Arts & Culture The Traditions Issue

7 things you didn’t know about the burqa

Contrary to popular belief, women have worn the burqa for a number of reasons that go beyond just modesty
The burqa is the golden mask that has been worn by women of the Arabian Gulf Region for centuries. Courtesy of Dr. Karima Al Shomely.

It hangs on the faces of many elderly Khaleeji women, designs of it decorate dlal (Arabic-style tea and coffee flasks), t-shirts, and funky handbags, and it has been depicted time and time again in contemporary regional artworks. Though physically disappearing from the faces of young and middle-aged women today, the burqa– the golden mask that formed an essential part of numerous Khaleeji women’s everyday attire, from Oman to Saudi Arabia, for centuries up until the 1960s- is nonetheless a solid icon of our shared pop culture.

But what do we really know about it? I speak with Dr. Karima Alshomely, an Emirati scholar and artist who has been studying the burqa for more than four and a half years and is in the process of publishing a book about it, and she reveals all.

1. Wearing it isn’t just about modesty

Contrary to popular belief, women have worn the burqa for a number of reasons that go beyond just modesty, explains Dr. Alshomely when I catch up with her on a July morning.

Though indeed partly worn to maintain ‘decency’ and to provide themselves with a sense of ‘freedom’ in the presence of strange men they encountered in public, women also wore the burqa ‘to protect their faces from the heat of the harsh desert environment’, she says.

‘Old women [also] wear the big-sized burqa to hide their wrinkles’, she adds.

2. Braqa’a come in all shapes and sizes

The varying shapes and sizes of the burqa. Elderly women opted for the bigger braqa’a in order to hide their wrinkles, says Dr. Alshomely. Courtesy of Dr. Karima Alshomely.

Not all braqa’a (plural of burqa) are created equal. Shapes and sizes have varied across the Arabian Gulf Region. While her research has primarily focused on the burqa in the UAE or the ‘Emirati burqa’, Dr. Alshomely has spent some time in Oman, Qatar, and Bahrain doing comparative studies.

‘ [From just the shape of the burqa] you can tell if the woman wearing it is an Emirati, a Qatari, or an Omani ’.

3. But they are all made in the same place

Since the 19th century, the textiles for braqa’a– white cotton dyed in indigo dye- have exclusively been made in factories in India and exported to the Arabian Gulf Region, where they are cut and sewn into shape by local tailors.

Braqa’a are cut and sewn into shape in the Arabian Gulf Region. Courtesy.

Braqa’a are cut and sewn into shape in the Arabian Gulf Region. Courtesy.

While this may lead some to think that perhaps the origins of the burqa are in the subcontinent, according to Dr. Alshomely’s research,  ‘there is no evidence of local use in India’, past or present.

4. There’s no set rule as to when the burqa should first be worn

Dr. Alshomely wearing a burqa. Courtesy of Dr. Karima Alshomely.

Precisely when a female would begin to wear the burqa is a complicated matter, says Dr. Alshomely, which has varied from tribe to tribe.

She explains to me that in some tribes, a female would wear it upon getting her first period. This would signal to interested families and suitors that they could now ask for her hand in marriage. In others, a female would only wear the burqa after marriage, and it would indicate to men that she is taken and therefore unapproachable.  

Yet in others still, the burqa would be worn since childhood, as a way of protection against the scorching sun.

5. The burqa textile is believed to carry the light of Prophet Yousef

Part of her ‘Noor Series,’ this artwork by Dr.Karima Alshomely symbolises and embodies the light that passes through the burqa fabric , and represents the belief that the textile carries the light of the Prophet Yousef. Courtesy of Dr.Karima Alshomely.

Much of Dr. Alshomely’s research has depended on conducting interviews with elderly Khaleeji women who continue to wear the burqa, given the lack of in-depth research on the topic in the existing regional literature. What united these women was the common and popular belief that the textile the burqa is made of- specifically the indigo dye- carries the noor or light of the Prophet Yousef, believed by Muslims to be the most beautiful man that has ever walked the earth.

In fact, the indigo dye, extracted from the burqa by submerging it in water or bought directly from Oman (where the indigo tree grows), was rubbed on brides’ bodies shortly before their wedding to give their skin a glow.

‘The indigo dye would be mixed with a lot of oils, like rose oil and jasmine oil, and applied on the bride’s whole body and kept for three days. The bride would be isolated. Only female relatives could see her during this time’, says Dr. Alshomely, describing the ritual that was once widely practiced in the UAE.

Intrigued by the ritual and the widely held belief, Dr.Alshomely decided to try the ritual out for herself. She applied the indigo dye on her face (albeit for a shorter amount of time), and was positively surprised by the immediate results. She was even told by acquaintances unaware of her personal experimentation that ‘light’ seemed to be emitting from her face.

Dr. Alshomely’s personal experimentation with the indigo dye. Courtesy of Dr.Karima Alshomely.

This prompted Dr. Alshomely to send a sample of the dye to a lab in the American University of Sharjah, UAE for testing.

‘The results showed that most of its components are also used in cosmetics like lipstick and blusher’, she says.

6. The burqa was used as medical treatment

In the past, the burqa was used by some communities to treat certain ailments.

In the UAE, ‘It was used for treating chicken pox’, says Dr.Alshomely. ‘They would put the burqa in water and take the water and apply it on the body.’

The video depicts how the burqa is submerged in water to extract the indigo dye. Courtesy of Dr.Karima Alshomely.

It was also used to treat recurring nosebleeds.

‘A piece of the burqa would be burned and the bleeding person would be asked to smell the smoke’.

7.  Women have stopped wearing it for reasons of practicality  

Dr. Alshomely attributes the apparent decrease in the incorporation of the burqa into women’s daily attire to the changing lifestyles of Khaleeji women.

‘Schooling [in the region] started mainly in the 1960s’, she explains. ‘ Women became educated and began working as teachers, nurses, doctors… The burqa wasn’t practical to their careers’.

Yet, women of the younger generations still wear the burqa on special occasions.

‘ [Nowadays] people use it for fashion or style on specific occasions like henna or national celebrations’.

Disclaimer: Sekka does not in any way recommend, promote, or encourage the use of the burqa or its components to treat illnesses or ailments, or to be used as a beauty regimen on the body. Experimentation by readers is at their own risk.

Sharifah Alhinai is the Managing Storyteller at Sekka.