 am

Powerful experience, powerful post, and powerful insight and comparison. Wow.

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#2 Gail on 03.28.09 at 9:27 am

I also find the burka very uncomfortable to wear. A little history. The Muslim religion was founded in very dry, hot and windy countries. The sun is hot; the sand is constantly in the air. In fact most men also wear some type of scraf. Keeping sand out of the hair, mouth and eyes, the sun off the skin all make very good sense.

I have a good collection of scarves which I wear over my head when I visit Muslim countries. It keeps the hair out the eyes and clean.

In one country I lived, women used to come to my hair dresser covered and would leave very nicely dressed in a western style. My maid used to run out to get fresh bread in the morning from the local delievery man dressed in one over her PJs. And like school uniforms one can throw one on without thinking.

Some of the coverings are a lot more paractical then others and I find the Moraccan equilivent very elegant.

I think practical tradtion has been turned around to be a tool of the religious right to dominate women.

#3 NYCity Mama on 03.30.09 at 5:54 am

This actually made me sad, but I know it’s because I lack understanding as well. I applaud the woman whose life this is and they live it everyday, while raising their children, maintaining their homes, caring for their families. I know many who do it by choice. It just seems such a difficult thing to bear for no other reason than because you are a woman. But, that’s my Western influence taking over.

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#4 tcmom on 03.30.09 at 6:05 am

NYCity Mama, I hear you. I can’t help but feel that way also. And I think there are many women who don’t want to wear it. Regardless, if they want to or not, its worn often. And imagining my life – but with a burqa on – is a bit of a wake up call for me.

If this topic interests anyone here, I encourage you to read “A Thousand Splendid Suns”. You will learn so much about the life of a woman from Afghanistan. It is an excellent book, I couldn’t put it down!

#5 Marinka on 03.31.09 at 7:37 am

This is fascinating. I’ve thought about burqas, but more along the lines of shape-hiding-wear, like comfortable sweatpants.

I can’t imagine wearing it. Of course I also can’t imagine wearing a thing, so I’m an equal opportunity can’t imaginer.

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#6 Joy on 03.31.09 at 7:43 am

Thank you for sharing this insight with us. Personally I could never wear one myself without losing my noodles but this did help me gain even more respect for our fellow women who do. Women are strong, patient, and giving souls and it’s amazing to see how others of us live each day and how those attributes are tested.

Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

Thanks again.

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#7 Miss Britt on 04.03.09 at 11:40 am

I am so, so in awe of this post.

You are a truly remarkable woman and a gift to other women.

Thanks for sharing this.

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#8 Elaine on 04.06.09 at 5:39 pm

I have some Muslim friends who wear some less extreme types of coverings, and they all find it an empowering way to present themselves as mental and spiritual beings, and not as public sex objects. (I believe the original rule was to cover the hair, as a woman’s hair was considered in the culture to be one of her most alluring attributes)

Yeah, yeah, I’m not culturally used to the burqua, and I’m all too Western, and whatever other disclaimer I’m supposed to put on there…but, from what I understand of Muslim coverings, the burqua almost seems to have the OPPOSITE effect of the admirable intent many see in this requirement of Islam. A woman wearing a burqua seems dehumanized to so many. There is no visible sign that she is even human. There are no eyes, no face to convey emotion or thought…it seems like the woman in a burqua is easier to repress, abuse, or even execute because it is easier for her oppressors to think of her as a non-person.

I can understand my friend’s claim that she feels *more* respected in her chador because she has chosen to present herself in a way that actively keeps her sexuality off limits to the viewing public. Many faiths and cultures espouse “modesty” as not only an issue of purity, but also as a factor that maintains respect for women. But, the burqua, to me, is just that step to far…it is the step that declares that a woman’s humanity and her sexuality are so intertwined that the only options for a female are “sexually available to all” (just try to prosecute the rape of any woman, especially one out of a burqua) or “completely covered.”

I guess that I understand and respect the philosophy behind the “modest dress” requirements of many faiths and cultures, but have a problem when that extends to covering every inch of our bodies. I mean, dude. I know I’m totally hot and all, but do we really think that a glimpse of any part of my body at all is an allure not to be resisted? Please.

It would be nice if we could reconcile all of our nice liberal urges in to one multi-culti feminist package. But, the fact of the matter is, feminism is not about respecting existing cultures. Feminism is about challenging the patriarchy that’s inherent in existing cultures. It’s only fair to start at home…but, I don’t think you need to feel like some kind of entitled imperialist just because you are uncomfortable in a burqua. I’m glad you highlighted the practical discomforts that women in Afganistan live with every day…it’s not just a metaphor for a claustrophobic life. Its inconvenient, uncomfortable, and dehumanizing on a practical daily level.

