Beauty Beneath a Burqa

Lately I’ve been obsessed with the idea of hidden beauty. More specifically, how people in the Middle East define feminine beauty. To be honest, all this wondering has had me in quite a fix, especially since even we in the west grapple with what makes someone beautiful, or how that differs from the popular media portrayal of beauty. Everyone’s heard of the age-old expression that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. At most, this surmises that the perception of beauty is deeply subjective and varies from person to person. But what if, quite literally, beauty is hidden from the eye? I ask you to envisage beauty when you’ve never seen it before. Beauty that’s not obvious. It doesn’t grab you by the balls and make you look at it. Heck, it’s not even visible. At least, not visible in the way we know it.

Underneath a burqa that covers the female body from head to toe with slots or semi-transparent mesh netting for the eyes, personal expression has to take on a different dimension. Or shall we say, what one says or how one moves becomes the direct channel of personality and character. How would you like to be judged for what you have to say, and for that only? Not by how fat you are, how pretty you are, or how feminine you are. Aussie-turned-Muslim mother Umm Zainab says: “People have to take you for who you are, not for your body or your beauty. You’re taken for who you are.” But for the rest of us, how much stock of our identity do we take from dressing ourselves, beautifying ourselves, and tweaking our appearances? How much individualism would we stand to lose? It’s hard to imagine that some girls have never had to worry about these things.

In a place where beauty is associated not with what one sees, but with what one doesn’t see, or smells, or catches a glimpse of, I’m guessing that the imagination would have to work overtime to fill in those blanks. Emma Watson once said, ‘the less you reveal, the more people can wonder.’ To think of beauty as a construct of the imagination, assembled piece by piece from a phantom limb, a bold gesture here, lowered eyelashes there or a fierce voice, takes genuine interest that goes beneath the skin. By marrying desire with imagination, I’m sure there’s something to be said about patriarchal objectification here, but then again what culture of feminine beauty doesn’t – eastern or western.

Freedom VS Oppression. To many raised in the west, having to cover up any non-sensitive part of the body because a group of men or the Koran tells you to, is a no-brainer form of female oppression, and the burqa is the symbol of that oppression. Australian-born former Malaysian princess Jacqueline Pascarl reveals during her royal studies of Islam that the burqa is a religious sartorial requirement because ‘women are culturally condemned to the role of seductress and are considered untrustworthy, immoral humans, driven to tempt men and bring down the bastions of male self-control’. Many argue that it is a personal choice, an individual right that pledges devotion to their god and prophet. But perhaps the question of freedom and oppression is much simpler for most burqa-donning Muslim women. Fatima, 23, describes it as ’empowering’ and says: ‘When you’re walking down the street and walking past a group of men or boys and you know they’re staring at you, you can do whatever you want, I can just make faces at them.’

To end this simply, we are different – beauty is different. One that asks for substance deeper than just looks shouldn’t be ridiculed. After all, our girls are the ones with the highest rates of eating and anxiety disorders, depression and suicide rates. (And would it destroy everything I’ve written here to throw in this meme?)

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