I boarded the plane in Nairobi dressed in a two piece grey burka with red and blue roses painted on the skirt border. But I arrived in Los Angeles for my fellowship at the LA Times in a pair of jeans and an orange thigh length kurta top.
It is a transformation that happens every time I leave my home in Kenya for the West. My burka lifts and the red glints of henna in my black hair are visible in the sunlight. My arms and shoulders which carry the weight of material are unburdened and swing freely by my side. And my denim clad legs break into a comfortable stride, unrestricted by the circumference of a long skirt that covers me to the ankles.
But the physical aspect of removing the burka is just a part of the experience. Every time I wear it, I don a demeanor that dials down the volume of my voice and laughter. The adjustment is almost second nature today but it wasn’t when I first started wearing it shortly after my 13th birthday. It cloaks my individuality, and combined with the sense of otherness and insincere deference that it evokes from a Western culture, I prefer not to wear it outside Kenya.
But in Kenya the burka is a magic cloak that endows me with the freedom to work and walk freely.
At public events, I can observe without being forced to participate; I am safe from unwanted sexual advances; and gifted with (what sometimes feels like) the luxury of behaving subserviently.
One in ten Kenyans is a Muslim, and by wearing the burka I am granted automatic membership to a group that looks after its own. And that is the reality of being a Muslim woman in Kenya: you are almost guaranteed a particular form of treatment.
When walking in unsafe neighborhoods or using public transport in Nairobi – a city where women bear the brunt of violence as muggings and petty theft skyrockets – I am protected by the mantle of a religion that allies me with a group that will not entertain social misconduct towards women.
In my burka, I have walked the streets where Kenya’s most unfortunate live and have not been paralysed by fear. With my purse safely closeted in the folds of my voluminous outfit, I have visited some of the poorest and most dangerous slums including Kariobangi, Huruma and Kibera – areas I could never have entered in jeans and a T shirt.
And my multi-colored Islamic outfit – a design that characterises a sect in the Shia faith and is distinct from the flowing Somali chador (an increasingly stigmatised community in Kenya because of its association with the extremist Al Shabaab) – has allowed me to talk to hawkers selling their Made in China wares; mama mbogas (women selling vegetables) with their pyramids of bright red tomatoes and scaly purple onions; and ashy skinned street children rummaging through black plastic bags of rubbish looking for metal, glass and paper to sell to the city’s scrap metal dealers.
But while the burka offers a refuge of sorts in some scenarios, transitioning from the slums to the skyscrapers has not been as easy. Kenya’s capitalist driven economy continues to prize Western values, and prejudices against Islam are difficult to overcome.
A director at one of Kenya’s insurance companies once said to me, “I hope you don’t intend to wear that to the meeting,” making it clear how a burka was not considered suitable attire for the workplace. And an editor at a regional publication was visibly surprised when we met in person after weeks of talking on phone and email: “From the way you write, I was expecting someone dressed in jeans,” she said betraying her perceptions about Muslim women and education.
But attitudes are slowly changing – despite the surge in terror attacks in East Africa which have underlined religious stereotypes – and more Muslim women in prominent public positions are embracing the hijab (headscarf) forcing the country to confront its stereotypes about the veiled woman.
When the United States gets there – and when I figure out how to express my individuality from inside a burka – perhaps I will be more comfortable stepping off the plane in Los Angeles without stripping down to jeans.