You see them in the news, but that’s about it. You would be hard-pressed to find someone wearing one of these blue (or any other color) garments anywhere outside of Central Asia, although you may see some muslim ladies sporting the black abaya and full face covering in almost any major metropolis of the world. Burqas are heavy, ugly, and not well-ventilated. They are literally a headache.
If you were to ask a local family the reason for it, they would probably tell you it’s for protection. It protects women from the stares of wandering eyes, which in turn protects the chastity of the women. The truth is, if you don’t understand the very non-western view of honor and shame, you’ll never understand what the burqa is all about. I’ll try to break it down. The honor of families here is, to a large degree, wrapped up in the chastity of its women. If a woman breeches her chastity, it puts a huge black mark on the family’s honor. Chastity can be defined differently by different families and different regions. For instance, one family may deem it acceptable for their daughter to attend classes with males, while another would never allow their daughter in the same room as any males aside from her father and brothers. One girl may be scolded for being seen talking with a non-familial male, but this could be completely acceptable for others. In any case, the family works hard to protect its honor, and that means working extra hard to protect the purity and chastity of the females. When you hear about “honor killings,” this is a family going to extremes trying to protect its honor. A woman has somehow breeched the boundaries of chastity, and in order to “restore the honor” of the family, they kill her. Please hear me out here; this is an extreme. I know many of my local friends find this practice to be abhorrent. But it happens, so let’s not pretend.
The burqa is a cover which serves to protect a woman from the unthinkable. The unthinkable. These are the actions of a man who won’t control himself, a man who has become captive to his own selfish thoughts and then acts on them. Rather than enforcing a device to make men control themselves, this society and many others have decided women will be the responsible parties for this problem of sexuality outside of what is deemed appropriate. Another contributing factor to the burqa is the belief is that women have more demons taunting them than men, and they are therefore more susceptible to the temptations of sexual misconduct.
Call it inhumane or an object of misogyny. Fine. But I cannot deny the fact that some women really do want to wear burqas. If someone would have told me this a couple years ago, I would have called them a liar or simply misinformed. Now that I live here and wear one myself, I understand that ideology. Women here realize how much of their family’s honor is bound up in their behavior. Not just their virginity, but their un-taintedness is held in high esteem. No one wants to bring shame to their family, and that is one of the biggest fears of most non-westerners. A lot of women here feel a very real sense of protection under their burqas, and taking it away from them would be stripping away their sense of protection and privacy. On the other end of the spectrum, some women really do have a pure hatred for their burqas and would be glad to see them burn in a giant flame of fury.
Living here has presented a lot of tough questions. One of the many for me was whether or not I would wear a burqa. After months of deliberating, I realized how much I appreciated the anonymity it provided. It’s true; plenty of men really do make ugly remarks at women, and especially at the fair-skinned ones. Being under a burqa makes me a nobody in public. While I don’t exactly relish that thought, at least I’m not getting my rear grabbed in the bazaar. Truthfully, there are a lot of reasons I wear that thing. I have some very conservative friends here, and when I’m covered up, they know I’m “safe.” Meaning, I abide by a standard of dress and modesty that they value. I want to show them that I love and care about them, and wearing a burqa affords me that opportunity. It’s the least I can do, especially when I consider how much others have sacrificed to show me their love. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I have local friends who hate the burqa and refuse to wear it. To them, I know it seems I’ve succumbed to the people who are trying to oppress them. Maybe they’re right. And for some amount of time, I felt I shouldn’t wear it in order to support their kindling fire for justice and equality. But that responsibility is theirs alone, and as a foreigner, there is little I can do to bring about that change. They have to want it and fight for it themselves.
I write about the burqa because to many non-muslim westerners, it is one more reason to hate or pity people in this part of the world and muslims in general. To understand the burqa, one must take the time to understand and appreciate our differences, of which there are many. And that’s ok. But before you make a judgment about the burqa, remember the woman under it. She is a human being with feelings and opinions. She, like you, wants to be loved and treated with respect. She wants to honor her family, and donning a burqa may be a small part of the responsibility she carries to uphold it.