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What is a Burka?

By Tara Barnett
Updated May 21, 2024
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A burka is an article of clothing worn as an outermost layer by women of certain Islamic traditions. The garment is worn over the attire that the wearer considers normal daily clothing, and is removed when the wearer returns to her home. This is primarily intended to prevent the woman's body and face from being seen in public, particularly by men who are not her husband or in her family. Wearing a burka can also be seen as a declaration of religious faith and sentiments, much like other forms of religious garb.

The garment itself is symbolic of a specific tradition, and criticisms of women who wear a burka are usually not about the garment itself, but about what it stands for. These garments are typically made of fabric that covers the whole body, which is pleated and attached to a skullcap. A slit or a mesh area is left around the eyes so that the wearer can see. Without much form fitting structure, the garment reveals little of even the human silhouette, such that no aspect of the form of the shoulders, torso, or legs is apparent.

Although black and blue are the most common burka colors in most of the world, the garment is occasionally seen in other colors. Burkas are embroidered in some traditions, and can be made of many different fabrics including cotton and silk. This garment should not be confused with other interpretations of hijab, many of which allow the face to be shown. While these other garments are also presentations of an Islamic woman's call to modesty, they are considered a different class of clothing.

Burkas have become highly politicized items of clothing from many standpoints, both within the Muslim community and in non-Islamic contexts. Opponents to this tradition claim that burkas are oppressive to women, and that they not only represent but also cause this oppression. They are often in favor of banning them, particularly for young women in school.

Both male and female supporters of the garment claim that wearing it is a right, one that should not be taken away by purportedly secular sources. There are abundant testimonies of Muslim women who assert that they are not oppressed and that they choose to wear burkas, and these are often used to support the position that these clothes are not enforcing sexism.

In some countries of Islamic tradition, such as areas in Afghanistan and Pakistan, women have been compelled by certain groups to wear full burkas in the face of severe penalties. The Taliban, for instance, has been an enforcer of burkas, along with other measures to aggressively protect the chastity of women. While the clothing itself may not be oppressive, there are certainly cases such as this in which the garment has been used as a tool to oppress women.

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Discussion Comments
By MrsPramm — On Nov 03, 2012

@pleonasm - No dress code is going to be perfect. Humans are strange animals and we focus on strange things. I once lived near a traditional Muslim family, and the women of that family wore full burkas when they were out in public.

It occurred to me that I never said hello to them in passing, like I did for any other women. Probably because of no eye contact. So I made up my mind to do it and was gratified by the friendly response.

The fault was in me, not in the way she dressed. This is something that needs to be drilled into people's heads for all kinds of reasons.

By pleonasm — On Nov 02, 2012

@bythewell - Well, the problem is, if you examine either of those things from a social viewpoint, you can see that (perhaps surprisingly) both are right. The fact that we hide away and sexualize the breasts so much in the Western world is slightly oppressive. It's the reason we have big controversy over women breastfeeding in public (something that's been done for millions of years without anyone getting up in arms).

Likewise with the burka, by hiding a person's face, particularly their eyes, it is much more difficult to see them as a person. When you consider what happens to the civil rights of people who society doesn't see as "people" you can see why that might be a problem.

By bythewell — On Nov 01, 2012

I think it's sad that people think of the traditional burka as being automatically exploitative and oppressive. It makes sense in general, as a garment for the desert, with a covering for the eyes that blocks the sun like sunglasses do and full body coverage to keep from getting sunburn or too hot.

It can be oppressive, of course, if women are forced to wear it. I've also heard of forms of the burka that obstruct sight or the ability to move or handle things, but generally they are very comfortable and the women wearing them prefer them. They wear more casual clothes in private with their friends and family, so they aren't shut in all the time.

It's just another tradition. There are countries in the world where they probably think it's oppressive to make women wear bras and shirts, because that isn't their custom.

By ddljohn — On Aug 22, 2012

@alisha-- Yes, all women in Saudi Arabia must wear a burka in public. You can't step out of the house without it. If you're going to Saudi Arabia, you have to put it on before you get to the airport there.

I think that forcing women to wear burka dresses is oppressive. But I also don't agree with some Western countries banning Muslim women from wearing burkas either. No matter what the reasoning is, both is too extreme and strict in my opinion.

By SarahGen — On Aug 21, 2012

@alisha-- I think different Islamic countries have different requirements about attire for women. And some don't have any requirements at all.

I'm not sure about Saudi Arabia, but I do know about Iran. My friend is married to an Iranian and she went there last summer to visit his family. She said that she just head to wear a headscarf when she was in public, not a burka. There are women who choose to wear the burka there, but it's not required.

And she said that even the way they wore the headscarf was very lenient. They could show their hair at the top without problems.

So and Islamic burka is definitely not required in all Muslim countries. There are probably just a few that have that enforcement.

By discographer — On Aug 21, 2012

So are burkas enforced in all Muslim countries?

What about in countries where there is a Muslim government but there are also non-Muslims living there? Are non-Muslims in those countries required to wear a burka too? For example, if I went to Saudi Arabia, would I have to wear a burka?

I think Muslim women should be allowed to wear whatever they want. I mean, it's their religion and it's between them and God so who are we to decide what they should wear?

The only thing I think might be of concern with the burka veil is security. Like, I wonder if a man could go around with a burka and no one would know? It could be easy to hide things under the burka too I suppose. I can see how some Western countries might have issues with people wearing burka in their country because of security concerns.

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