Burqa Tourism at its Finest: How to Become an Expert on Muslim Women in Just One Week

Burqa Tourism at its Finest: How to Become an Expert on Muslim Women in Just One Week August 11, 2009

Alicia wrote last week about female members of the British police force wearing burqas and headscarves to try to better understand the Muslim community.  Well, it seems like it’s “dress like a Muslim” month in Britain, because the Daily Mail’s Liz Jones has just written about her own experience wearing a burqa for a week.  It’s not pretty.

Before I start, I’ll just say that, while I’m skeptical of any attempt to wear hijab in order to better comprehend (hijab-wearing) Muslim women’s lives, I can at least sort of understand it if there is a really sincere effort to learn more about the kinds of reactions that such women might face from non-Muslim members of society.  What really bothers me is when these attempts are explained as a way to understand “what it’s like to wear the burqa” (or niqab, or headscarf, or whatever). If you’re wearing any of these things without any personal religious or cultural meanings attached to them, it would be hard to even come close to appreciating what it’s really like for women who wear them.

Im not sure if this is the author herself, or just some random niqab picture that they threw in, but its the photo that accompanied the article.
I'm not sure if this is the author herself, or just some random niqab picture that they threw in, but it's the photo that accompanied the article.

Jones explains her motivation for wearing the burqa as follows:

Moved by the plight of Lubna Hussein, a Sudanese woman who faces 40 lashes for wearing trousers in public, I decided to spend a week enveloped in what she should have been wearing.

Her article probably could not be filled with more burqa-is-oppressive cliches if she tried (for that matter, maybe she did try.  Either way, she sure managed to fill it up with lots of dramatic language.)  Her first day wearing it sounds almost physically impossible:

On my first day, I was unaccountably afraid to put on my burka. When I did pluck up courage, I felt suffocated.

Driving to my local station, I felt blinkered, like a racehorse. Walking to the platform, I could hardly breathe: I kept getting my nose out from beneath its shroud for fresh air. I felt weak, and faint and itchy.

She then gives us this anecdote:

I walked to the kiosk to buy coffee, staring at my feet to avoid catching anyone’s eye.

‘Mumble mumble,’ I said to the young man serving.

To his credit – the station is in Somerset, so I’m pretty sure this was the first time he’d encountered the full burka – he didn’t bat an eyelid.

I automatically lifted the cup to my lips. Ah. How on earth do women eat or drink? Later that day, at a coffee shop in Fulham, I sat outside at a table, faced with an insurmountable sandwich.

What can we learn from this?  First, that burqa-wearing women are, apparently, unintelligible.  Second, that Jones either can’t think ahead far enough to realize that maybe going for coffee in a public place isn’t so smart with no plan for how to consume said coffee, or that she did so deliberately to show us that Muslim women are so oppressed that we can’t even drink coffee or eat sandwiches.  The idea that women who cover their faces might either have already planned for how (or where) to drink their coffee, or that some might even temporarily uncover their faces in order to eat, doesn’t really factor in.

An alternate explanation arises in Jones’ next paragraph:

An Arab man shouted abuse. I have no idea what he was saying – perhaps I shouldn’t have been out on my own, or perhaps eating is a sin – but the interesting point is that during my week in a burka, he was the only person who gave me any abuse whatsoever.

Aha!  Maybe eating is a sin!  That’s how Muslim women survive the coffee-shop dilemmas – they’re not supposed to be eating anyway.

That aside (yes, I know Jones was probably exaggerating; I’ll concede that she probably does know that Muslim women eat), this paragraph irks me for other reasons.  First of all, if Jones “[has] no idea what he was saying,” how does she know that this “Arab” man was truly shouting “abuse” (and, for that matter, does she know for sure that he’s Arab)?  And how does she know that this abuse was even burqa- or Islam-related?  Maybe it was, as Jones assumes.  Maybe she had stolen his table at the coffee shop, or maybe her car was blocking his in the parking lot.  Maybe he was yelling at her because he didn’t like that she was wearing a burqa.  Who knows?  The point is that the suggestion that wearing a burqa gets negative reactions only from oppressive Muslim men attempting to police Muslim women’s bodies is disturbing and, if we listen to women in Britain who wear hijab or niqab for longer than Jones’ week-long experiment, not the full story.

In fact, Jones even dismisses one woman who talked about facing racism because of her clothing:

‘I have had so much abuse on the train,’ a British Muslim called Um Abdullah complained on Woman’s Hour. Well, she has obviously never travelled with First Great Western.

Does Jones really claim, from her one-week experience, to know more about abuse on a train than a woman who is always visibly identifiable as a Muslim?  It’s not that I would have wished negative experiences on Jones, but the fact that she didn’t have any doesn’t mean that everyone else should stop complaining because those experiences don’t exist.  And the solution shouldn’t be to just take a different train, as Jones implies with her praise of First Great Western.

Moreover, in the beginning of her article, Jones describes catching a glimpse of her own reflection while wearing the burqa, and seeing “a dark, depressed alien. A smudge. A nothing.”  Even if she says she didn’t face any “abuse” while wearing it, this comment is rather telling of the kind of judgment that she would see entirely appropriate to place on a woman wearing a burqa.  While someone in a burqa might not face overt racist comments on a daily basis, I would imagine that coming up against judgments such as this one (and having such judgments printed in a matter-of-fact way in a widespread newspaper) might just become a pretty significant frustration after a while.

Narrating other experiences, Jones tells us that:
Getting out of [a] cab, a passing decorator opened the door and grabbed my shopping – a burka makes you clumsy, slow, fearful because you can’t hear, and helpless; I spent most of the week feeling like a disabled person.
Never is there consideration made for the possibility that clumsiness and slowness might be more related to Jones’ unfamiliarity with wearing the burqa, rather than the burqa itself.  As for not being able to hear, I know a whole lot of women who cover their heads (ears included) in various ways and still manage to hear just fine, so I’m not sure what the problem was here.  The ableist language is also pretty striking; we should all feel shocked and sorry for Jones, because who would ever want to feel like a disabled person?!  [sarcasm]
The rest of the article is more of the same, and ends with:

On yet another perfect summer’s day in Hyde Park during my week covered up, I saw a crocodile of schoolchildren. Only the pale moon of the faces of the Muslim girls was exposed.

I know now exactly how they feel: marginalised, objectified, kept box-fresh for the eyes of male relatives.

All I can say to this is, no.  No, you don’t know how they feel (or at the very least, you can’t say for certain that you do.)  You don’t know why they’re wearing what they’re wearing, or what meaning it has for them.  Yes, some Muslim women feel marginalized and objectified, and sometimes this even relates to their clothing.  Other women might wear exactly the same clothing and feel entirely different, or might even feel more marginalized and objectified by non-Muslims than by their “male relatives.”  Spending a week in a burqa (especially when this experience is entered into already with fear and disgust towards the burqa) does not make someone an expert on how women who wear these things feel, or on how they should react to racism and abuse.

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