One of my favourite Emirati traditions is the burqa, the Khaleeji burqa is not to be confused with the Afghani burqa which is a garment that covers a woman from head to toe. The burqa in this part of the world is completely different, it only partially covers the forehead and upper lip of its wearer’s face while its shape reminds of a horizontal H. Unlike the Afghani burqa, the khaleeji burqa is not an Islamic but a cultural tradition.
The burqa also known as naqba, batula, baqara or maqrun. As always it is difficult to be certain about the origin of the word burqa, but it is most likely from the Persian word purda/parda which means curtain or veil.
Many people assume that the burqa is made of metal or gold, due to its shiny material. If the Bedouin women wore metal on their faces in the Middle Eastern sun they would have had very bad scaring on their faces from the burning metal. Instead of metal the burqa is made from a golden, shiny ink injected cloth imported from India called ‘shelah’. The material was dyed with indigo dye called nile-ink from Egypt, which then stained the woman’s face due to the heat and humidity leaving a purple/blue mask on her face. This stain is also called the ‘sunset’ effect and was seen as beautiful back in the days, when there was no other make up available.
There are several different stories about the origin of the actual burqa and why women started wearing it. Back in the days not many ‘outsiders’ had contact with the local women so it is difficult to be certain. I will write about three possible stories which I have heard from Emirati women.
Scaring away the arranged husband: A girl who was not interested in the man her parents had chosen for her decided to scare him away by wearing a mask – the burqa, and while she was at it she made sure that nobody wanted to marry her.
The beauty of the falcon: Some people say that the burqa shows the features of a falcon. The falcon has always been a symbol of pride and strength in the Middle East and the burqa does indeed have similarities with a falcon’s peak.
Back in the days it was more common amongst Emirati women to wear a burqa, girls would start wearing it the moment they got engaged, to symbolize that they are not available anymore. For many women it became part of their appereance and they would not even remove it at home.
These days some elder women, mainly in the more traditional parts of the U.A.E. such as Liwa wear the burqa, and only very few younger women. The burqa is now an accessoire which is worn at special occasions, such as weddings and the National day.
There are so many different styles of the burqa, depending on the origin and the preference of the woman wearing it. Another reason why there is so many different shapes, may be because women used to custom shape them in order to contour their face in the best way possible.
Zabeel cut design narrow top and broad, curved bottom, originally worn in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Al Ain design also Abu Shanab narrow top and bottom.
Sharjah design same as the zabeel cut, but the top of the mask is inclined forwards.
Bahrain & Qatar design the burqa is a square.
Omani/Fujeirah design broader at the top with a large top that goes beyond forehead. The material may also be black.
In Saudi the burqa is replaced by a niqab, which is a black cloth covering the whole face.
Only very few local women still master the art of burqa making. The burqa is made from a linen material imported from India which is dyed blue/purple and then rubbed down with ball glass or a ghawa cup to get the shiny, metallic finish. Back in the days women used oysters and seashells to achieve the shiny result. The middle of the burqa is called ‘saif’, which translates to sword, and the string attached is called ‘shubuq’.
A burqa is a wonderful ‘souvenir’ from the United Arab Emirates, which does not take up a lot of space in the suitcase and can then be framed at home.
Although burqas are such a huge part of the Emirati culture they are not very widely available. In Abu Dhabi there is the old Madinat Zayed Shopping Center, some shops that sell abayas might also be selling burqas. I bought a few of mine from Swiss abayas. Other places are the Qasr Al Hosn festival, Al Dhafrah festival in the Western Region and the Sheikh Zayed Heritage festival in Wathba. In Dubai burqas are sold at Heritage village. The prices depend from place to place, at shops in malls you should pay 10-20dhs per burqa, at festivals they may cost from 20-30dhs depending on the quality. More unique burqas like the Omani burqa can cost up to 500 dirhams.
Disclaimer: I am quoting U.A.E. Nationals in this article, there is no written documents that any of the details in this blog post are true as there is very little evidence of the local women.