My week wearing a burka: Just a few yards of black fabric, but it felt like a prison

Liz JonesTimesOnline..Squatting next to me is my burka. It looks so innocuous: just a few yards of black fabric. But, my goodness, how oppressive it is, how suffocating, how transforming.

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.

Out shopping one day, I caught sight of myself in a Knightsbridge store window. Instead of me staring back, I saw a dark, depressed alien. A smudge.

A nothing.

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.

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.

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.

In fact, throughout my lonely journey, I was met with only helping hands and sympathy. 

‘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.

On one journey home, after a particularly hot day spent steaming like a suet pudding in Regent’s Park, trying to lick a 99, I wobbled to the buffet carriage and mumbled for a stiff gin and tonic.

‘Would you like ice with that?’ the young woman asked, deadpan. In a cab in West London, I was still called ‘darling’ by the driver.

Getting out of said 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.

The only odd glances I attracted were from small children and my border collie, who barked like a maniac.

One day, I had lunch with a friend in Primrose Hill. She walked past my table three times. I waved: I seemed to have been struck dumb.

‘How fantastic,’ she said, when she had got over the shock.

‘You don’t have to bother to put on make-up, or wash your hair. How liberating and at least you won’t catch swine flu or be leered at.’

This was a common response from my liberated, much groomed, often scantily clad female friends.

I admit, too, this had been my attitude in the past. Aren’t we equally imprisoned by the pressure to be perpetually exposed? But, having worn my burka, I find that attitude crashingly disrespectful of women such as Lubna Hussein.

In Afghanistan, the burka is known as the ‘chadri’; it became common only when the Taliban came to power.

When I think of the young men who have died fighting the Taliban and the calls to end a war that has ‘nothing to do with us’, I think of how I felt in my mobile prison and remember that, for all those women forced to hide their faces and their bodies, their fight is our fight, too.

The night I finally took off my burka, I wanted to put on make-up, spaghetti straps and the highest shoes I own. All week I’d been wearing scent, so compelling was the need to be feminine.

I was supposed, during my week in purdah, not to expose any offensive ‘toe cleavage’, but I got so hot that I resorted to flipflops – the steam had to escape somehow.

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.

I find it disgusting that we allow British schoolgirls to be treated in this way.

One Reply to “My week wearing a burka: Just a few yards of black fabric, but it felt like a prison”

  1. When I read this article originally, it didn’t take long for the usual nonsense to emerge: ” wearing a burqua is a woman’s choice” and ” take a look at how western nations oppress women by charging them to adhere to impossible beauty standards” two of the most predictable defensive arguments put forth. The truth is, that this article draws into question this overt arrogance compared to Lubna Hussein’s struggle to confront the very same arrogance that is inflicted upon her by way of sharia in Sudan. In her defiance of it, she is set to be flogged with 40 lashes for wearing pants, yet these defenders of Islamist doctrine in the west say nothing in her defense.

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