It was two years ago, I had just finished work and was approached by a woman pushing a pram. Her voice soft, kind, candid, she said: “I love your hair. I hope you don’t mind me asking, where did you get it done?”
My heart sunk into my chest, weighed down by the guilt that for a brief, fleeting moment I was surprised that a woman wearing the burqa had approached me, complimented me, and got to know something about me.
There was something preprogrammed in my subconscious that, for some bizarre reason, made me think that this woman had less of a voice than anyone else.
Bulgaria is the latest country to clamber aboard the burqa—ban bandwagon, following the sectarian footsteps of France, Belgium and Switzerland.
In fact, you could find yourself in more debt in Switzerland if you chose to don the burqa in public, than you would if you were caught necking a full bottle of vodka while behind the wheel.
Krasimir Karakachanov, co-leader of the Bulgarian Patriotic Front, justified the ban in his country with the argument that ‘the burqa is more a uniform than a religious symbol.’
On Belgium’s drift towards its dogmatic French neighbour, Daniel Bacquelaine, leader of the Reformation Movement, said: “Even if it’s on a voluntary basis, the burqa is contrary to the dignity of women. It’s a walking prison… We have to free women of this burden.”
In Belgium, a woman is chastised in order to liberate her. In Bulgaria, she has to cough up cash because she is a political militant. She only has to stay within the confines of Europe to be punished for being both a victim and a criminal.
Recent YouGov statistics suggest that the majority of the British public would be quite happy to trail behind Bulgaria’s decision, with just 25 per cent opposing a UK burqa-ban and 57 per cent in favour – although this number has decreased gradually each year since 2011, when 66 percent wanted to ban the garment.
A Google search of ‘what is it actually like to wear a burqa?’ greets you with accounts of non-Muslim journalists wearing the burqa, reporting their experiences doing things they would ‘normally do’ but dressed in attire they wouldn’t normally wear.
In 2009, the writer Liz Jones narrated her week long trial of wearing the burqa. She started by saying: “On my first day, I was unaccountably afraid to put on my burka. When I did pluck up courage, I felt suffocated.”
Apparently, because she’s white, non-Muslim and writes for the Daily Mail, she is best placed to tell us what it’s actually like to wear the burqa.
In reality, wearing the burqa and recording your feelings – to justify how millions of women feel – won’t give an accurate representation of the experience the majority of Muslim women have.
If we want to know what it feels like to be a Muslim woman in the burqa, speak to her, and I’m sure you’ll discover that what she chooses to put on in the morning isn’t the only thing that defines her.
So instead of literally trying to ‘put myself in her shoes’, I decided to get to know some of the women who wear the burqa or niqab on a daily basis.
Zeena is 17. She lives in a bustling Islamic community on the outskirts of Leeds. She is ambitious, driven and adamant that within ten years, she’ll be a surgeon for the NHS.
She is also the first woman in her family to wear the niqab. “Yes, it represents something I believe in – but it isn’t the only thing I believe in,” she told me.
Zeena adds that she chose to wear the niqab aged 15, after a growing number of girls began to wear the traditional Islamic dress.
It is more representative of female comradery. When you’re my age you have to make your own decisions and not become too affected by what is assumed of you, or expected.
I haven’t been forced to dress this way– I feel more compelled and expected to wear mascara if anything.
Farhana was born in South Africa and now resides in Bradford with her family.
She told me:
When growing up I had sisters who had gone to study and they were wearing the niqab.
I’d say they were my role models, and I obviously looked up to them. As I got to know more about wearing the niqab I took a liking to it.
Farhana is passionate, opinionated, and her honesty is humbling. “I love spending time with my family, my husband and four beautiful children and making the most of what I have in life and being fortunate enough to have what I have got,” she says.
Dahiah is also a mother, and has always been keen to educate her children on the importance of open-mindedness.
She tells me:
When my daughter was five, she asked me, ‘Mummy, why don’t other ladies cover their faces?’
I remember it well, as it was the first time she had questioned anything to do with the way I dressed. I told her that the way ladies dress is the least important part of what makes them human.
She’s a teenager now and annoying as ever – but wise beyond her years! She has chosen not to wear the burqa.
Growing up in Indonesia, Jodhaa was a model until her decision to embrace the Islamic faith and the Burqa.
I wear it [the burqa] in public, but I can’t even begin to describe the feelings and emotions I felt with every step down that street.
It made me feel so empowered as a woman knowing I get to choose what is seen of me. I’d like to wear it more often.
Jodhaa regularly documents her travels around the world on social media. Her burqa is by no means the focal point in her photos, nor are the beautiful landscapes and spectacular colours, the fragments of her photos are serenely unified.
The cohesion of nature, friendship and religion is reassuring, especially as the burqa can often be shrouded by the disarray within extremist imagery elsewhere in the media.
After speaking to all these women about the burqa, their personal lives, thoughts and opinions, one thing was apparent – each of them had made an informed decision to choose to dress the way they do, in a way that has not only suited their lives, but enriched it.
I’m sure the feelings of these women are not the same as every burqa/niqab wearing Muslim. But it’s time to stop assuming, categorising and discriminating, or we will find that the women who really need a voice will be too afraid to speak out at all.
These prejudices aren’t for a woman and her clothing, but this fear is borne out of instilled sectarian ideologies and our blinkered outlook and warped ability to familiarise with the minds beyond the material.
A woman who wears the burqa or niqab is not two eyes trapped in a cloth prison, nor is she a vessel of mass-produced anxiety. She has a mind and a voice. And ultimately, her worth, intrigue, and voice are not muted the moment she chooses what to wear in the morning.