As I walked home from the subway last night, a group of women in burqas floated down the sidewalk across the street. They spoke quietly amongst themselves–I could not hear their words. I could not see their hands or their feet. What kind of shoes are they wearing? I wondered. I tried not to be rude, not to stare. This is a custom I do not understand, a practice I cannot fathom. Their happiness or suffocation, like their limbs, would have been inscrutable.
I passed them from across the road and saw they were pushing a stroller. In it sat a young girl, dressed in a t-shirt and shorts, sneakers, and socks pulled up her calves. I could see her face. She was gesturing to one of the cloaked forms behind her and talking. I didn’t realize it, but I have never seen a baby in a burqa. Perhaps it is only with the onset of womanhood that bodies become objectionable. Or perhaps they are not objectionable, necessarily. Perhaps, like with many other things, the imagination makes the things we cannot see more desirable. Perhaps, in their yards and yards of fabric, they are as hidden as I am, and as on display for the gaze of passers-by, with more allure.
I turned the corner, considering whether the women in burqas would be offended by my thoughts. But what it is it like to live beneath a blanket? I could not stop my brain from shouting. Are you ok in there? Am I more liberated, or more deluded? As I turned to go into my own front yard, I realized they had turned down my block, as well. Their black, spectral shapes approached me from behind, and I jumped when I saw them, startled by their resemblance to what I imagine a ghost looks like. Not all there. I averted my eyes, afraid of being another gawking ignoramus.
But when I got inside the front door, I turned and watched them move past my building. They stopped outside to rest. The day was warm and humid. One lifted a bottle of iced tea to her face, flipped the face mask aside with a practiced motion, and drank. I stared. I could see her face. I had seen her hand. You are just like me. I wanted to look into her eyes.