When I arrived in Kuwait, I thought it was hot. When I put on my burqa, it was a whole other experience. Imagine yourself in the last heatwave you experienced. Then imagine getting into a car that has been sitting out in the sun in a dusty parking lot with the windows rolled up and no air condition, all while wearing a ski mask. This is how I felt putting on the burqa in the Kuwaiti heat (Kuwait can get up to 130 degrees).
After putting on the abaya, I looked in the mirror and I found myself to be quite scary. To me, I didn't look modest, pure, veiled or exotic. I looked like a I was the monster in a horror film or Darth Vadar from Star Wars.
Still, I set out to explore wearing a burqa for a day, and I was determined to follow through. I first experimented with ordinary things like eating, talking on the phone and driving a car. Everything was hard because it was hard to see out of two tiny slits. I had trouble finding my phone in my purse, let alone talking on it. Driving was downright dangerous because I had no peripheral vision. Eating with a face veil was awkward. When Muslim women eat in public, they lift the niqab ever so slightly with each bite and lower the veil to chew. However, my experience with eating was a disaster. To begin with, I had trouble finding the correct piece of fabric that was my face veil and not my head veil. Then, I lifted the veil too high, showing my lips and finished off this display of awkwardness with getting hummus on my brand new burqa. For me, it was an incentive not to eat, in public anyhow. I also discovered that breath mints are essential because the niqab is covering your mouth and you are constantly smelling your breath
During the workshop, I showed them all my bellydance costumes. I explained how they were made and gave them ideas of how to make their own with the fabric, beads, and sequins I had brought. I went around to each student to talk to her about her costumes. I found that I had trouble communicating through the niqab an it wasn't just the audio level.
I was beginning to lose my ability to communicate.
It was difficult to express myself. I soon found the veil became like a wide wall between my students and me. I still felt like I was the same person underneath the veil: a fun-loving, spontaneous, free spirit. The problem was that I did not know how to express myself. It was like being in a foreign country and not knowing how to speak the language. I became frustrated and after a while, gave up trying to communicate. I just sat for a few hours without talking. It dawned on me that possibly this is one the abaya's purposes: to take away your individuality and personal expression.
Suddenly one of my students from Nigeria named Lovett demanded that I remove the burqa. She said she didn't like what it was doing to my personality and that she missed me. Other students began to chime in. Farah said that I had, "turned into a black cloud" and Dorothy said I had become, "a ghost of myself". As I ceremoniously removed the black robe, scarf and veil on my face, the group unanimously expressed that I was no longer the person that they had known when I was veiled. Some were shocked at the emotions that my experiment had stirred in them.
I was astonished at what was happening. In planning this experiment, the only thought I had about others is that I wanted to be respectful of their religious beliefs. I had so many preconceived notions of what wearing an abaya would do to me, but it never occurred to me to consider how it would make other people feel. Not all the women in my class were Muslim, nor do all of them wear abayas, but in Kuwait, the burqa is a part of every woman's everyday life.
Yet they were so affected by what it did to me. I was a mirror for them.
After the workshop, we all walked outside into a sandstorm that left a layer of dust on everything. Something profound had happened to me and it felt ancient. I felt a deep sadness for all women, past and present that have had to diminish their power and their radiance for the sake of protecting men's honor.
Many women insist that they choose to wear a burqa to honor their creator. I say this with complete respect for these women's religious beliefs: my experience led me to believe that wearing a burqa is oppressive to women and men. A senior Muslim cleric, Sheik Hilali said during a religious address on rape and adultery, " If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside without a cover and the cats come and eat it...whose fault is it, the cats or the uncovered meat? The uncovered meat is the problem. If she were in her room, in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred." This philosophy reduces men to having no control, no responsibility. What about strengthening their faith to find resolve to resist temptation? It certainly puts all the blame and responsibility onto women and creates shame about the female body, hair, lips and sometimes - even voice. By seeing the woman's body as dangerous and not a glorious creation of God breaks my heart. In addition, wearing a burqa is especially cruel in the extreme heat of Kuwait.
After the dust had settled, I felt grateful to have had this incredibly meaningful journey. As a woman from the West, it was an honor to have taught bellydance to women in the Middle East. This experience has served to strengthen my belief in the uplifting, healing and uniting power of bellydance.
Sun, June 15, 2008
by Ms. Dolphina