Wow. That’s the most academic thing I’ve written in years. I feel I should balance it out by stating that your niece E drew a lovely picture of B.O.B. from “Monsters and Aliens,” and explained to me that “he looks like slippery boogies…the ones you tell me not to eat.” There. we’ve rebalanced.

#9 Becky on 04.22.09 at 3:02 pm

Wow. Great post. And I think I really like your father.

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#10 OntKid on 06.04.09 at 8:17 am

Thats intrigueing how they continue with such practices… (forgive me for lack of words) but it seems that they are being dehumanized and that they ARE being disrespected as ‘Objects’ instead of dignified humans. Of course I cannot comprehend why they continue to wear these clothings, but I do understand and respect their principle of covering their bodies, but does it really have to go so far as to trap them in a cage-like clothing. It seems to me that the ‘clothing’ they wear is a way men control women in the country. It kind upsets me that they sometimes do not choose to wear it but have to anyways cause it their “Culture” but isn’t culture suppose to allow a type of freedom ? Of course thats my thought on this but I can’t really say I’m not bias’ed either. (Sadly I wish I knew more but in this case limited knowledge isn’t so great to have).

#11 panxy on 08.07.09 at 4:14 am

I am not sure in which way a shuttlecock burqa is to be enjoyed, especially by the wearer.

The woman on whom it has had to be imposed is wearing it to demonstrate her fidelity to female honour, chastity, Islamic modesty, morality. She wears it with pride.

She complains that it is hot, and indeed it is hot here anyway; sometimes claustrophobic; that the head piece is tight (she has been told it is meant to be so it does not slip off); that she can see very little (how else would he face be hidden); and has become effectively invisible, a cipher of what she was before, and when she first had to put it on thought of it as a cloth prison.

I have said that by donning it she has demonstrated a dignified and proper behaviour, as sanctioned by all leading clerics, the Koran, and that it is not her fault she is a woman, but since she is, she should in silence and obedience surrender herself to the proper duties of her sex.

It is fortunate that she understands this duty.

But enjoy?

#12 dawne on 03.02.10 at 11:11 am

Guys the right thing to do is to read the Quran all your answers are in there you can read it online or at the library or ask a muslim they are not as bad as the media make them to be.

#13 Marie on 05.06.10 at 7:18 pm

Nowhere in Qur’an does it say to wear the burqa. All it says is that everyone, including men, must dress modestly.
I have learned that the burqa came about because certain men would try to watch Mohammed’s wives while they were bathing or taking care of business (to use discreet wording) and when it was brought to Mohammed’s attention he said they were to cover themselves during those times. Though that may not be correct and maybe he just said that they should be in a covered area away from leering men’s eyes.

So much of what Mohammed has said and what has been written in Qur’an has become mangled by those who wish to purport what they believe rather than was is true.
If one is taught from birth that there is to be pride when wearing burqa, then of course there will be that pride.
You seem to be confusing a form of brainwashing with actually Qur’anic teaching.
Even just the head scarf came about when the women saw the icons of the Mother Mary and thought the look was becoming. It was only a fashion statement that has become like a law.
In Islam, there are to be no symbols offering what it stands for and yet when the women wear such things they are doing so. They are missing a cross or Star of David and are wanting of some kind of symbol. So they turn to hajib or burqa. But this is really against teaching.
Now these things are used to subjugate the women and make them into nothing which is very much the mindset of the men in power of those countries.

#14 Mie on 09.24.10 at 11:57 am

This was sincerely insightful. I’ve been trying to understand Afghanistan tradition lately. I hold some feministic views and this helped me to realize that maybe the women in that culture find honor in wearing that article of clothing.

#15 PinkMuslimah on 10.15.11 at 8:18 am

Thank you so much for your detailled description! It’s very helpful. I hadn’t known previously that the Afghani styled burqa was so tight on the head.

And a million thank you’s for that photo from inside the burqa. I wonder if we so more from the Arab-styled ones.

When I am covering my face, I really prefer those three-layer pieces that are sold in the Arab world. I can generally breathe through them, they don’t make me feel terribly hot (though peppermint chewing gum is an absolute blessing), and they tend to let air through better.

#16 PinkMuslimah on 10.15.11 at 8:21 am

see more, not so more

#17 Jeany Rios on 11.27.11 at 4:52 pm

I live in New York City and I loath winter clothing. I make it a point to have a full written plan before I leave home to run errands. What ever in the list that does not get done it will have to wait for the next day, because the minute I walk through the door I disrobe and I will not set foot out side again until the next day. Therefore I cannot imagine having to ware a burqa. My total respect goes to the women I see walking in my neighborhood with their full burqa by choice. And my heart goes out to the women who have to ware a burqa from a very young age and do not have a choice to do otherwise because of the country they live in.

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