The evolution of the burqa

Mohammad Qadeer is a Professor Emeritus of Queen’s University, Kingston and a Fellow of Joint Centre of Excellence for Research on Immigration and Settlement, Toronto, Canada

The Evolution Of The Burqa

Mohammad Qadeer

March 23, 2002

he Burqa is not the Taliban’s invention. This tent-like cloak that completely drapes a woman’s body and face, with only a crocheted screen as an eye-piece, has been worn by women to go out in public for almost a century or more in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and parts of the Arabian peninsula. It literally draws a curtain around a woman and allows her to move about outside the family compound, while conforming to the religious-cultural custom of remaining secluded from men. The Taliban enforced its use as a law, contrary to traditions, and thus turned this very photogenic object into a symbol of their oppression and foolishness.

The Afghan Burqa conjures up the image of a Halloween ghost. A group of Afghan women in Burqa, a la movie Khandahar, make a mind-blowing picture for the western public. Liberating Afghan women from the Burqa was a sub-text of the war against the Taliban. Although some Afghan women have discarded the Burqa, after the fall of Taliban, an overwhelming majority continue to wear it as a matter of choice and social norm. So far the Burqa has survived the American bombing and the NGOs onslaught. International activists for women’s rights have been disappointed, and are now silent, by the mass of Afghan women continuing to wear Burqas.Yet the Burqa as a cultural artifact is evolving and changing. It has taken many new forms mostly in the neighbouring sub-continent.

I grew up surrounded by women wearing Burqas. In the British-ruled Lahore (a big city in Pakistan) of the 1940s, almost every middle class Muslim woman wore what is now the Afghan Burqa. My mother and aunts went for shopping, movies and picnics wearing Burqas.They would have been shocked to show their faces to men who were strangers. As women grew old, they often took off the Burqa, replacing it with a thick cotton shawl (Chadour) loosely wrapped around the head and shoulders, with the face left open.

The Burqa was a mark of respectability.Women who worked along- side their men in fields, shops and domestic settings, did not wear it. These women, numerically a majority of the population, wore the Chadour but generally stayed aloof from men who were not relatives. The Burqa was both expensive and obstructive for them.

When a family rose on the social scale, e.g. sons/ daughters became clerks, teachers, mechanics etc, or husbands /fathers were successful in business, its women started donning the Burqa. It was a symbol of their newly gained social status and class. At the top of the social ladder, the custom was different again. The women of rich and modern families, wives and daughters of political

leaders, military commanders, senior civil servants and corporate executives, for example, went about in shawls and scarves without covering their bodies or faces. The Burqa was scarce among the families of the rich and modern. Almost similar social dynamics operated in Afghanistan before the Taliban.

Changes in life styles and fashions have also transformed the Burqa. In the1950s’ and 60s’, a new and more functional Burqa emerged in Pakistan and India. The tent-like Burqa, currently worn in Afghanistan, gave way to a two –piece black satiny coverall, a full-length overcoat for the torso and a head- piece with a voile veil to screen the face. This body-fitted Burqa was a fashion statement of the new generation growing up in cities. My sister and cousins wore this Burqa. They would not be found dead in their mothers’ “shuttlecock” Burqa. The new Burqa gradually blended in to the women’s dress, revealing arms and body contours and shrinking the face veil. In time this Burqa almost disappeared, leaving a silken wraparound scarf (Dupatta) to cover the upper body and head. Burqas, old and new, were confined mostly in the traditionalist clans and families, in cities as well as villages. The generation that adopted the new Burqa also was on the forefront of discarding them. Burqas were kept in the wardrobe, mostly to be taken out for visiting ancestral neighbourhoods and grand parents.

The Hijab is a women’s head covering, without the face veil, which was popularized by the women’s movement in Egyptian universities as a reaction to Nasser’s authoritarian socialism, though Muslim women in the Middle East have worn it for a long time. It particularly suited the needs of women professionals and office workers. They interpreted the Islamic injunctions about women’s public deportment to be requiring only covering the hair and observing modesty.

The Hijab has found a place in the emerging self-definition of young Muslim women in the Western Societies.It is largely from North America and Europe that the Hijab has diffused into Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh and in the South East Asian Countries. It has become the new symbol of Islamic feminity, though still largely confined to the segments of women in schools and colleges. The mothers who grew up without veils and head coverings find their daughters adopting the Hijab.

The Burqa has metamorphosed into the Hijab on the one hand and into the Niqab, a stand-alone face veil, on the other. It was in Montreal about two years ago that l saw someone in a Niqab after a long time. The Niqab is beginning to be seen, occasionally, in Toronto and New York, Houston and other North American cities. It may spread back into Pakistan/India and Afghanistan from here. Yet among Muslims all over, the Niqab and, to lesser extent the Hijab, remain emblems of orthodoxy.

Over a half century, the Burqa has shrunk from a ‘moving tent’ enveloping a woman to a head covering in the form of a more formalized Hijab and alternatively as a loose head scarf in Pakistan-India. This evolutionary path will, inevitably, unfold in Afghanistan if and when it begins to have peace, modern forms of governance and development.





