September 2006

My earliest memory of a burqa is of Majda. Black polyester, falling well below her knees, liberally drenched with rose attar, the black net veil of the burqa thrown back to reveal a youthful, sometimes angry face, brown eyes lined with thick kajal and dark red lipstick adding to a flamboyance, her burqa could never contain.

A cook in my nani’s house in Lucknow, where I grew up, Majda would walk the 2 km to our place from her house twice a day. From the first click of the high, brown, iron and tin gate of the house, sandal heels on the brown and maroon mosaic of the outer verandah, glass bangles through the small gallery and the inner verandah and courtyard to the kitchen at the back of the house, and if she realized that my grandparents were away, Majda complaining of the long walk, the low salary she was paid, the amount of work she had to do in a house always full of guests and the travails of her latest husband.

To say that Majda was a great cook is by far an overstatement. She was good, if she set her mind to it and rarely was it that meals were not served on time. But if she was in one of her moods, which was not very often, my nani took over. Majda ate in our house, in the kitchen. She watched television with us, usually sitting on the floor – the class- divide very clearly demarcated and adhered to by all but in my memory never causing ‘us’ any discomfort. Infact she almost lived in our house, and only went to sleep and change at her place – ‘quarter’ as she called her one room rented home in a government colony for Class IV employees nearby.

By the time I was a teenager, Majda had married three times and had had a daughter, Reshma, from her second husband. Her lack of consistency in men, bothered my nani a lot and she tried to instill ‘good values’ in the ‘misguided girl’. Majda was asked to join our deeni taleem class in the evening but she refused. Each time my nani asked Majda to join her for prayers, she made her excuses: sometimes it was her mahina, sometimes a street dog had brushed past and that her clothes were na paak, at other times she was busy – till my nani stopped interfering.

Majda had several admirers, who would flock to the kitchen window – that opened in the street behind our house. She would chat with the young men – often younger than her own late twenties and they would often pass on sweets for her young daughter. My grandmother never discovered why she spent hours in the kitchen even after the work was over, while my ever-vigilant aunt chose to ignore the reasons.

Majda worked in our house for six years.

One afternoon, her daughter was playing ‘bows and arrows’ in the verandah with a few boys from the neighbourhood – emulating the much-admired Arjun in the serialized version of the epic tale of Mahabharata. Reshma would hold a newspaper in front of her face, while one of the children would take aim and shoot arrows through the newspaper – the holes creating different shapes, alphabets and numbers. One of the arrows pierced the newspaper and hit her left eye. She was rushed to the hospital but the injury was deep and Reshma lost vision in the injured eye. To say that Majda was angry is to make an understatement. The boys parents were suitably apologetic, offered to take care of the girls education, upbringing etc etc but nothing would calm here. She kept saying “if it was your child instead of mine…”

Majda left soon after the incident and didn’t visit us for a few years. In the interim, she married again and moved to a different part of the city. Then one Eid, she turned up, Reshma in tow, kajal as dark and lipstick as bright as ever. She had stopped working by then and would usually stay at home. She seemed to have come to terms with the accident but I could sense a certain guilt in her for what she believed was neglecting her child. A guilt, she tried to mask by being over protective and extra careful with her daughter – smothering Reshma with maternal love she was unused to.

A couple of years after this visit, my nani died and Majda’s visits became fewer. Gradually, she faded away from the collective memory of our family as other cooks and domestic helps took over. She was hardly ever mentioned in the house. Perhaps it was a deliberate atempt to forget her and in the process the afternoon when her daughter lost an eye while playing in our verandah.



SARTORIAL hijab is a phrase used to denote garments (typically female) associated with the modest dress of Muslims. It is merely one aspect of hijab that every Muslim is called to have.

The link has image and description of some of its forms

Veils worn primarily by Muslim women


In some Arabic-speaking countries and Western countries, the word hijab primarily refers to a headscarf worn by many Muslim women. But in Islamic scholarship, hijab is usually taken to mean modest dress and demeanour in general. The word used in the Qu’ran for a headscarf or veil is khumūr


A burqa (also burka or burqua) is a type of opaque veil sometimes worn in addition to a headscarf by Muslim women observing purdah.

Similar to a niqab, the burqa covers the wearer’s entire face except for a small region about the eyes. A full burqa or Afghan burqa is a garment that conceals the entire body. The full burqa includes a “net curtain”, which also hides the wearer’s eyes. During the Taliban‘s reign in Afghanistan, women were required to wear a full burqa.

Women in some Muslim societies or subcultures wear burqa because of exegetic interpretations of the hijab. Standards for modest dress (sartorial hijab) for Muslim women and men vary greatly depending on the cultural context.


The abaya is an overgarment worn by some Muslim women. It is the traditional form of hijab, or Islamic modest dress, for many countries of the Arabian peninsula. It is sometimes adopted in other parts of Islamic world. Traditional abaya are black, and may be either a large square of fabric draped from the shoulders or head, or a long black caftan. The abaya should cover the whole body save face, feet, and hands. It can be worn with the niqab, a face veil covering all but the eyes.

Saudi Arabia requires women to wear abaya in public; the niqab is optional. Abaya-wearing is enforced by the religious police, the mutaween.

Contemporary abaya are usually caftans, cut from light, flowing fabrics like crepe, georgette, and chiffon. They are now made in colors other than black.

In Iran the abaya is often referred to as an “Arab chador“.


In modern day usage, jilbāb (Arabic جلباب) refers to a long, flowing, baggy overgarment worn by some Muslim women. They believe that this fulfills the Islamic demands for modesty, or hijab.

The modern jilbāb covers the entire body, except for hands, feet, face, and head. The head is then covered by a scarf or wrap. Some women will also cover the hands, feet, and face. In Indonesia, the word jilbab is used for a headscarf rather than a long baggy overgarment (Geertz).


A niqāb (Arabic نِقاب) is a veil which covers the face, worn by some Muslim women as a part of sartorial hijāb. It is popular in the Middle East but it can also be found in North Africa, Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent.

There are innumerable styles of niqāb and other facial veils worn by Muslim women around the world. There are two very common forms which are found all over the world:

The “half niqāb” is a simple length of fabric with elastic or ties and is worn around the head. This typically leaves the eyes, and occasionally the forehead, visible.

The “full” or “gulf-style niqāb” is a total face cover. It has a upper band that is tied around the forehead and then had a long wide piece attached which covers the face and an opening for the eyes. Many also have a second or more sheer covers that are attached to the upper band and worn flipped down to cover the eyes.

Other less common and more cultural or national forms of niqāb are as follows:

The “Afghani” style burqa, a long pleated gown that goes from the head to the feet with a small crocheted grill over the face. Contrary to popular belief, the burqa is limited solely to Afghanistan and certain areas of Pakistan, although there are modified forms in Kashmir and amongst Afghani refugees; the vast majority of munaqabāt do not wear this item.

The Pak Chadar, a unique innovation from Pakistan that is a triangle scarf with two additional pieces. A thin band on one edge is tied behind the head so as to keep the chadar on, and then another larger rectangular piece is attached to one end of the triangle and this is worn over the face.

The simple hijāb wrapped, pinned or tied in a certain way so as to also cover the wearer’s face.

Other common styles of clothing popularly worn with a niqāb in Western countries include:

The khimar, a semi-circular flair of fabric with an opening for the face, usually bust-level or longer worn with the niqāb. It is considered a fairly easy form of headscarf to wear as there are no pins or fasteners; it is simply pulled over the head.

Gloves. Many munaqabāt feel that gloves are a necessity when wearing niqāb so no part of the skin is visible.