My curiosity to try wearing the most conservative Muslim, black Burqa drapery in California overcame my dread that I would be found out by a Muslim who might eagerly approach me as any of us might do when we find “our kind” in a foreign land. I was fearful of offending, or appearing to make light of a serious cultural tradition. It took an immense amount of courage to overcome my trepidation. But at last I decided to just go for it. Logically speaking no one would even know who I was anyway even if they approached me. But clearly physical invisibility does not give free reign to moral laxity.
I recall first being introduced to the religious tradition years ago in the Versailles gardens outside Paris when I saw a group of black-veiled women, with only their eyes peering out of narrow slits. I remember being both fascinated and repulsed by something so foreign to my awareness and so contrary to my perceptions of what equality and freedom means.
More recently I returned from Turkey just a few months ago. Intrigued with anything that starkly contrasts my own experience of life, I asked my Turkish host to take me to the most conservative neighborhood in Istanbul. There I saw groups of black-clad women wandering amongst themselves or with children in tow along the Bosphorus. I remember a sinking sense of both fascination and repugnance with an aftermath of wondering. Could these women really be educated? If those veils were removed would I see some psychologically stunted version of womanhood? Despite logic that told me otherwise, the visual prompted such a weighty emotional response, that I almost persuaded myself to think they somehow couldn’t quite be fully human, that the symbolic and literal limits the burqa puts on the wide range of human experience must thwart their psychological development.
On the flight home from Turkey my mom and I had the good fortune of sitting next to a burqa-clad woman. We observed her interactions with the world through just slits in her eyes. Underneath the multi-layered black drapery, we noticed her hands and arms were covered in long black gloves. Her children and husband sat around her. When she ate she lifted the veil slightly and maneuvered food underneath toward her mouth. She was very attentive to her children, catering to their every need.
We stepped through the thick barriers that such attire raises and initiated conversation. She spoke perfect English. We could hear her personality. She was on a plane for the first time, coming from Egypt to live in St. Louis with her husband who was beginning his medical residency. She was worried about being away from her parents for so long. She had never been away from her family for more than a few weeks at a time. We learned she held a Masters in Engineering. Just one simple conversation on an airplane did so much to break through our emotionally charged reactions that had within seconds of seeing burqa-clad women for the first time, built up in our educated and worldly minds potentially deep barriers to connecting.
Now back in the US, I wanted to try wearing the burqa that I had purchased for several reasons. I trusted that sensory engagement could inspire fresh insights and perspective that would move me beyond my initial shock, fascination, and narrow-minded reactions. I wanted to move into deeper understanding of what it is like to wear the veil in an environment where the veil is not naturally understood.
I also wanted to experience as a newcomer to the burqa-wearing tradition what it’s like to put on a full-bodied shroud for the very first time. I wanted to know what it feels like to be made invisible to the public – to be severely limited in expressing gratitude, irritation, pleasure, frustration and the thousands of subtle emotions we express every second non-verbally.
I made no pretensions toward an outcome that would leave me with deep knowledge about the burqa wearing tradition and the experience of Muslim women who veil – an outcome which would only come from engaging a range of Muslim perspectives and scholarship.
So I went to Trader Joe’s in my burqa. The emotional preparation took far more energy and time than the 15 minutes spent shopping. I found myself laughing from nervous energy as I walked through the store, but fortunately the burqa provides very nice comfort and protection – a real shelter at times, I imagine, for introverts like me.
The reactions of most shoppers were controlled and contained. They were politely reserved, many seeming unfazed by this menacing dark figure crossing their path. Perhaps cultural norms to mask anything that could reveal a true expression of our feelings have effectively trained spontaneity out of our faces. Or perhaps we are well accustomed to the bizarre. Some people, though, were unable to easily control their reactions. I noticed their startled faces when they looked up, followed by a quick return to composure and then a stoic expression perceptively different from the casual passerby strolling unaware. Only when I scanned the room did I witness shoppers with childlike curiosity stealing glances from a distance. Perhaps a foreigner visiting the US for the first time might surmise that Americans only become congruent with their emotions from a distance. Americans would probably call themselves polite.
Wearing the burqa was like entering into a video game where, without peripheral vision and context, all I could see were figures coming my way. Was my experience of these startled-turned-stoic expressions in front of me reflective of what it is like for minorities whose differences may threaten comfort zones? For the disabled? For the homeless? What would it be like to always see looks of surprise or disturbance followed by containment?
The man in the checkout line behind me seemed particularly fascinated. I couldn’t read his expression, whether he was disgusted or enthralled, and whether this was the first time in his life he had seen such attire. The checkout lady handled me nonchalantly, beginning with a cheery “Hello. How are you?” and ending with a “Good bye, dear.”