Twitter war over writer’s call to molest Saudi women cashiers

May 28, 2013 4:33 pm

Twitter war over writer’s call to molest Saudi women cashiers

By Abeer Allam and Michael Peel in Abu Dhabi

A Saudi woman works in a lingerie shop at a mall in Jeddah January 9, 2012

A Saudi writer has urged his Twitter followers to sexually molest women hired to work as cashiers in big grocery stores, the latest backlash from conservatives who want to roll back limited social and economic reforms launched in the world’s leading oil exporter.

Abdullah Mohamed al-Dawood, who writes self-help books including one called The Joy of Life, has stirred fierce debate this week via the internet microblogging service with the use of the hashtag harass_female_cashiers, to press for Saudi women to be forced to stay at home to protect their chastity.

His campaign against official moves to encourage women to work in mixed gender environments has led some Twitter users to denounce him. Others however applauded him as a fighter against government efforts to westernise and corrupt the country.

More than half a million Saudi Arabian nationals, including unprecedented if still modest numbers of women, have surged into the country’s private sector since late 2011 under a government-driven programme aimed at turning the Gulf giant’s sclerotic non-oil economy into a regional powerhouse.

Khalid Ibrahim al-Saqabi, a conservative cleric, endorsed Mr Dawood’s calls and said a law proposed by the government against sexual harassment in newly mixed workplaces was “only meant to encourage consensual debauchery”.

He added: “Why is the labour minister concerned with finding jobs for women instead of men?”

Mr Dawood, who has more than 97,000 followers on Twitter, justified his call to harass female workers by using an obscure story from the early days of Islam about a famous warrior, Alzubair, who did not want his wife to leave home to pray in the mosque. Mr Dawood claimed that Alzubair hid in the dark one night and molested his wife in the street. The wife rushed home and decided against ever going out of her house again, saying that the “there is no safer place than home and the world out there is corrupt”.

Scores of Mr Dawood’s followers supported his campaign and condemned the planned anti-harassment law, which comes as employers respond to government financial incentives to hire more Saudi workers, and in particular more women.

One user wrote: “It is a man-made law and it can’t be accepted in a kingdom ruled by God’s law. They had better ban mingling of the sexes, not protect it.”

But Mr Dawood’s hashtag drew condemnation from others, who said the writer was a disgrace to Islam. One, Waleed al-Khawagee, asked: “What kind of person urges the youth to commit debauchery?” Another urged Mr Dawood to follow his own example and harass his wife and sisters.

The Twitter battle illustrates how the social and economic questions facing Saudi Arabia are being fought online due to the ban on public protests and the lack of a parliament or civil society movement through which to lobby for change.

‘Not that many women are able to go and work, given the environment and the set-up’– Kindah Sais, Procter & Gamble

While Saudi women have for several years worked in segregated and closed environments such as factories, some are now working for the first time in public in retail outlets – albeit often behind a partition from the main mixed shop floor. The government is keen to get more women into work to help reduce unemployment and the annual social benefits bill.

Progress has been slow in many sectors, however, with women held back not just by familial conservatism but by practical problems such as the ban on female drivers. While Procter & Gamble, the US consumer goods company, says about one-third of its 70 Saudi head office staff are female, women account for fewer than 10 of the 1,000 or so employees in its Saudi factories.

Kindah Sais, P&G’s senior Saudi talent practice leader, said it had been difficult to attract more workers to the factories, partly because the facilities were out of town and also because the flowing abayas traditionally worn by Saudi women were not allowed in the production areas for safety reasons.

“Not that many women are able to go and work, given the environment and the set-up,” Ms Sais said.

The push by Riyadh’s dynastic rulers to get more women into the workforce is part of a broader efforts to “Saudise” the economy, with hundreds of thousands of companies facing a deadline of July to meet quotas of Saudi employees, or else risk having their trading licences revoked.

The Saudisation programme is part of broader economic project that includes heavy government spending on housing, transport and education in the face of uprisings across the Arab world and growing concerns in Saudi Arabia about inadequate infrastructure and a fast-growing population.

The Saudi labour ministry declined to respond to questions from the Financial Times.

Malala visits UAE and Saudia

Malala Yousufzai was received by UAE’s top leadership on Tuesday at the Al-Bahr Palace

Malala Yousufzai was received by UAE’s top leadership on Tuesday at the Al-Bahr Palace

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General Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, received the young Pakistani girl who was attacked last year in her village of Mingora by the Taliban, for her efforts towards girls’ education.

On her way to perform Umrah rituals, Malala stopped over in Abu Dhabi to thank the UAE and Sheikh Mohammed for their assistance and support during her ordeal, noting that Sheikh Mohamed’s role highlights the humanitarian aspects of Islamic teachings.

The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi was briefed about Malala’s health and treatment she has been recieving in the United Kingdom.

Sheikh Mohammed appreciated the determination exhibited by Malala to overcome difficulties so that she may continue her noble mission, adding that it was a duty of all people to standby Malala, while she is spreading the principles of love and peace.

Malala was shot in the head on Oct.9, 2012, while returning home from the school in Wadi Swat, Pakistan, because of her defence of women’s right for education. She was rushed to the UK for treatment upon the efforts exerted by the UAE. She has recovered and is now returned to school.