This fantastic essay by Dr. Nervana Mahmoud, “The Right to Not Wear a Burkini”, encapsulates how I feel about the burqa. One can be opposed to the ban on the burkini in France and still not support the burqa because quite frankly, it is forced on more women than the ones who “choose” it. And I fully agree with Mahmoud when she writes, “If the advocates of the burkini are really genuine in their call for freedom of choice, they should confront the emotional bullying that links women’s bodies with honor.”
I grew up in Pakistan seeing my female relatives, aunts and great-aunts, suffocating under the burqa and behind pardah, the strict system of segregation that pious Muslim women live under, not leaving the house for anything but an emergency, and if doing so, accompanied only by a male family member; not meeting anyone but a male family member in the house. It astonishes me today that anyone would “choose” this way of life. Too many of us from countries like Pakistan spend our lives clawing our way out of this system. Too many of us from countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan spend our lives living lives of restriction and unfulfilled potential because of it. It’s safe to say I am not a fan.
Yet today I saw walking down the street two women, one covered face head and toe, and one wearing a burqa that didn’t cover her face. And they were walking with a young man who I assume was a brother. And they were all doubled up in laughter at something the brother was saying. I could even tell the completely covered woman was shaking with laughter even though I couldn’t see her expression. Such is the power of the human body that even covering it can’t hide its truth and its beauty.
I come across women wearing burqas and niqabs, the face-veil, frequently in my life in Karachi. Do you know what I like to do when I see a woman dressed like this? I look her right in the eyes. I can do this, because I am a woman. And I smile as warmly as I can. She will always smile back at me. I can tell she’s doing this because of the slight crinkling of her eyebrows, and the warmth that suffuses her eyes.
After that brief moment of friendliness, I move on with my life and she moves on with hers. We have connected in our humanity, and our womanhood, and that is important to me. I don’t wonder whether she judges me for being less covered than her, and I don’t judge her for being more covered than me. She is a human, she is struggling with her issues, and I’m struggling with mine. I want every woman, in a burqa or otherwise, to think of me as “saya”, a wonderful word in Urdu meaning shade, or shelter, from a hot sun, usually.
I want her to think of me as her friend, and she as mine.