A month later I gathered the courage to wear my burqa again. My mother agreed to accompany me and serve as an additional observer unhampered by limits to her peripheral vision. We visited the Christmas display in downtown San Jose. The central square was filled with animated elves, dancing reindeer, tinsel covered trees and strolling families, some ice-skating under the palm encircled outdoor arena. We sat on a bench to take in the sights and secretly observe reactions to our presence. Before long we noticed the police. One stood nearby, talking intently on his radio and two more passed separately in front of us. Given that the police do not normally enter into our daily reality, my mother briefly wondered if they were purposefully remaining close to us. Next we returned to the parking garage and our car to get money for drinks at the upscale Fairmont hotel. As we left the elevator and walked toward our car, I recall a security attendant dashing out of the next elevator with unusual vim into the vacant parking garage. Was I overreacting or was he following us?
The lounge of the Fairmont hotel was elegantly decorated with several Christmas trees and beautifully dressed couples. My amiable mother navigated through the crowded room with her daughter looking like Darth Vader, to find a place to sit. We perused the drink list and I secretly worried what an attentive and knowledgeable observer of this conservative Muslim attire might wonder about a Burqa-clad woman, with stylish shoes and bare hands, consuming alcohol.
I had not, though, expected our waitress to return after initially taking our orders and ask both of us for our identification. I had forgotten the obvious ramifications of being invisible to the public, but I didn’t understand the need for my sixty-nine year old mother to show her ID. Our waitress quickly caught herself, and clarified that just my ID would be needed. I settled on a hot chocolate instead and she went away.
Moments later I glanced up and saw two police standing fifteen feet in front of us. I’m fairly sure the cocktail lounge of the elegant Fairmont is not a repository for wayward police. Suddenly the picture came together…the policeman at the corner talking on his radio as we sat on the park bench, the additional policemen strolling by, the parking security attendant who dashed out after us onto the empty floor of the parking garage, and the sudden appearance of two policemen standing in the Fairmont lobby. Even though they stood in front of us they were discreet, never appearing to direct their attention toward us. When it came time to pay, I was shocked to see one of the policemen approach the waitress and talk to her. Suddenly, the dawning realization of both my innocence and powerlessness hit me. Had the parking attendant already relayed my mother’s license plate and was the policeman trying to get a name on a credit card? Fortunately, I had paid in cash.
I wondered what information they would record about my mother. I was already envisioning a security alert: Anne Hamilton seen in public escorting unknown person wearing a burqa. Would they be knowledgeable enough to add: Suspicious behavior for stylish shoes, bare hands, and alcoholic tendencies? Would the database immediately link Anne to her recent trip to Turkey? What might they then surmise? Anne is friendly and brought back a burqa-clad Turk?
What would this have meant if my mother had a criminal record and the police had discovered this through her license plate? What would this have meant if my companion had been an Iranian man wearing a turban or a black man? But my mother, Caucasian, well-dressed, “normal” to American standards, may have done a lot to defuse the situation. She laughed and joked with me, pausing now and then to smile at concerned looking strangers who threw furtive glances our way. I was also aware that I could regain my power and instill confidence in the police by simply ripping off my burqa and showing the world that I too was “normal” – not a luxury that minorities in power struggles with the police have. Was this heightened sensitivity to my surroundings and to the police in front of us, what it is like to be among a group of people who bare no resemblance to you? Was I paranoid and over-reacting?
My friends later told me that they too would have been concerned, frightened even to be near me in public, and grateful for the police presence. They pointed out that I could have been a terrorist. Their concern is understandable. Without exposure to alternative ways of being in the world, that which we are not familiar with tends to prompt fear and distrust. Take, for example, the Sikhs who responded to the escalating phobia toward their community after 9/11, by taking out full page ads in the New York Times to indicate that the turban’s religious significance was not associated with the Taliban. Or personally, prior to my trip to Turkey I fielded questions about whether the country was safe. Prior to my visit to Thailand someone asked me why on earth I would go there. Prior to my visit to Peru, my friend indicated fear that I may not come back alive. She pointed out, “It’s a third world country, you know..,” letting her words trail with the implication that a direct correlation exists between violence and lack of development. Funny comment, given that homicides are the 15th leading cause of deaths in the United States according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (1).
When my relative learned of the project, she rolled her eyes and responded “That’s just weird.” Is it really weird to want to understand human experiences different from our own? Is it weird to want to build cultural bridges by expanding awareness and understanding? Or was the concept of wearing the “burqa” in the United States just so downright crazy to my relative that she couldn’t even see beyond those initial gut reactions that paralyze the potential for any real learning? I knew that if I was going to move beyond my own knee-jerk response to the attire and be able to judge something that I presently had no familiarity with, I would have to compliment my experiment with an understanding of the complex tradition to veiling.
