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Ask Ali: Many types of burqa all signal woman is married

The origins of the burqa are steeped in mystery

Dear Ali: I have seen many older women wearing something metallic that covers their mouth and nose. What is it called and how did that become a custom of the region? YG, Abu Dhabi

Dear YG: The thin strip made out of metal, which is used to cover the areas of the eyebrows, upper mouth and nose, is called a burqa. Our Gulf burqa should not be confused with the burqa in Afghanistan, a head-to-toe covering for Muslim women. Many variations of the burqa exist in other Gulf countries. Nowadays, the niqab, which is well-known in Saudi Arabia, has pretty much replaced the burqa. However, there are many different designs of burqas for different ages and occasions.

Our national garb is unthinkable without the burqa; it's one of our oldest traditions. It is worn like a face mask that can hide wrinkles, scars, broken teeth and unattractive eyebrows. Today, mainly the older generations wear it and the younger ones rarely do. If the younger women do wear the burqa then they prefer to wear it in fancier designs. The burqa symbolises the marriage status of a woman; when a man walks by a woman wearing the burqa, he would always know that she is married and not available. This also meant that the burqa actually protects the women from strange men.

Unfortunately, there are hardly any written documents that provide accurate information on the historical background of the burqa; perhaps because British men who travelled across our region and were responsible for its documentation didn't come in direct contact with local women. At the time, the focus was more on the history of politics and the economy of the region. Therefore, the women-related issues and their part of our heritage were not recorded in written form, but rather passed on by word of mouth and between the generations.

I've heard a story of how the burqa originated as an idea from a battle that took place in Persia, when a tribe had fewer men but many women and they were preparing to fight against another tribe that had many male warriors. So the tribe leader decided to cover the faces of the women and have them ride horses so they looked from far away as if they were all men, and the trick worked against the other tribe, who withdrew from the battle when they saw how big the opposing army was. Then it's believed that this became like a blessing mask, and its story arrived to our region and women started to wear it.

Another legend says that a lady who wasn't happy to hear of her parents' decision to force her to get married decided to wear a mask to make her look scary to the man who would marry her. Don't ask me if they got married or not because the legend stopped there.

Many speculate that the burqa originates from Yemen, Oman or Muslims living in India. The colour of the burqa itself has definitely changed over time. It used to be metallic-red or golden but today it is usually black or silver. During the tribal days, the women of this region started to paint it with indigo dye, an ink-like colour in order for the skin to become shinier. The desert lifestyle with the harsh climate and lack of air-conditioning made it common to see women walking around with bluish streaks around their faces since the indigo dye of the burqa would start to come off with the heat.

Another difference is that, in earlier times, the burqa was always made by hand, while nowadays modern machines are able to produce so many disposable and cheaper burqas.

If you are interested in knowing more about our traditional burqas, I recommend you visit the Heritage Village in Abu Dhabi. I hope this helps.

Ali Al Saloom is a cultural adviser and public speaker from the UAE. Follow www.ask-ali.com to ask him a question and to find his guidebooks to the UAE, priced at Dh50.

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