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. 

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I like mine with just a bit of bling…but not tooo much 🙂

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.

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Okay, it has sparkly silver bits on it… but it reminds me a bit of what a nun would wear.

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.

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The Euro version of being covered from head to toe – for me – looks something like this…. only my face was exposed in Prague because it was negative 4 most of the time!

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

© 2012

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Angela Carson

At 21 I left uni, jumped into my Jeep Wrangler, and drove from my native California to live an adventure in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. I've explored 32 countries on 4 continents, residing in 7 of them (currently Kuala Lumpur is my home). By day I'm a digital nomad and by night I'm a passionate storyteller. I even have a private pilot's license and was shot at once by bandits!
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23 Comments on “The Burka Experience – Understanding the Women Behind the Scarves

  1. I can’t wait to hear how you get on wearing it out. I have thought before, in a very superficial way, how nice it would be to have your hair covered up sometimes!

    • hahaha, I have had those exact same thoughts! Not having to “get cute” before leaving home would be soooo nice sometimes! Hope you are well xo

  2. Interesting! I also would like to try roaming round the city in this dress. I think it must be a completely new feeling and experience. Unfortunately I don’t have any muslim female friends who could assist me. Perhaps I should check out this boutique. Curious to hear about part 2.

    • I’m excited to hit the town too, I think there must be so many advantages to this form of dress code and I am looking forward to experiencing them first hand. Thanks so much for taking the time to share your thoughts! Really appreciate it… ange

  3. Hi Angela,

    I have been following your blogs and enjoy reading your interesting experiences in Bangalore. Great going Angela, I must say you have a very adventurous attitude towards everything you do. I am looking forward to reading about your experience of wearing a burka and walking down the streets. I pass through Frazer town quite often and have not seen the Islamic Boutique though I have seen the billboard, now I will make it a point to watch out for it. I have a lot of muslim friends who don’t wear the burka, but I have always wondered about the burka and where it is tailored, sold, etc., but never bothered to find out. Now I know. Thanks for the education.

    Khurshid

    • Hi Khurshid, it is really sweeet of you to comment and kind words 🙂 Hope you will continue to comment when something catches your eye on the blog! –angela

  4. I have an entire collection of ‘Muslimah’ attire. You name it, I have one from abayas to kaftans to niqabs. I like wearing them when I want to be ‘invisible’. (Which is most of the time outdoors in India) 😉

    • Hey Bibi, wild new gravatar pic by the way! So, do you really have a full collection? And do you really wear it more than once or twice a year? Please do tell! 🙂 xo

  5. Question. You lived in California. That is a really diverse place. How did you not meet Muslims living there? Also women brought up wearing conservative attire would not ever go out and say they didn’t like it, they are brainwashed to like it.

    • To answer your question, I have no idea. None of my close friends were Buddhists or Orthodox Jews or born again Christians either 🙂 And Muslim women are NOT BRAINWASHED, this is a narrow minded mentality typical with Americans and other western cultures. I was guilty of it before I educated myself on the issue, which is part of the reason I wrote the article 🙂

      • I am not saying that they are all brainwashed, but some are. I NEVER said they all were brainwashed. Where I live there is a large population of Muslims and Hindu’s. I am not Muslim but I am friends with lots of girls that are. Most of them do not cover their heads, but dress conservatively. The Muslim girls that wear bikini’s and short shorts, have lots of bf’s have ppl talk shit about them ALL them time. There is a difference between meeting a few women 4 a little while and being good friends with ppl of that religion. You said yourself, none of your friends were religious. BTW since I am mentioning where I am form so much, born in Texas, raised in the RTP (Research Triangle Park) area of North Carolina. Even though u feel that i am close minded I don’t think so. I live in diverse area’s of the South, but if you say I have a “bible belt southern girl” mentally you are correct. I am conservative, but surely not racists. I am not here to hate either, if I didn’t like the blog I wouldn’t read it.

        • Question: Have you lived in India? If not, how many times have you traveled here and which cities/villages? You’ll have to forgive me but your comments are often confusing because you seem to compare apples and oranges. My blog is about Bangalore and the life and people of India — viewed through the lenses of my own life. The Muslims you describe do not exist here. ((also to ensure people don’t misunderstand, maybe say “some women are brainwashed to like it” instead of “they are brainwashed to like it” so we know you don’t mean everyone). Also, I didn’t say “none of my friends were religious”, I said none of my friends were Buddhists, Orthodox Jews or born-again Christians…please do try not to put words in my mouth or make false accusations about my life or my faith — I’m happy to answer questions and be honest about it but don’t enjoy reading things about me that are not true. I didn’t say you have “southern girl bible belt mentality” I said that your comment that the idea of thinking that Muslim women in India are brainwashed is “a narrow minded mentality typical with Americans and other western cultures” and that I was guilty of it.

          Additionally, “I am not here to hate either, if I didn’t like the blog I wouldn’t read it.” is the VERY first kind words you have written to me/about my blog in ANY of your comments so it is difficult to – again – feel like you are adding to the topic at hand in a positive way, in this case ‘being a Muslim woman in Bangalore’.

      • You had said that in another comment. about me having that mentally.

        • Whereas your Bible-belt mentality seemed to play a role in your negative opinions of IPL cheerleaders, your hometown doesn’t factor into your views on wearing a burka in my opinion — it’s an American thing plain and simple, just like I stated and just like I said I also believed before moving here and doing my homework.

          I’d love it if you simply joined in and talked about the topic/subject at hand…burkas in Bangalore.

  6. Pingback: Bangalore Life: Killing Chickens and Home Delivery Fish With Flies « Angela's Adventures in Bangalore

    • Hi Ash, thanks for the link. Is the shop yours? I still haven’t walked around in a burka as research for the follow up article… would be happy to speak to you about coming in to the shop before I do 🙂 –angela

  7. Yups I agree with you Angela, “brain wash” is a wrong word. The culture & traditions grow on you if you follow them since your childhood. In many ways like food habits! We Indians are so used to spice & hot chillies, one cannot say we have been “brain washed” to eat them!! The same applies about ‘Hijab’, its a very strong Muslim tradition. Right or wrong is a different matter of discussion; but I don’t think you’d find many Muslim women complaining about it.

  8. There is one aspect i am interested in . Will you be eve teased in your
    burga.

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