What Body-Covering Burqas and Scanty Bikinis Have in Common

I recently came across this cartoon and had to giggle:

In a burqa or bikini, seems a woman just can’t win…

I’m sure this telepathic exchange of inner-monologues isn’t an infrequent experience.

I had to chuckle because I am far from a burqa’d Muslim woman, but I still feel I get this same sympathetic glance every now and then.

Especially in the summer—when I wear my head covering along with my long-sleeved tops and pants—and inquiring women in tank tops and shorts just have to know as they fan themselves, “Aren’t you hot in that?”

Yes. Yes, sometimes I am. But if the heat has gotten to a point where I notice it, no amount of disrobing alleviates the discomfort. And, seeing my dress as a religious obligation, I sometimes laugh when I remember one of my friend’s responses when someone would ask her if she was ever hot in her headscarf: “Yeah, I’m hot.  But it’s hotter in hell.”

Now, I digress.

The cartoon above made me giggle not only because of its ironic message, but because I myself held the same thoughts when it came to women who decided to wear a burqa or niqab (face-veil). I share the opinion of many Muslim scholars who state that the niqab is not mandatory. So, why in the world would someone ever willingly decide to cover their face – ultimately killing their identity and individuality, fading into a sea of cloth looking the same as every other burqa’d women on a street.

It took encounters with several women around the world who time and time again explained to me why they made the choice – the personal CHOICE – for their own reasons to wear the niqab or burqa or any other piece of fabric that has been categorized by mainstream society as “fundamentalist.”

The reasons varied from woman to woman – some women saw it as a religious obligation and favored pleasing God rather than pleasing society; some women saw it as a political action since they had been denied to publicly wear their faith. Wearing the niqab become an act of political defiance.

Then other women had simply been born into a culture where all women dressed this way and they explained how they felt naked when their faces were exposed – why set themselves apart when there was safety in blending in with the crowd?

All of these reasons added another dimension to my understanding of the decision to wear this or that piece of religious/cultural attire. People were judging me just as harshly as I had been judging these women for wearing just the hijab.

I have my reasons for wearing my hijab, but the fact remains that it’s a choice I’ve made, just as many women have made the choice to wear more than just the hijab.

One niqab-wearing woman during the pilgrimage in Mecca, Saudi Arabia (my tent-mate in Mina) from Syria said something to me on the matter that I haven’t forgotten: “Today, they tell us it’s liberation to take off clothing.  In my country, it’s an act of liberation to put on more clothing. If it’s an act of oppression to force someone to cover up, why is it not an act of oppression to force someone to take off clothing?”

Ever since, I’ve spoken for the right of women to wear the niqab or burqa or hijab if that’s their choice.


Cartoon credit: Malcolm Evans


About Ammerah

Ammerah Saidi's life is a weave of her Muslin heritage, Detroit roots, and a commitment to guide others in their own transformation and development. Her identities as a Muslim and teacher have stirred her life with purpose and direction. Ammerah's work as an educator in under-privileged communities and volunteer as a youth and community organizer takes her from the classroom to the streets. The second of five children of Yemen immigrant parents, Ammerah's Islamic faith, Yemeni heritage, and American upbringing have shaped her perspective as a socially conscious citizen of the world.

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