In all the (hardly recent) harp about Muslim women and their oppression, I decided to experiment with what has become the symbol of “oppression” – the burqa. I couldn’t quite bring myself to cover my face too, so I limited my own “oppression” to the abaya (the long black robe) and the hijab or headscarf. I must admit that I felt pretty hot and bothered underneath all those extra layers and the scarf that, owing to my own lack of experience in adorning it, threatened to fall off my face in a very obviously non-Muslim way. Using a paper clip to secure it more firmly, and once the initial apprehension of being revealed as a fake Muslim wore off, my partner and I made our way through the streets of Deira in downtown Dubai.
For those who are not familiar with Dubai, it is one of the most cosmopolitan areas of the Arab world with 85% expatriates and women who wear anything from burqas to mini skirts in public places. The area we chose to walk through, however, was male dominated, albeit the fair share of burqa and “other” clad women. The first phase of our experiment was to walk through the streets in the abaya and hijab and note how we were perceived (my partner is Spanish, but can easily pass off as a very handsome Syrian or Jordanian man). Due to our limited fluency in Arabic though, we decided against holding conversations, as it would be an immediate blow to our cover.
The two hours that we walked through downtown Dubai were uneventful – there was hardly a glance in our direction. Besides a few curious white males, I had almost no one glancing in my direction. Even if someone did, the glance was immediately averted. I felt invisible, which is not something I am used to feeling, living in India. Then, after a few hours, we went on to the second phase of our experiment; I went to a corner and quickly removed my facade, dressed now in pants, a top and a jacket – nothing revealing, nothing provocative. And within moments of my costume change, I regretted it.
The difference was almost dramatic. I will not focus on the number of glances that came my way (which was, in any case, more than a fifty percent difference), but rather, on the kind of looks that came my way. Dressed in “ordinary” clothes now, it almost seemed like men around me felt a sense of entitlement to look at me. Not just at my face, but running their glance down my body, pausing at specific areas of my body that were more “interesting” than others. This was not limited to men of a certain origin, but men in general. A curious feeling overtook me. All at once, I felt freer in my choice, but a slave to the entitlement of others to view me as an object. I suddenly longed for the freedom that being fully covered gave me in that scenario. Of course, my experiment was limited to a few hours and one place – I plan to conduct the same in different scenarios and places. However, as a student of culture and in order to understand the reasons behind wearing a burqa or abaya, I had to experience wearing one.
While the burqa has become the symbol of oppression of Muslim women, it is hardly something that deserves focus in the way that western media has given it. It seems that Muslims have long been criticised for their oppression of women. However, according to Merinissi, it was during the colonial times that women’s rights violations in Islam took to the forefront, when any other culture was considered inferior to European culture. According to Ahmed, the idea that “other men, men in colonised societies or societies beyond the borders of the civilised west, oppressed women, was to be used, in the rhetoric of colonialism, to render morally justifiable its project of undermining or eradicating the cultures of colonised peoples”.
Why does Islam consider it important to dress modestly? What is often forgotten is that Islam calls for both men and women to dress modestly. And it is a brutally honest religion in most cases. If one takes into account recent scientific studies about how men’s brains work when they look at a woman (“…men of a certain age view sex as a highly desirable goal, and if present them with a provocative woman, then that will tend to prime goal-related responses”), the findings are congruent with early Islamic beliefs that “I have never seen anything more capable of weakening a man’s senses and his deen and of destroying his judgement than one of you women.” According to Islam, there are several parts of the woman that are “awra” (sexually attractive), including the arms, legs, waist, hair and neck. In some schools of Islam, the face is considered “awra” too, and hence, encouraged to be covered.
Another aspect that is often overlooked is that most women who choose to adorn the abaya or burqa, do so with pride. The idea is not that they cannot dress the way they want, but that they are too respectful of themselves to expose themselves to those who are not part of their close family. Islam is a religion that calls for utmost modesty in that one is discouraged from inviting unnecessary attention, flattery or attraction.
The matter of oppression of “Muslim women” seems to be over-emphasised and manipulated in most cases. A recent study by a team of international economists led by a Harvard Business School professor, ranked the UAE as number one in the world for treating women with respect. My experiences in the UAE and in living in Oman for six years corroborate this. While there are countries in the Islamic world in which women are severely oppressed (as there are women in several other countries in other parts of the world which are less in focus, and let’s admit it, have no oil, who are equally oppressed), it has nothing to do with Islam; one must only take a look at the women in countries like Oman and the UAE – they carry themselves with pride, and are treated and behave like queens. Past the prejudiced notion of an oppressed woman, one clearly sees the privileges that they live with and the utmost respect that they are given.
This article in no way recommends the burqa or adopting Islam. However, it does recommend discarding prejudices and more so, the questioning of a worldview that is created by dominant media. For every cultural trait, there is a reason behind it existing for all these years, and rather than blatantly and ignorantly criticise and condemn it, it is high time we condition ourselves to respect the “other” despite the fact that we may not necessarily agree. And for those of you who do not agree with “awra”, try spending a few hours in the desert heat, you would wish to be completely covered to escape the burning sun too!
Written by Divya Susan Varkey, Intercultural Communications Practitioner and Trainer