Local resident speaks about Pakistan and the burka

By Martha Marteney - Staff Writer
South Windsor - posted Thu., Mar. 17, 2011
Mona Chaffin and Dot Lessard help Leslie Kingsbury try on a burka at the Bolton Community Education Foundation's presentation on demystifying the burka. Photos by Martha Marteney.
Mona Chaffin and Dot Lessard help Leslie Kingsbury try on a burka at the Bolton Community Education Foundation's presentation on demystifying the burka. Photos by Martha Marteney.

South Windsor resident Nilofer Haider recently presented a program entitled “Demystifying the Burka,” hosted by the Bolton Community Education Foundation. The program was held on March 16 at the Bolton Congregational Church. Haider spoke about her native Pakistan and the burka, or covering, traditionally worn by women whenever they are outside of the home or likely to meet men not related to them.

Sandra Hastings, chair of the BCEF, welcomed the audience of more than 75 community members, saying, “The large crowd shows that if you provide interesting programs, people will come.” Hastings originally met Haider while working on the committee to bring Greg Mortenson, author of “Three Cups of Tea,” to Connecticut. “You meet people in this world who just touch you,” said Hastings of Haider. “I don’t know a better human being.”

Haider grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, and moved to the United States in 1978. Now an American citizen, Haider returns to Pakistan for three weeks every December. Haider was raised as a Muslim, although her mother was a practicing Catholic who had emigrated to Pakistan upon marrying Haider’s Pakistani father.

Over the years, Haider said she has witnessed Pakistan becoming a very different place from the land in which she grew up. Much of the change, she feels, is due to the lack of literacy and education. Most of the people who could leave the country, including many educated professionals, have already left, she said. The Pakistani government does not provide any education for its people, and private education is generally very expensive. The exceptions are the madrassas, or Islamic seminaries, which are often funded by radicalized religious groups, Haider said.

On a visit to Pakistan a couple of years ago, Haider took some photos for a friend, who was preparing a presentation about the refugees at a women’s health clinic. “I learned a lot about the coverings that day,” said Haider. The clinic was a drab, grey concrete building, but it was filled with the colors of the women’s burkas. Her photographs depict women of all ages in all types and colors of burka.

“I’m not here to defend or glorify the burka,” explained Haider. She said that most women in Pakistan choose to wear the covering, whether Christian, Hindu or Muslim. Although Haider does not wear a burka, she noted that her paternal grandmother, a highly educated woman, had three burkas; an everyday cotton one; a silk burka she would wear when going to tea with friends; and a velvet one for political events.

The burka is a traditional covering used to clothe the silhouette of the body as a simple means to dress modestly. The burka is a full covering, mostly worn by pubescent girls and adult women. Most women wear, at a minimum, some form of purda, or “curtain.” The duppatta is a head covering often worn by younger girls. Older women might opt to wear a chador, which is a cloth used to cover the body, and can even cover children being carried by the mother.

Under the burka, women can wear any clothing they choose. Traditional burkas with hand-embroidery cost up to $20. The modern, Chinese imports cost only $3 each. “People are always looking for identity,” Haider commented, meaning the burka can help the women feel part of the group.

After her presentation, Haider encouraged people to try on a burka. “I found it comfortable,” said Mary Cavello, “but restrictive.” With the peripheral vision cut off by the veil, Cavello said she could not imagine keeping track of other people, especially young children or crowds.

“It was fascinating,” said Leslie Kingsbury after trying on the burka. She said she did not know that wearing a burka in Pakistan was a woman’s choice. In Saudi Arabia, however, it is a legal requirement to wear a burka outside the home.


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