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Islamic Like Me: Why Don't You Just Take It Off?

Any stereotype of Americans being openly intolerant or bigoted was pretty much shattered during my first 24 hours wandering around under a veil. Even the cameraman was surprised by the lack of reaction.
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Danielle Crittenden wore a burka for a week during her daily life in Washington, D.C. Click here to see a video of her experience, which appears in Canada's National Post. Click here to read previous posts.

Part Three: Why Don't You Just Take It Off?

My daily routine is probaby not so different from other at-home mothers. But
this routine rests on freedoms I never even considered before I tried going about my life wearing a burka. Actually, "freedoms" is too grandiose a word for the very ordinary assumptions and abilities a free woman takes for granted when planning her day. Try imagine doing everything you do, except covered by a pup tent without the poles.

Or just try to take a sip of coffee.

The first morning I descended to the kitchen looking like a black ninja--as my 5-year-old described it--I was feeling pretty pleased with myself. I'd finally mastered how to pin my facemask and cloak to each other so they wouldn't slip all over the place. The length of time it had taken me to don the outfit was offset by the fact that I didn't have to dry (or even wash) my hair or puzzle over what to wear. Nor did I have to worry about make-up, except for a little concealer and mascara for my eyes--the only part of me visible. Score one for the ninja.

But then, as I poured a bowl of cereal, I reached for that first delicious sip of milky coffee and...there was this huge black napkin in the way of my mouth! So I lifted up the bottom of the napkin and guess what? I could no longer see my coffee cup. How on earth do Islamic women eat and drink? I assume by fumbling blindly, which is what I did.

I slowly maneuvered the cup towards the mask's concealed mouth hole and felt for its rim with my lips. Ah, the warm sensation of milky coffee...seeping into the fabric over my chin.

"Oh man." I dabbed at the mask with a paper napkin, which only produced more visual comedy for my teenage son, whose attention was briefly diverted from the sports pages.

"Why don't you just take it off?" he asked.

True, according to Islamic customs, I did not strictly have to wear this outfit in the confines of my home--so long as the only men present were related to me. However, my kitchen is in the process of being renovated: It's not a kitchen any more per se, but the set of a blown-up house in Baghdad (a perfect backdrop for what was quickly becoming my own Islamic reality show). Because of the renovation, "strange men" were coming through my house at all hours and without warning. The only place I could be truly "safe" from prying male eyes would be locked upstairs in my bedroom all day. That wasn't going to fly.

A short time later my builder John walked in and made for the coffee pot. I'd warned him the day before about the burka.

"Hi, John."

"Hey Danielle." He sat down at the breakfast table and took a long, unhindered sip of coffee.
I twirled around. "What do you think?"

John appraised me as he would a piece of drywall. "What I'm wondering is: Does this mean David gets more than one wife?"

"Ha ha," I replied. "I'm not sure he wants another wife. One is bad enough."

"Yeah." John nodded. "I guess it's one of those deals that sounds good when you're 18--not so good when you're going on 50."

I glanced miserably at my still half-full cup of coffee. Subsequent sips had not been more successful; I now smelled like a Starbucks.

With family out the door, it was time to head to a morning spin class.

* * *

A North American "healthy lifestyle" and Islam do not go together very well, at least if you're a woman. Or maybe its followers do not believe any North American lifestyle can be described as healthy. Either way, I was darned if I was going to miss my spin class.

I'd put on a pair of bike shorts under the black yoga pants I was wearing as part of my burka look. Only my fat white gym shoes looked conspicuous.

Brent Foster, the cameraman, accompanied me. "You're not really going to do the whole class in that are you?"

I scanned my gym pass. The woman behind the reception desk--with whom I usually exchanged a friendly hello--didn't recognize me. Nor did she register any reaction to my choice of exercise gear.

Ditto as I wandered through the busy floor of treadmills and exercise bikes to get to the spin studio. If those semi-naked (as they now seemed to me), sweating bodies were at all startled by the hooded spectre passing below the TV crawl lines, they weren't going to show it.

"Of course I am. Islamic women have to do it."

