Thursday, December 1, 2011

Day in a Burka



I've always wondered what it would be like to experience the world from inside a burka. So, when we found out we were moving to Morocco, there were two things I wanted to do. Belly dance and wear a burka. I started belly dancing the week we got here. Now that we're in our last six months I had yet to wear a burka. Until now. I grew more anxious, knowing the day was near. Not by design, but rather by coincidence the day I wore a burka was also my 42nd birthday.

Let me first add a disclaimer. Burkas, full on burkas that conceal the face, are not common here in Morocco. Hijabs (head scarves) and djellabas (long flowy robes with a hood, think what Obi-Wan Kenobi wears in Star Wars) are. But even that isn't standard here. Moroccan women wear every combination of djellaba and hijab. Djellaba and no hijab, hijab with western clothes and a lot of women just wear western clothes without their hair covered at all. In fact, I saw a lot more burkas in London than I have ever seen here in Morocco. But since I'm probably never going to live in Saudi Arabia and be forced to wear a burka, I'm doing it here and now.

It's a little too late to fuss over the details like the fact that my abaya (the dress like component of the ensemble) is a little too small. And I can't wrap my hijab properly despite several attempts. And my niqab (the veil that covers my face) looks imprisoned by my hijab because of poor execution on my part. This is the best I can do with my informal youtube self-tutorial on burka wearing and the pieces I have acquired. I didn't get the burka I dreamed of, but it will have to do. Seriously, I could do a whole post on the preparations, trials and tribulations of the Day in a Burka post. Who knows, maybe I will.

My friend arrives to pick me up. And I'm all decked out in black. Except for the pop of color in my shoes, those orange ballet flats I've been dying to wear. I knew that just the right occasion would present itself for their debut. Then I further accessorized with that green purse that I love, but just sits in my closet. Since I can't display my personality through my clothes or hair, it's all in the accessories. Oh and the black eyeliner. She took a photo of me before we left. We weren't sure we'd take any pictures after we left the house.



I always have the most awkward smile in photos, but I figured it didn't matter if I smiled or not. So I didn't in this picture.



At my friends insistence, I did smile for this one. And no, this isn't a duplicate of the first photo. I really did smile for this one. No joke.

We head out the door and jump in her car and head to the mall. We're both nervous and our hearts are racing. I know you're wondering if she's in a burka too. She's not. Which adds a unique advantage later. She's much braver than I am. It's easier to be the one covered up than the one exposed. When we get to the parking lot, confirm we're ready, take deep breaths and get out. Immediately she notices that my entire body language is different. It's demure she says, even though I'm not consciously doing anything different. I can feel it, but I'm amazed she can see it. I'm variant of myself. And it happened so quickly.

It was a long slow walk through the mall and down the escalator. Both of us found ourselves averting our eyes from other mall goers, uncertain how we'd be received. When we reach our destination, we find a table at the sushi restaurant.



Cause what could be more awkward than eating with a veil over your mouth? Eating sushi with chopsticks with a veil over your mouth. At this point my lack of hijab wrapping experience and skill is evident. The hijab has become blousy and has severely impaired my peripheral vision. So I can't see anything going on around me, but my friend can. And she's completely aware of our surroundings and covertly scanning for reactions. No one notices me. They notice her, but I am a ghost. As if she's sitting alone. Except to the watchful eye of one older woman lingering and leering at me. The waiter comes to take our order. He doesn't acknowledge me. My friend orders for me. I'm conspicuously invisible.

The server returns with our salads and waters. I start with the bottled water. But I make a rookie mistake. I forgot to lift my niqab to get it to my mouth. And if I do lift my niqab, I would need to tilt my head back to drink it. And I fear that would dismantle my hijab too much. So I decide just not to drink. Instead, I'll just focus on eating. The challenge? Eating salad with chopsticks with a niqab. By this point, my friend and I are both getting a bit bolder. I was starving and she was determined to capture this on film. So she discretely taped me on our undercover Anderson Cooper cam.



I ended up with far more salad on my lap than in my mouth. But with my invisibility cloak on, no one notices but me. The sushi was actually much easier manage. But with every bite, my whole hijab moved and required readjusting. About half way through my sushi, the choreographed eating and readjusting routine became too tedious. So, I stopped eating even though I wanted to eat every bite of the sushi and chug the water.

This was the point when I realized something was different between my friend and I. Even though our conversation was light, the air was heavy and more somber. The veil over my mouth recycled all my hot breath back to me. It was probably just our nerves.



We finished our lunch and walked over to the ice skating rink. It was my birthday after all. But, it was closed. Damn it. But, the mall also has a bowling alley. Bowling it is then. By this point, I'm not looking to see who's looking as we walk to the bowling alley. It doesn't matter anymore to me, because I can't see any of it. But my friend is disturbed that in public, I all but cease to exist.



I'm sure that bowling will help us relax and lighten the mood. I mean check out my bright shinny bowling shoes and ball. I can't remember if I smiled for this one or not. Our conversation turned from all things burka related to regular life stuff. And we just started bowling. And we were more at ease, but something still wasn't quite right.



