A long, flowing garment that covers the whole body from head to feet, the burka, also known as burqa or abaya, is an important part of the dress of Muslim women in many different countries. Some burkas leave the face uncovered, but most have a cloth or metal grid that hides the face from view while allowing the wearer to see. The exact origin of the burka is unknown, but similar forms of veiling have been worn by women in countries such as India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan since the beginning of the Muslim religion in 622 C.E.
The Koran, the holy book of Islam, directs believers to cover themselves and be humble before God. Different societies and religious leaders have interpreted this command of the Koran in many different ways, often requiring both men and women to cover their heads as a sign of religious respect. Some Muslim societies have required women to cover themselves more modestly than men, covering not only their heads but also most of their bodies and even their faces. The burka is one example of very modest clothing worn by Muslim women.
The burka has mainly been worn in very conservative Muslim cultures, which often restrict the movement and power of women. Young girls are not required to cover themselves with a burka, but at puberty or marriage they begin to wear it. While women do not wear the burka while they are home with their families, they are required to wear it when they are in public or in the presence of men who are not family members. In many places the burka was first worn as a sign of wealth and leisure, because a woman could not easily work while wearing the long garment.
Though the burka often appears confining and limiting to Western eyes, many devout Muslim women choose to wear the long veil. Some say that the coverage of the burka gives them a privacy that actually makes them feel freer to move about in society. However, others say that even though the burka protects women from the staring eyes of strange men, it does not prevent the wearer from being touched or pinched by passing men. Also, many Muslim women who live in very conservative societies are forced to wear the burka whether they want to or not, and many have been punished harshly for refusing to cover themselves as their authorities demand.
El Guindi, Fadwa. Veil: Modesty, Privacy, and Resistance. New York: Berg, 1999.
Murtaza, Mutahhari. The Islamic Modest Dress. Chicago: Kazi Publications, 1992.
[ See also Volume 1, Mesopotamia: Veils ]