She looked like a ghoul. They all did, in fact, these women in burkas. You know what I’m talking about, the long garment—very often black—that hides everything but the eyes, the stark symbol of Taliban-inspired oppression that France has outlawed.
That I was in Malaysia, a Muslim country, didn’t matter. I was, after all, at a beach resort. The heat was stifling. At most, people were wearing loose shorts and tops, and those who gathered poolside wore far less.
Everyone that is, except the burka women.
They sat poolside covered from head to toe. They ate at the restaurant by lifting up the veil. They walked the hallways of the resort looking to my American eyes like spooks. Were they hiding guns under all that fabric? Were they made to wear them by the men whose sides they never left? I couldn’t take my eyes off of them, partly because they fascinated me, partly because I was scared they might at any moment blow up the restaurant.
But as the weeks passed, something strange and unexpected happened.
It was the pink sneakers that started it. My wife noticed her first—a burka-clad woman who, underneath all that black, had on pink sneakers. I don’t know what I imagined they wore on their feet. Sandals? Tissue boxes? Claw-shaped boots? But pink sneakers was not on my Top Ten list. She also had on jeans. We began noticing that the burkas, though uniformly black, often had ornate patterns and were individualized.
And the guys these women were with? They weren’t brutes. They were as nice as could be, and shared private jokes and intimacies with their mates just like all the other couples. Then came two sights I never imagined: a burka-clad woman with a life-jacket on, steering a jet ski. And the one who was parasailing, her ebony gown flapping 50 feet above the Malacca Straits.
Okay, so the burka women weren’t Taliban. They weren’t Al-Qaeda. They weren’t out to kill me. The burkas they wore were just garments, nothing more, nothing less. They were women now, no longer ghouls, no longer scary.
In fact, they were friendly too. On my last day—it’s always the last day, isn’t it?—my wife and I went to Batu Caves. It’s a popular Hindu shrine outside Kuala Lumpur that you reach by climbing 272 stairs. As we were leaving, my wife—who had already taken 1,000 photos in our two hours there—stopped to take shots of a long rail where pigeons had stopped to rest. Oddly enough, a young man had his camera trained on a parallel rail, which was also filled with pigeons.
The woman with him wore a burka. She looked at my wife. She looked at me. She looked at her husband. She looked back at me. I did the same then gave an exasperated eye roll. All I could see was her eyes, but like me, she was laughing.
© 2010 The Peoples News