The United States consulate in Johannesburg recently hosted the burkas Project, dealing with Muslim identity from the perspective of Muslim women who wear the burka (an outer garment worn by women in some Islamic traditions for the purpose of cloaking the entire body) and niqab (a veil that covers the face).
The project involved 10 young women from three schools in the Gauteng region — the Lenasia Muslim School, the Jordao College and the Hope School. The learners — from diverse religious and cultural backgrounds — had to design their burkas and spend a day wearing the Islamic garb in a public space.
Roy Wilkinson from Jordao College, who coordinated the project at his school, said it was valuable because it gave the learners a tangible experience and thus made it real and meaningful. Daniel Viljoen, from Hope School, said his learners respected the opportunity because it gave them first-hand experience and they could re-evaluate how they felt about the religion and women. Students from the Muslim School, who understand its relevance, saw the exercise as a means to dispel negative and ignorant notions of the Islamic faith and Muslim women.
Inger Smith, grade 12, Jordao College:
People would laugh at us as if the religion was a joke. I felt as if I was a ghost at times and like I was mourning. It was tiring and hot. I used bright colours to show that I was not mourning, but happy. The circles represent the fact that there is no end to people’s ignorance — they knew nothing about us, but chose to laugh.
Nonina Maranjana, grade 12, Jordao College:
When I slipped the burka on that morning, I slipped on a new life. But in my culture black represents death and my family felt like I was bringing bad luck to them. Clothes are self-expression and I felt that I couldn’t express myself with the burka. We were not given seats at a restaurant even though there were many empty tables and they were staring unashamedly at us.
Jabulile Mqoqi, grade 12, Jordao College:
I didn’t know my true identity because of people’s negativity. I felt as though I was doing something wrong because of people’s stares. First, I felt dehumanised, then I felt pure and innocent — that’s why I put a white ribbon on my burka. I realised that people’s minds have not changed, so the pins symbolise the cruelty. This experience has taught me to respect religion far more than I ever have.
Tanya Daku, grade 12, Jordao College:
The judgement that oozed from the customers’ eyes pierced my heart, causing me to look quickly down in humility. I missed my inviting smile, daring red hair, my feminine soft hands and everything else God had blessed me with, but I knew that a piece of cloth didn’t define me, nor did I have to look like everyone else to feel that little inch of acceptance, but I began to feel weary.
Megan Richards, grade 12, Jordao College:
Most people treated us badly just because we did not look like them. Every child was scared of us and even asked if we were good or bad people. I personally respect these women as it is not easy for them. Everyone is special in their own way even if we do not look the same.
Felicia Ntuli, grade 12, Hope School:
I am a Christian and a paraplegic. I rolled into this journey, took my emotions, assumptions and whole being and took this burka for a ride. Even though I use more facial expressions and body language to communicate, I felt as if I lost my identity. I realised that there is a reason many women still wear it. It is probably because they are okay with it. It is their choice and their right.
Megan Treadway, grade 12, Hope School:
I wore it to school and I was called a Ninja turtle, Batman’s sister and the most insulting of all, a terrorist, which stuck with me all day. Then I knew what these women must feel like. To tell you the truth, I used to laugh at women who dressed like this, but now I know better. I will never look at these women in the same way ever again.
Umme Salma Lachporia, Grade 11, Lenasia Muslim School:
Why does this way of dress attract such powerful interest? How does it affect other individuals who do not subscribe to this way of life? I realised people are so indoctrinated with the mindset that it stifles a woman’s freedom to live a fulfilled life and imposes on her rights. I decorated my burka with slogans to convey the true messages. The stars portray inner beauty shining through because with this way of dress comes modesty, bashfulness and a virtuous character. My privacy is my pride.
Aaqilah Bhayat, grade 11, Lenasia Muslim School:
I was actually being identified as the poster girl lamenting oppression of womanhood. The arrogance of the West is surpassed only by its ignorance. Many women are reclaiming the burka, reinterpreting it in light of its original purpose, giving back to women ultimate control of their own bodies. You see, I am not controlled by my miniskirt and revealing shirt, so I’m never harassed like sexual dirt!
Nazeerah Rasool, grade 11, Lenasia Muslim School:
The meaning of this way of dress extends to the depths of modesty, privacy and morality. Being feminine represents purity. Being pure comes with morals and dignity, which are linked to respect and faith and, ultimately, when this puzzle is built, a picture of contentment, serenity and peace is established. Why do they consider it derogatory when they have no knowledge of Islam?
Photographs by Sydney Matlhaku
Zaheda Mohamed was project manager of the Burkas Project