The burqa's origin is uncertain but UAE women have been wearing it for generations and some still make their own.
The inside surface of the mask is rubbed and polished using oyster shell or stone and painted with indigo dye, reputed to have a "beautifying and whitening" effect on the skin, says Umm Nasser, as she rubs the burqa's cloth on her hand, leaving a dark, bluish mark. Further rubbing brings a shiny, pearly tinge to the skin. "The dye gives the skin a glow," she says. While largely perceived from a Western perspective as a mask designed to conceal a woman's facial features, Umm Nasser says the burqa is in fact "part of our zeena [beauty regime], where it is meant to beautify the woman and hide all her flaws. It is not about suppression."
Nevertheless, the burqa has left its impression on more than Arabic culture; some of the older types, says Umm Nasser, used to leave a mark on the nose, while some could permanently change the shape of the wearer's nose. Because of the lack of written records about the history of the burqa, the origin of the mask is uncertain, and speculation has it coming variously from Yemen, Oman or even further afield, from the Muslim communities in India. Among the Arabic tribes of the Gulf, at some point the metallic finish was added - a development now lost in time but which has been handed down through successive generations.
"The only written records here were made by the British, and often the British men would not have access to the local women and so a lot of the women-related heritage was not recorded," says Dr Jane Bristol-Rhys, an anthropologist in the department of humanities and social sciences at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi. "There was also a greater focus on the political and economic aspect of life here, and less so on the social history."
Some believe the traditional design of the burqa deliberately mimics the features of the falcon, a traditional Arabic symbol of grace, pride and strength, but for Umm Nasser it serves a practical purpose, helping to emphasise some features of the face, while concealing the others. "The wrinkles, broken or discoloured teeth, unattractive eyebrows, the burqa hides it all and helps the eyes stand out," she says. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the slit around the eyes "is larger in younger women, and gets smaller as they get older".
Traditionally, the colour of the burqa was red, known locally as "nili", the colour of a firm, shiny cloth imported from India for more than 100 years. The more modern burqa, made with a material also imported from India, is golden. Before the UAE came into being in 1971, the old handmade burqa cost about Dh1 to Dh2. Today, modern machine-made examples cost about Dh10, but for her traditionally made burqas, which take about 20 minutes to make, Umm Nasser charges Dh20.
She starts by cutting the eye slit in a folded piece of a nili cloth with a pair of scissors, leaving space for the "saif", the wooden piece that rests on the nose and is placed vertically between the thicker portion of the mask on the forehead, "al jabha", and the curved part along the cheeks, "al khad". "A jabha is sewn extra thick with many folds to prevent it from getting damaged too quickly from water or sweat," she says as she quickly stitches in the tiny multiple folds that give the burqa its shape.
After she cuts out the eye slits, she forms a sleeve in the middle into which the stick is inserted which holds the burqa straight. Next, she carefully forms small folds to form the ruffled top edge, through which is fed the "seer", the thread that ties the burqa in place at the back of the head. This used to be a simple cotton thread, but the modern ones are synthetic, with more of a shine to them. Some call this the "shubug", and prefer it to be red, although today others favour silver.
In the past, because of the harsh climate and lack of air conditioning, it was not uncommon to see women with bluish streaks around the openings of the burqa, as the dye ran with the heat, and the burqa would have to be replaced almost daily. "The burqas of today are more disposable and cheap to buy, so the minute there is any damage, we discard them and put on a new one," says Um Nasser. "It was much harder before as we would have to make our own burqa each time and often our hands would be so sore from all the sewing."
As well as the burqa, Umm Nasser would have to sew all of her own clothing, as well of that of her children. "The old days were hard," she says, "but we enjoyed making everything with our own hands." The design of a burqa varies according to which part of the UAE its owner is from. The Dubai design, the "Zabeel cut", also worn in Abu Dhabi, has a narrow top and broad, curved bottom. The Al Ain design, on the other hand, features both a narrow top and bottom - a design that Umm Nasser declines to wear because, she says, it "looks like a moustache" and hides the least amount of face. In Sharjah, the burqa resembles the Zabeel cut but is shaped so the top of the mask is inclined forwards.
The burqa is not limited to the UAE. Variations can be found in nearby countries such as Oman, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait. The Bahraini and Qatari burqas are square-shaped, whereas the Omani burqa, also worn in Fujairah, is very large. It is broader at the top and its tip rises above the forehead. In Saudi Arabia the niqab, a black cloth that covers the face, with a slit for the eyes is worn, not the burqa.
Umm Nasser's husband is a retired pearl diver and the family does what it can to keep up the old ways; she says she is fond of Freej, the popular home-grown animated cartoon series, because it brought back the "allure" of the burqa. "The younger generation started asking about the burqa again, and that is a great thing to remind the young of the old ways and dress." Although women have dressed modestly since the spread of Islam, the method of covering the face has been less standardised than the clothing they have worn. But whatever style is worn, use of the burqa was widespread just a generation ago, while today some may wear it while others do not, even within the same Emirati family.
One who does is Maitha al Mazroui. Now 35, she has been wearing the burqa since age 10, unlike the rest of the women in her family. Out of personal interest, she once tried to research the origin of the burqa, but ran up against the lack of documentary evidence. All she could glean from elders in the Al Gharbia region was "my grandmother and the grandmother before me wore it, so then I did. For some reason, nobody thought of keeping records of things like where our dress or heritage pieces came from." This, she said, is a "downside" to nomadic tradition.
In previous generations, she says, some men would never see their wives without their burqa, which in effect became part of the women's face. "It just became a part of us, often we would forget we are wearing it," she says. "I feel exposed without it." Laughing, she adds: "And if I take it off now, people might accuse me of going wild." Times, says Umm Nasser, have changed. She recalls that Sheikh Zayed used to encourage the preservation of traditional clothing and said that "he will not attend a wedding, unless the bride wears a burqa".
But although Umm Nasser taught her daughters how to make the burqa, she doubts they will ever wear one in public. The reality, she fears, is that "it is a traditional wear that will fade in 20 years. It will be just a museum piece."