The Burqua Experiment
Today I wore my burqua in public. I bought the thing last autumn on the internet. I wanted to see what it was like to wear one, and hoped also to find the courage to wear it in public. I wanted to see how the city would react. We're very Canadian in Saskatoon, and most folks will only have seen such a garment in the news, if they even noticed it!
Last Hallowe'en I wore it to the movies at a mall, and a quick walk down a busy street past night clubs. People showed a lot of fear at the sight of me. My husband suggested that it represented terrorism to them.
At any rate I didn't get the courage to wear it again till this week. Hearing the various news reports out of Afghanistan and other places where the Taliban has power, I got mad. I decided to go around in public in my hot pink burqua and pinned a sign on it saying "Support Afghan Women." I delivered my bicycle to the bike shop for spring repair work and then donned the pink tent. As I walked down the street I was thrilled that I didn't have to try and hide my giggles as people turned and looked at me. The majority of them managed to keep a neutral expression, some smiled and occasionally a car honked. I stopped in on a merchant friend of mine. She was extremely amused and we chatted a bit. Walking down the bridge I had some horn honking. I paused at the middle to try and take a picture of the view from behind my burqua. Sadly the netting didn't have the same look in the lens as it looked for my eyes. Then a gentleman called out from across the road wanting to take a picture. I stopped for him, tried to photograph him back, but my camera had grit in the aperture control ring. Very frustrating. I gave up and put it away and rearranged my robes to continue my jaunt. A block away from the bridge another pedestrian chatted briefly, saying he thought I was doing a good thing. A motorist called out asking me to show him the sign more clearly. Yet another block passed under my pink billowing fabric and I saw a police car, sirens blaring, race towards the bridge, right past me. I wondered amusedly if they were after me for pausing on the bridge but as they didn't stop, I shrugged it off. Sure enough, just a half block further along I was stopped by Saskatoon's Finest. I did not lift my cover. I chatted with him as I would anyone wanting to know what this was about. I explained about buying the burqua and what concerned me about the women in Afghanistan. He told me someone had called in a report of a woman wearing a "pink sack" with signs pinned to it, which they couldn't read, standing on the bridge. People were afraid I'd jump off. I assured him I was fine and he agreed that he could see by the signs that it wasn't a suicide note. He asked if I had any ID. I told him no. They never ask if they can see it, they ask if I have it. This time I knew that and left it home so I could honestly say I did not have any. I knew I was likely to be interacting with these fellows! He asked me for my name, I gave my first name and spelled it. He asked for my last name and I said "withheld."
"I am choosing to withhold my last name."
He let that pass a bit, started asking me if I was on any medication, etc. I told him I was not. He wanted my birthday, I gave him that also. Not because I had to, but I figured being middle aged works in my favour and, really, I wanted to be generous since I intended to stand on my rights to not be identified if I wasn't breaking a law! He introduced me to another police officer. I saw his name tag and so addressed him by it. He asked how I was doing, I said I was fine. The first one brought a third member of the force over. I inquired of their names as they didn't have name tags and I thought it might be useful to seem as though I was keeping track. I only remember the name of the fellow with the tag now, but that's okay. It was my way of keeping my footing in the power struggle. Again they explained why they were here, and requested again my last name. I said again that I'm choosing to withhold it.
"May I ask why you don't want to tell us your name?"
"Well officer, I firmly believe that a citizen's rights are worthless unless she chooses to stand on them. If you have any conversations about what I'm trying to achieve today I'm happy to keep chatting with you, but I will not be answering any more official questions, please."
He nodded agreement and dropped the issue. At this point he inquired of my bags, the camera, purse, and laptop case. I explained that I was going to go online and blog at the bubble tea shop where I was going for bubble tea. They then politely asked if I was willing to show my face. Again, they have to ask, they cannot demand. I rather like that. I firmly believe a society is only as free as it's citizens' ability to defy unjust laws. I did agree to show my face, asserting that as a non-muslim it was not a problem, and I raised my veil. I commented that I probably looked quite nervous.
"After all, I have three police holding me up on a sidewalk with a police car with it's light flashing, it's quite unnerving."
"I haven't been impolite or intimidating with you at any time, have I?"
"No officer, you've been very nice, but you must understand, there are three of you and I'm being detained. If it's all right with you, though, as I have not done anything wrong, I'd like to stop this now and be on my way, I'd really like to go have my bubble tea."
They seemed relieved to see that I was a person with a smiling and open face who did not appear to be carrying any weapons or under the influence of any drugs, and finally they gave up on me. With a final request to give them a break and stay off the bridges, they backed off and I lowered my veil to continue my walk on jelly legs with pounding heart. I was so grateful of that all-enveloping veil to hide the riot of emotions that crowded across my face. I was at times feeling brave, frightened, assaulted and victorious and even just plain silly. People continued to look at me in the same neutral questing fashion and I finally made it to the sanctuary of the sushi bar where they know me so well. Set up at a table with sushi and tea and a laptop, I waited for a friend to come meet me. We walked around a bit and then, because it was late, he drove me home to end my crazy day.
Tomorrow I will be walking back to the bike store. I will print new signs that say "speak up for afghan women" because my merchant friend thought that the burqua walking in was going to try and solicit donations.
For the woman under a veil, it is a strong sense of security. If the world around her considered it normal, it would in fact be a very nice feeling. Here where it is a dramatically weird thing the safety is much eroded. I do understand why women choose to wear the veils even when not required.
I just think they should have a choice. Not only in whether to wear the veil, but also in other matters of destiny and lifestyle. They should be able to choose to disagree with their religion. They should be able to choose whether to marry, and have the power to say "no" to abuse or other demands.
Fight for your rights, then fight for the rights of others.
I had a more or less uneventful walk today. This time I did change the signs to read "speak up for Afghan Women" rather than "support" because it was more what I wanted to say. I truly want people to think of the oppressive laws against some middle eastern women. Women who cannot work, drive, go out and about or even attend school without facing harsh punishment. There are women who are blamed if they are raped and may be jailed or executed for it.
While walking I was reminded of the extreme discomfort of this overwhelming dress. The fabric blew against me and tiny fibers tickled my face. The fabric against my mouth smothered me. I was forced to use my hands to pull the material taut while also trying to keep the voluminous folds in control in the wind. Even as the wind blew up and under, against and through, in the fine spring air, my body sweltered. I wore simply jeans and a tee-shirt underneath but it was too warm. The air was not hot, being a mild spring day with piles of snow still melting everywhere, but I sweated, both rueing the wicked wind's tugging, and blessing it's cooling. When I reached my destination I was very glad to take it off and fold it up. I truly don't know how women in roasting hot desert countries can survive with so much fabric but I suppose if you're born, bred, and cultured to it, it's different.
While walking a lot more cars slowed down in passing to stare than yesterday. Perhaps because yesterday was rush hour and they weren't going very fast. One carload of brats even laughed as loudly as they could following it up with some swearing "WTF!!!!" I was glad to be someone used to the nonsense cruelty of ignorant people. I am an adult survivor of childhood peer abuse, as well as being a flamboyant character and having had flaming pink and purple hair fashioned in a mohawk. I know all about being catcalled, having things thrown at me, and generally being bullied by cowards in cars. For a truly modest muslim woman, this would likely be excruciating. As convenient as a burqua is compared to various layers of scarves and veils, I can see that it would not be a first choice in Canada!
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Saskatoon, Saskatoon, Canada