Walk a Mile in Her Veil

This weekend at the Walking Women festival as part of Somerset House’s Utopia programme, I was given the opportunity to wear a burka, through Yasmeen Sabri and her Walk a Mile in Her Veil project.

What follows below is a prose piece on the thoughts and emotions I was feeling in the hours after wearing the burka. It is offered not as any definitive position on wearing the veil – that position is not for me to take and nor would I advocate for any such a reductive reasoning. Nor is this offered as any form of ‘dress up’ cultural appropriation or as an act of white, western cultural imperialism. It is offered as an account of the experience from my intersectional self – I had my own conflicted feminist thoughts on the veil and it felt imperative, on being offered the chance to wear one, that I should take this to give me a slight insight into it as an embodied experience at least.

I am aware my terminology for the elements of the burka are clumsy – I have found conflicting terms for the components of the burka online so remain unsure how to navigate around this and have used the words we used in conversation on the day. I also refer to the category of woman in the widest understanding.

I first put on the dress of the burka. Wore it as a smock over my clothes. It was light and roomy. Lots of room in the arms – I didn’t know if I was expecting this or not. It was down to my feet and I walked a few steps, a naturally ‘wading’ motion as it felt so long I was cautious to not step on it.

On putting on the eye veil, the first thing I noticed was its pressing against my eye lashes. It was pressing them down and into my eyes slightly. It felt very close to my skin, very ‘on me’. I adjusted it slightly and it became comfortable. The veil was like gauze. I could still see, but it was a black filter to my vision.

The veil was tied close but not tight to my head. The smock was then pulled up and over my head from its material around my shoulders. I noticed then the layers of the smock and the veil more, how different the textures of the fabrics were. Yasmeen then took strands of the fabric at the head of the smock and moved these under the head covering and behind my ears to tie the strands behind the head covering, again, close but not too tight to my head. We laughed that she was battling against my quiff and worked to hide it. She then moved away and I realised I was dressed.

I walked to the mirror – I emerged into its frame and did not see myself. I was there but I did not recognise myself. I was a black form of my height, my shape, such as it was, beginning from my head in a gentle triangle. I could see my hands holding my phone. But not my wrists or forearms. I could see the toe of one shoe. I could see my eyes in the shadow behind the veil. I found it hard to look at myself then.

I turned to look around. I took some steps. It was easier to walk now. It felt very much that I was ‘looking out’. Sound was slightly muffled. Sight was through the black filter, but not dark or darkened – colour was still bright. No one looked at me – I did not know if this was ‘cos they weren’t looking or weren’t caring, of if the veil made me invisible or if, as this was an ‘activity’ at a conference, they were blind or blasé to me.

I wanted to look at myself again now. It was easier this time. I looked more closely at myself as a figure and at the detailing of the veil. It had sparkles on its hem. I tuned side to side, as I would looking in the mirror when trying any garment on. My feeling then was of an appreciation of this garment. It was comfortable around my body. But it was starting to get hot. I noticed how tired and old my eyes looked –‘even’ under the veil, there was vanity. I found my eyes hard to look at, I was confronting issues of myself by only being able to zone in on them in the gaze I scrutinized on myself.

I recalled how one person I thought would be challenged by the hijab, on eyeing someone wear it, they way to understand it was to say it was no different than their mother wearing a headscarf. I did not know if that was a good or bad way of understanding – it was culturally reductive but also, if it helped them normalise the veil in their purview, was that, in its limited way, a good thing?

Yasmeen told me how some women took food and ate under the veil. Someone next to me asked how people wore glasses and the veil.

I lifted the gauze veil over my head in an effort to get fresh air. This did give some relief. I sat down. A woman next to me in a hijab and I talked about how we felt safe wearing our scarfs and veils. Taking it off felt exposing.

Wearing it felt different, but not odd. I felt separate and abstracted, but the diversion, the break from the male gaze, was welcome and comfortable, I felt safe and protected. I reflected too that whist I no longer felt the individual and direct lascivious male gaze on me in my daily life as an object of desire, I do feel the omnipotent and structural male gaze on me that shames me for my body size and shape. I realised this was just like when I wear my ‘big clothes’ when I am self body shaming. Though I did not think this was a motivation for others necessarily, I wondered if this reprieve from being on show was welcomed in others as it was with me. We talked about how if you wear the veil you can and should be able to wear it as you wish; how telling someone to wear it, or not wear it, was an equal act against a woman’s autonomy. The experience was profound and ambivalent. I felt honoured to have had the experience, to ‘walk a mile in her veil’, and the opportunity for it as a means of cultural understanding. Later, from a sense of weighty and immense connection to my woman self and the women of the world, I wanted to cry.