Just this past September, Iranian authorities allowed its national women's volleyball team to participate in the Asian Senior Women's Volleyball Championship--so long as their uniforms met standards of "Islamic Dress Code." If you can picture a squad of bandaged mummies leaping and spiking, that's what the Iranian team resembled: Their bodies were wrapped in white cloth from head to foot, with only their faces exposed. The volleyball uniform was similar to styles of "Islamic swimwear" worn on Middle Eastern beaches and at public pools in Beeston. It's kind of a cross between a scuba suit and flannel pyjamas. And it explains why doctors are increasingly concerned by Vitamin C and D deficiencies on the rise in societies where women must cover themselves completely every time they step outside.

I adjusted my bike as Brent got the camera ready. As people streamed in, they saw a shrouded figure warming up in the corner. I'd warned some of my spinmates and the instructor that I might show up in my burka. A few chuckled, remembering what was going on. But others who had no idea what I was up to glanced over and then went about readying their bikes. Only after they were told what this was all about did they reveal that there had been some hostile whispering about me in the gym.

Our feet began pounding the pedals in rhythm to rap music. The burka started to steam up. We raced, we climbed, we jumped. The oxygen flow, short to begin with, got shorter. I was gasping in mask, spit, sweat, recycled breath. My robe grew horribly clammy--as if I were wrapped in a damp shower curtain (Note to Nike: there may be a market for Dri Fit burkas). I desperately wanted a sip from my water bottle but I was still getting used to finding my mouth "hole." My lips groped for the spout; I felt like an infant rooting for its bottle. Mommy! There it was. I took a swig and kept pumping. In the mirrored wall I noticed the reflection of a strange cloaked woman riding a bicycle. Oh, that would be me.

"Where to next?" Brent asked after the class.

I was so sweaty and exhausted I wanted to say "Home, James" but I knew we had to stop at the Whole Foods near the gym for groceries.

This time Brent stayed outside with his camera. I grabbed a cart and launched down the produce aisle. On a weekday morning, there weren't many other customers--a few mothers pushing toddlers, an elderly couple, a clerk stacking apples. All acknowledged my presence in one of several ways--ways that were to become very familiar throughout my experience wearing the burka:

1) Perfect facial control: "Do you see a woman in full abaya, Gladys? I certainly don't."

2) Complete indifference. "Hey if that's your bag, lady, it's fine with me." Most people under 25 wouldn't even take a second look.

3) A fixed smile: "I know you're dressed oddly/in a way I find disturbing but I would never judge you by it."

4) Determined helpfulness: "Sure thing--check Aisle 7." "Would you like anything to go with that latte?" "Will that be all for you today?" 2007-12-05-Abaya_market.jpg

In some cases, Brent would notice passersby turning around to stare--but not until they were a good twenty feet away. Otherwise, any stereotype of Americans being openly intolerant or bigoted was pretty much shattered during my first 24 hours wandering around under a veil. Even Brent was surprised by the lack of reaction.

That is, except from those under 5. Unfailingly, small children were delighted by me--as if I were a Princess Jasmine character from SaudiWorld.

"Who are you dressed as?" asked a boy, grinning from the seat of a grocery cart. His mother immediately reacted with option 3, combined with a little shrug of embarrassment, as if to say "Kids! I'm sorry if he has in any way offended you."

"Oh! I'm wearing Islamic dress."

"I thought you were an owl!"

At a restaurant I started up a conversation with a couple and their new baby--and while it was a completely mundane discussion, I could see that the parents were actually thrilled by their "non-reaction" to me. I'd made their day by giving them the chance to demonstrate how tolerant they were.

But I was finding it all very hard. Some women who have voluntarily decided to wear burkas describe how "liberating" it is to be no longer judged solely by their appearance. Yet what human being (aside from Pamela Anderson) is ever judged solely by his or her appearance?

We communicate with each other in a thousand subtle ways, thousands of times a day--through facial expressions, through body language and combinations of both. Suddenly I couldn't offer a person who helped me even a simple smile of thanks. I felt like a social paraplegic.

There were more revelations to come.

MONDAY: LAST OF FOUR PARTS. "Do you have Skymiles?"

Photographs by Brent Foster, National Post