Westerner Wears Burka for Week and Then Tells Tale

Published August 12th, 2018 - 11:12 GMT

No one tried to post a letter in me. When I went into a NatWest, no one pushed an emergency button, thinking I was about to stick ’em up.

My main worry, when a few years ago I spent a week wearing a full burka, with only a small gap in the fabric allowing me to see and breathe, was whether or not some wag might toss me in the air and try to hit me over a net, so closely did I resemble a slow-moving shuttlecock.

And today, at the end of a week when a few metres of black fabric has again been the subject of hot debate, its place in a liberal society batted back and forth by men and women who (mostly) have never worn the damn thing, I thought a reminder of what it feels like inside those folds might be apt.



I remember during my week catching sight of my reflection in a shop window in Knightsbridge. Instead of seeing me, I saw a woman who was hunched and shuffling. A dark, depressed alien. A smudge. A nothing.

I’ve long felt antagonistic towards women who wear the burka. I would see a woman on the streets of London, a black crow at the side of a husband or male relative, and I’d roll my eyes and tut loudly. I put the rights of women and girls to dress as they please before the rights of people of any particular faith. How dare you demean yourself in this way, I would think as I walked past. You insult every woman who died fighting for your rights and your freedom.

The burka has its origins in the Middle East before Islam, when men and women covered their faces to keep out sand. In Afghanistan, the burka is known as the chadri; it has a thick grill over the mouth and eyes, and is the one I chose to wear. The chadri only became a common sight when the Taliban came to power, banning women from wearing cosmetics, and shoes with a heel: the noise of a heel on pavement was said to be too arousing for men to cope with.

I remember in Kabul meeting former TV newsreaders, businesswomen, who once wore Manolos and lipstick, forced to cover up. They were cowed, mere shadows of their former selves, now unemployed, able only to sit at home.

The only time I became furious at my treatment was when, for a domestic flight, I swanned through security unmolested, when normally I’m made to remove jacket and shoes. This smacked of PC pandering. I was heartened, though, that throughout my week I was only ever met with helping hands.

Getting into a cab in London I was still called ‘darlin’ by the driver. Getting out of said cab, a passing decorator opened the door and grabbed my shopping – a burka makes you clumsy, slow, helpless; I spent most of the week feeling like a disabled person.

In fact, the only curious glances I attracted were from small children and my border collies, who started barking like maniacs.

One day, I had lunch with a friend in Primrose Hill. She walked past my table three times. I waggled my Prada bag, which I thought she might recognise.

‘How fantastic,’ she said when at last she realised it was me. ‘You don’t have to bother to put on make-up or wash your hair. How much spare time you must have!’ This was a common response from my much-groomed, often scantily-clad female friends.

I admit, too, this rather jokey response had, as someone who never leaves the house without having had my roots retouched, crossed my mind. Aren’t we in the West equally imprisoned by the pressure to be perfect?

But having worn my burka (it’s still upstairs in a box, like the ashes of a dead pet), I find that attitude naive. Telling women to cast it off, making a joke of how they appear, is disrespectful of those who are forced to wear what amounts to a mobile prison for fear of being beaten, or worse.

You become not just not female, you become inhuman. All through my week I’d worn scent, something I never normally do, so compelling was the feeling I had to be feminine in some small way.

I was supposed, during my sentence in purdah, to wear trainers so as not to expose ‘toe cleavage’, but I got so hot I resorted to flip flops: the steam had to escape somehow.

The second most common response from Western women was that, thank goodness, at least men won’t leer. Well, this isn’t a problem I face daily. Yes, of course it’s helpful not to walk along dark alleys in a miniskirt and boob tube, but let’s not forget the extremely high incidence of rape in countries where the burka is prevalent. Extreme modesty does not breed safety.

The ridiculous claim the burka protects women from male harassment was wheeled out yet again on Woman’s Hour. A British Muslim woman defended her ‘choice’ because not only did it bring her ‘closer to God’ but because ‘before I used to get men asking for my number, can they have dinner with me’.

I’ve no idea what she looks like but to evoke that response she must be up there with Ava Gardner. She went on: ‘I’m not going to stop because people are ignorant. I have had so much abuse on the train.’

Well, she has obviously never travelled with First Great Western. On my trips back and forth I found both passengers and staff courteous. At one point, after a particularly hot day in Regent’s Park, trying to lick a 99, I wobbled to the buffet car and mumbled for a G&T. ‘Would you like ice with that?’ the young lady asked, deadpan.

Rather than being the brunt of abuse, I felt that by wearing a veil I was the one being rude. I had to keep tucking my hair back, like Audrey Hepburn as she disappeared forever, married to Christ in The Nun’s Story, and started to wonder: what is so disgusting about the female form that it has to be hidden?

On yet another perfect summer’s day in Hyde Park during my week covered up, I saw a crocodile of schoolchildren, aged maybe nine or ten. Several of the girls were in headscarves: only the small moon of their faces exposed. For the first time I knew how they were feeling: different. Hot. How about, too, marginalised, objectified, kept fresh only for the eyes of their male relatives?

After just a few days, what I mostly felt was exhausted. I asked a young Muslim woman who lives Bristol how on earth she coped and she answered: ‘You just have to get used to it.’ I’d rather not, thanks very much.


This article has been adapted from its original source.

© Associated Newspapers Ltd.

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