Interestingly, veiling did not begin with Muslims. In fact, when Islam developed in the 7th century, Greco-Roman, Judaic, Persian, Byzantine, and Balkan cultures were already accustomed to veiling. According to the sociologist, Ashraf Zahedi, “Early Muslims adopted veiling as a result of their exposure to the culture of societies they conquered” (2). One such community that modeled the veil for conquering Muslims were Christians. Interestingly, only until after Vatican II closed in 1965 did the veil start to disappear from Europe.
The veil seems to always have been associated with female modesty. According to 1 Corinthians 11:5 and 7, every woman who prays “with her head uncovered dishonors her head.” Today, advocates of veiling will speak to the objectification of women and point out that women who are covered are valued for who they are rather than how they appear.
It is impossible to make sweeping statements about the tradition of veiling when it is so deeply intertwined with the political tenor of the times. Yet it seems to be in our nature to paint broad strokes of generalization, to distill complexity into simplified clarity. We find comfort in creating categories out of experience by lumping people with certain characteristics together. How many of us might unconsciously fill in the blank to any of these statements: All of the Middle East is…All Muslims are… Women in burqas must be…
With a more careful review of Muslim countries, we see the diversity of opinions toward female attire over the last century. Take Iran, for example, where women today suffer police raids on “immodest attire,” (which could include anything from sporting toe nail polish to allowing a few strands of hair to escape their headscarves). Yet the veil had once been abolished in Iran by Reza Shah in 1936 in a public affirmation of western influence (3). Or take Turkey today, in contrast to Iran, in which women in government and public education are banned from concealing their hair. Much to the chagrin of Turkey’s secular establishment, the wives of the president and prime minister both cover their heads, including an estimated two thirds of the female Turkish population (4). The wives of these government official are barred from entering many state institutions.
While I will never believe in the value of this most conservative of all veiled attires around the world, I experience it differently now that I have worn it multiple times. I continue to be nervous at the outset of every burqa-clad excursion, but each venture out into the world has also become slightly easier. I now know what sort of reactions to expect in the California Bay Area. Once in awhile I get a comment like “holy shit, that creeps me out” from someone too shocked to be discreet. I realize that while I had a similar reaction the first time I saw this attire in Turkey, my growing familiarity with wearing the burqa and the tradition helped cut through the initial gut-wrenching reactions I once had.
I am now more aware of the person behind the veil, with powers of observation like the rest of us, to see stares and hear comments. There is a woman who may be well educated. There is a woman who shares the same human interests in family, work, and friends that all of us do. There is a woman whose behavior was influenced by her culture – just like the rest of us – before she learned to walk. There is a woman who learned early on that women share their personalities in the private space of their homes, when the public attire is removed. There is a woman for whom wearing the burqa is as comfortable and normal to her as wearing tight jeans and a tank top is to her American counterpart. There is also a woman whose individual preference and voice is lost amid the political dogma of her country.
Growth in my own perspective and understanding does not negate critique. When we peel back the layers of culturally ingrained attitudes, we may shudder to realize that we are facing two sides of the same coin. Who is being oppressed? The burqa-clad woman in Saudi Arabia or the eleven year old American girl stripped bare by the influences of popular media, sporting shorts and a tank top that flaunt a body not yet developed? What cultural layers must we peel away as a society to see the impact that objectifying our young girls has on their self-worth and identity? Perhaps our own cultural pathologies could be raised to light by figuratively donning “foreign attire” and stepping into the other’s shoes.
Stepping into the “foreign” startles our senses out of hibernation. Alertness of being chips away at our habits of perceiving. Dogmatic thinking erodes. Letting ourselves step aside in order to be touched by a new experience is a simple learning we must repeatedly learn anew through patience, curiosity, and openness.
Yet, all too quickly the insights that develop when we are touched stagnate into socially approved jargon, and fresh meaning is lost. Habits form. Sweeping cliches spread. Learning that is deeply personal can’t be plastered onto a society like billboard branding promoting “diversity awareness.” When we pave fresh insights about “diversity” into stone we risk shutting down learning by labeling others as “judgmental.” Any real learning must begin by acknowledging our genuine reactions and then finding within us the curious child who lets his openness, alertness, and presence guide him in discovery.
1 “United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Homicide Stats. http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/data-and-analysis/homicide.html
2 & 3 Zahedi, Ashraf. September 2007. “Contested Meaning of the Veil and Political Ideologies of Iranian Regimes.” Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies. Vol. 3, Issue 3. P. 75
4 “The Islamic Veil Across Europe.” BBC. Sept. 22, 2011. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-13038095