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Text by: Mariam Rashid

Issue name: The Secret Lives, Hidden Guises Issue

The secret life of the burka


Recently Ive been thinking about the concept of super powers, and not in the sense of US/Russia Cold War. Unfortunately, its been more along the lines of cool super powers and the identities that keep them hidden. Think Clarke Kent/Superman and Bruce Wayne/Batman. Fundamentally, if comics teach us anything its dont judge a book by its cover as you never know what life is being lead behind the superficial. In a common theme it seems that most of our childhood heros have the ability to disguise and make invisible their real selves. Of course not all journalists in glasses have superpowers and not all obscenely rich business men over identify with bats, just like not all women in Burkas disguise their real lives under a cloak...but some evidently do.

It began, like all good theories, in anecdotal stories over the dinner table about girls in full burka turning up at sexual health clinics getting checks for STIs...Mills and Boon Esq. pre-martial promiscuity, not what you would expect looking at the cover of that book but definitely enough to make me curious. Then came the image of a burka clad lady in my reception at Probation, her crime; shoplifting to fund a Class A addiction. As you can imagine, after this my curiosity reached its peak and the cat was most definitely on its last legs. It seemed that the secret life lead by some under the Burka wasnt just a London centric phenomenon.

In Mombasa, Kenya, twilight ladies, as the prostitutes have come to be known, have reportedly ditched their skimpy uniforms for the more conservative Muslim dress of the local women including full body and head covering. A recent report goes on to interview some of these sex workers who say the new dress hides their identity, helps them avoid arrest and look respectable. Sounds like the same justifications given by Bruce Wayne and through it you can see why this power has at times in history been harnessed for political purposes. During the Algerian Revolution, an early tactic used by the revolutionary forces was to get women to carry ammunition and correspondence along the winding medina streets under their Burkas. Later, even the men would don the Burka so they could pass through the same streets and evade detection.

Interestingly, the use of the Burka as a cloak of invisibility spans into more conservative Muslim countries too. The documentary Behind the Veil was aired by Channel 4 and revealed the secret world of Muslim Iranian sex workers who stalk the night wearing full veil whilst standing on the sides of busy roads with only their stilettos on show to passing crawlers. Further, a more recent estimation suggested that there are several thousand night butterflies in Dubai thought to be serving the fun starved Saudis at the cost of around £7000 US dollars a week.

So what does this all mean? To be honest Im not too sure...I guess thats why it is a developing theory. Clearly for some women who choose to don the Burka it gives them the super power of invisibility. Society, although often scandalized by the sight of it wandering down the high street, in the same breath chooses to ignore the women that exist under it.

For some women this leaves them free to be whoever they want to be without ever being detected. It leaves them free to live whatever life they choose, safe in the knowledge that their identity is disguised and that they are invisible, not just from the authorities, but usually from the persecuting eyes of the community they are trying to live in.