My too-small-for-me abaya inhibited my bowling stride. I tried to take smaller strides to accommodate the burka. I didn't want to trip or rip the abaya, but I couldn't hit a pin down. To really bowl in this thing I had to lift it. Finally, I worked out a system to stride and then lift it to about my knee right before I released the ball. This added a whole new level of coordination to bowling. And as I have said many times before, I am not a coordinated person to begin with. Nor am I a good bowler. Which, of course, completely explains why I lost.

And I had lost something else too...

On the way home, I was itching to get out of the burka. It was the next day when I realized what it was. That thing I lost in the burka. It wasn't that it made doing things more difficult or even that I was invisible. It took the most important thing away from me. My expressions. As a person who is not particularly good at talking, who has a dry sarcastic wit, I rely heavily on my face to convey what I really mean. I contort it to show my cynicism, bite my lips when I feel unsure, squint my eyes to show empathy. And no I'm not related to Renee Zellweger. As far as I know anyway. The human face is simply able to convey so much more than words. Our words can lie, but our faces and body language don't. So the whole time my friend and I were talking, each of us was only getting about half the conversation. And that. Well, that changed everything about the way interacted with each other. The whole experience was so much more profound for both of us than I can write in words. But if you see me in person and ask me about it you'll see the whole story in my face.

I didn't make it home before the burka came off in the car. I didn't think anyone would be more relieved than I was. Until I took off the last layer, and it was clear looking face to face that the relief was more hers than mine. It was one of the most intimate moments of my life to have her look directly at me and say, "There's my friend", with a huge smile. And to have her see mine in return.

To my brave, nameless, but never faceless friend in this post, I hope I have done justice to your side of the story.

23 comments:

Dangerous Linda said...

lovely. we cannot see your face when your write, either. you do a fine job of expressing yourself!

The Loerzels said...

Thank you, but I'm a better writer than a talker. But I'm an even better awkward facial contourtionist than I am a talker or a writer...

Lucy Patterson said...

I think the lack of expressions and lack of ability to express yourself says more about society than about you, though it's interesting how quickly you 'took up' the invisible persona - almost a self fulfilling prophesy - as you started to act in a way not to draw further attention to yourself - with or without colour pop accesories! ;-)

Zee said...

WOW, I bet that would be quite an experience... I found it interesting that the waiter did not acknowledge you - is there an accepted standard on how to treat women wearing a burka? Hmm...

Thanks for sharing the experience!

Blissed-Out Grandma said...

Wow, this is really interesting. Even though you were with a good friend and you both knew the experiment was short-lived, you were both moved by the experience. Thanks for sharing. And happy birthday.

David said...

This was an interesting post and I admire your courage for donning a burka. I never knew the limitations that wearing one presented but you handled all as well as anyone could...especially eating with chopsticks.

While working in Kuwait I saw women in full burkas at amusement parks, etc and it surprised me to see them fully dressed while riding roller coasters...It was a sight I'll never forget.

Women really do lose their identity and dignity in a burka plus from my position I find it degrading in a way. I'm glad you achieved your goals and Happy Birthday!!

http://erinsdomain.blogspot.com

Christina Williams said...

Okay, this is totally the Link of the Week @ The Blog Entourage. Bravo for putting one on and really getting out there in it to experience it. It pains me to think of women having to wear these all the time. It really does dampen the identity. And the women who have adjusted to or grown up in that culture...I often wonder if they are simply used to it, or if they do feel invisible. Whether or not they all feel that way, I believe that it feeds into the culture of men being more important than women and of a woman's opinion being insignificant. I just think it's so awesome that you wore one for the experience and so you could tell us all about it!

TexaGermaFinlaNadian said...

You are awesome, and I am so glad you did this for yourself and shared with us. I find it so intriguing, and your insights were really interesting. Good for you! OH, and happy birthday, my dear :) Hope it was a great one, Burka and all.

Thom Brown said...

This is just a delight to read - it's a great story and your insights are very interesting. As a male, I have to admit to being enamored by the eyes - especially so, I guess, because that's all I see..

Sine said...

I am so glad you did this and wrote this story! I have often wondered what it would feel like in a burka and have entertained the thought of donning one as well. But of course entertaining the thought and actually doing it are very different! Makes you feel like an impostor, I'm sure, always fearing someone will come and rip it off of you and expose you as a fraud. At least that's what I would feel like. You often hear women say, in answer to us Westerners being appalled by the thought of veiling your whole body and face, it's not so bad, it's actually nice to be invisible. You did a great job describing every detail. I laughed hard at the restaurant scene. Well done and thanks!

Rachel Howells said...

This was a fascinating and eye-opening read, but what really did it for me were the before-smiling and after-smiling pictures in the burka. The imperceptible differences in the photos actually made me laugh out loud (you’re funny!), but later when your smiling friend said with relief, “There’s my friend,” my mirth was replaced with an “aha” moment. The burka is like a stifling cloak of invisibility where identity isn’t lost – you’re still there – but you’re not seen. I imagine over time, however, this kind of invisibility could in fact alter one’s identity or sense of self. In the process you might very well get lost. On the other hand, there are days I wouldn’t mind a cloak of invisibility.

