The Burka Experience – Understanding the Women Behind the Scarves
From the time I was a kid until into my early 20s, there were moments when I spent more hours of the day in my bikini than dressed in clothes. From L.A. to Puerto Vallarta to San Diego and Barcelona, my homes have always been close to an ocean or the sea (so…bikini, bikini, bikini). On top of that, Dad had a boat and we spent lots of time at the Colorado River when I was small and then I bought a jet ski during uni so my girlfriends and I went camping at the river every other weekend. The fact that I come from and have only lived in cities where people enjoy showing skin and showing off their bodies has made moving to Bangalore quite interesting. This is neither right or wrong nor good or bad…it’s just different. This shift from living in the land of bikinis and bare skin to covering up as much skin as possible is the foundation for my outright fascination with the conservative dress of the women in India.
Every day, more often than not, one of the first sights I see when I look out from my balcony in the morning is a woman in a burka. Since we live just a stone’s throw away from the famous mosque on Mosque Road in Frazer Town, there is always a Muslim woman within eyeshot either running errands or a group of women power-walking in trainers around the park we live on…many covered from head to toe with only their eyes and hands exposed.
In the past I had only seen traditional Muslim women at airports during transit or while on holiday in Morocco, Tunisia or Turkey. I hadn’t had the opportunity to make friends with or work alongside traditional Muslim women before moving here to Bangalore and I’m so fortunate that my world is opening up for me in these ways that I never imagined. In my normal everyday life I can go for days without seeing another white face, so it is understandable that seeing such a large number of Muslim women on a daily basis has made me more and more curious about the hijab or burka and the role it plays in their day-to-day routine.
So I decided to stop wondering and start investigating.
In prepping for this post, the first step I took was asking a Muslim coworker if she would accompany me to a local boutique for a little shopping so I could touch and feel and wear some traditional clothing. I also interviewed a half a dozen young women, all of whom were very adamant about not wanting to be photographed or be named. Everyone I interviewed wears a burka whenever outside of the home or private surroundings.
Fortunately, there is a wonderful shop just down the street in Frazer Town called Islamic Boutique that agreed to let me snap photos and assist me and my coworker with my shopping quest. After being asked to leave our shoes at the door, the first thing I noticed when I walked in was the sweet smell of incense so common in the nicer boutiques here. Like any good boutique, they really do have something for everyone there too…I even found something my daughter really wanted because aside from the clothes they also sells accessories, makeup and perfumes. Islamic Boutique has various locations in Bangalore and they won my (marketing) heart when I realized they have a website and even cooler than that they produced a jazzy promotional video that’s housed on YouTube.
Like any fashion style or piece of clothing, there are innumerable variations of what we westerners generally refer to as a burka – but I was told here is more commonly referred to as the hijab (overdress + headscarf). The abaya is the loose-fitting overdress that is worn from shoulders to wrist and ankles and it comes in everything from a simple cut to some really bling-bling fashion designs. The first one I tried on came from the bling-bling category (Rs. 22,000 / $435 USD) and had multiple layers of fabric, embellishments and beading around the draped neckline and cuffs and even a textured lining.
I have to admit that, although the first one I tried on was ornate and well-made, my first reaction when I saw myself in the mirror was that I looked like a real fatty. I’m not used to seeing myself wearing such loose-fitting clothes and this one had a sort of complicated design to it with its swooping neck and layers. I know the whole idea of the abaya is to remove the semblance of curves and shape from the body but this style wasn’t really for me.
After that I tried on a couple of simpler designs and found a lovely, simple abaya that got the job done without making me feel like a whale. The abaya is typically sold with a matching head scarf that requires just one strategically placed pin to keep it in place and cover the hair completely, which is the absolute most important part of the dress code for Muslim women. The shop girls and the coworker I had with me were obviously experts at this so they wrapped and pinned me and it was an amazing transformation. I didn’t really recognise myself when I looked in the mirror.
The only time I can remember being cloaked in black from head to foot with only my face showing for any length of time was when my daughter and I went to Prague for 10 days a couple of years ago and it was below zero the entire trip so I was never without a hat. But even then there was a bit of blonde hair sticking out from beyond my hat so it really isn’t even the same. And although I had on gloves and boots, the Euro version still highlights the shape of the body which is obviously prohibited here.
The traditional head scarf measures 70×200 cms and comes in every colour imaginable, with dozens and dozens of stunning pins on sale to secure and adorn them. There are simple ‘sewing’ style pins or ornate versions that ranged from simple elegance to ‘hey look at me’ styles that were absolutely enormous and had to be heavy as hell. The fabrics also vary, from silk to cotton and linen. There are also ready-made head scarves that just slip on, with a veil that can be worn over the face or pushed back when not needed. I tried on one of the ready-made versions that was pink and blue and it seriously made me look like a new-born baby in a cartoon. My favourite was a white and silver version that made me look a bit like a nun, something I wasn’t prepared for let me tell you!
The girls who I spoke to refer to the hijab as the dress code for women. They pointed out the men also have one but admitted that the women have a more complex dress code. As my coworker said, “the dress code should not be that attractive, it should be simple and never reveal the body shape, only the hands and face may be shown.” Under their ‘dress code’ they wear normal clothes, which for my coworker is either the churida or salwar kameez. She changes out of and into her burka when she enters or exits the building at work.
I’d really like to go for a stroll around Frazer Town with a couple of my lovely Muslim neighbours so I can truly understand what it feels like to wear one. The experience of wearing a sari has been so unique, I really do want to experience this part of my new world as well. Honestly, I have yet to hear even one small negative comment about the hijab or burka from the women I have interviewed. They have shared some funny stories about everything from fashion disasters to playing sports in a burka. I look forward to sharing their thoughts and writing about my adventures in Muslim fashion some day. I’m a firm believer in ‘don’t knock it ‘til you try it’ so I’m going to try it!
NOTE: I would like to be very clear that I am not researching religion or any aspect of women’s rights nor do I wish to enter into those issues (please respect that and do not comment on those topics either). As a woman, I’m curious about the burka. Period.
~ Angela Carson