Anyway, wonderful writing!

Rachel :-)

Barbara said...

Beautifully written, spooky vision of disappearing in a burka. I admire your courage, on one level I would be afraid of losing the hijab, on the other of being exposed as an impostor.

Stuart Nager said...

A brave and adventurous journey, living a day from a different point of view. While not being disrespectful, I do wish more people would try to put themselves in others shoes and try to see things from a different angle.

I agree with Thom about the eyes.

Penelope J. said...

Interesting how you felt invisible wearing a burka. I always felt that if Arab women wanted to conspire to get things done or changed, they could under the cover of a burka or the veil because who can see their expressions or know what they are doing?

I have seen veiled women here, once in Denny's, of all places, and I remember commenting to my friend that how did they manage to eat? You fulfilled my curiosity.

On another occasion, I was at a writer's book signing and a woman turned up in full regalia, including gloves. She was an African-American and sounded well-educated and a reader, so I was left with the mystery of why she would choose to dress this way in the U.S.

I think you should try this again sometime here on home ground and see what reactions you get. Might be another interesting experience.

The Loerzels said...

@ Penny I've already planned on it. But, I think it would be far more scary and dangerous to do something in the US. And I hate to say that about my own country, but I firmly believe it would be a completely different experience. I'm curious...

Jaime Brown said...

WOW! I loved this one! I'm sure you remember the khaymar that I wore when we met...kind of like wearing full niqab but with my face showing. It's definitely a different feeling when I'm totally covered up. But guess what? I LOVE IT!

To all of the readers and commenters who don't know me: I'm an American girl also living in Morocco and I converted to Islam (which is why I moved here alone). I, along with every other woman, CHOOSE to wear a khaymar. It is forbidden in Islam to force anyone to wear it so when you see women in the streets, it's because we want to. For most of us, it's a matter of concealing our beauty, and I have never ever felt degraded by this. I think it's the best way! Think about this: A woman gets all jazzy and dresses up when she leaves the house. She puts on makeup, perfume, makes sure her clothes look just right--and all the people in the street, co-workers, male friends, etc. see her like this. Then she comes home and puts on her ratty pajama pants puts her hair in a ponytail and takes off her makeup. This is what she does for her husband?! For us Muslims, this doesn't make much sense. I stay covered in the street and when my husband and I are home, Ka-BOOM! I get all fancy for him. My body is for him only, not for strangers in the street.

Anyway, I think it's great that you chose to do this, Marie. It gives people an inside look at what it's like. I don't think I could ever veil my face, but I respect the women who do. It's like a clothing tattoo--once you do it, you don't go back. I mean, a nun doesn't go out on the weekends with stilettos and jeans on, right? Haha!

I'm happy you had a good birthday--sushi, strikes, and all!

Thanks for this one
:)

Adriene said...

Interesting post. I'm a former Muslim and though I never wore a burka, I used to regularly wear the hijab and frequently the obaya. I had friends who wore the burka, and I found them to be expressive with their eyes and voice. On an everyday basis, people cope. But yes, for me, even without the burka, there is something about the personality that gets lost in translation. There are others, though, who are steeped in the religious significance of it who do it gladly. I admire you for giving it a whirl.

MuMuGB said...

I find it amazing that you gave it a try. May I say that you have beautiful eyes? Anyway, thanks for sharing your experience. Being French, I am struggling with burkas in public places. That said, I don't understand the religious meaning of the burka because I am not a Muslim. Your post made me want to understand it, so thanks for this.

Accidental Londoner said...

Really fascinating that despite your feeling that you were dressed very differently from other women on your trip out you were not remarked upon or singled out, but instead ignored. Well done you for braving it and experiencing it!

jesterqueen.com said...

That is so brave. And completely awesome. I'll probably never get as far as Morocco in my whole life. I really admire your willingness to allow yourself to become invisible to find out how some women choose to live for religious reasons. I also loved learning the terminology for the various elements of the dress! (I found you from the crazed weekend fan hop)

TriGirl said...

What a great post! I think human behaviour is fascinating, and how we dress certainly dictates how people respond to us.

cath said...

I loved reading this post, and especially your reactions Marie. There is a reason there are over 50 muscles in the human face, and you sound like you put yours to good use. I am also a person who uses facial expression a lot. I also am adept at reading body language and the burka would definitely impair both. I learned much from your post (the comments were interesting too!) and appreciate you taking the time to share it.

My personal favorite? The comment about the orange ballet flats. I laughed out loud at that. :D And did those accessories ever pop with color against the black of the burka. :)

TheTruth said...

I agree with Jamie Brown...

I appreciate that you tried it out...

But that awkward feeling of being ignored in public is such a releif...

I DONT have to worry about pathetic men gawking at me...neither do i want good-looking guys checking me out...

I am just for my husband & he is ONLY for me...

Its a beautiful feeling...

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