Our neighbor moved to Uttara to be with her son who just got a job at the airport. A month later, I saw that her house was occupied, but the people I hardly ever saw. The previous neighbor and her husband used to come up to the roof in the early afternoon. They would hang their daily-rinsed clothes and sit down together to read the newspaper– she with her waist-length hair wet down her back, wearing only her day-dress with out the shawl. She’d watch me, we’d exchange smiles, I’d hang my clothes or keep reading to my kids with the veranda windows open to catch the breeze.

But these new people were very different. All the women (or was it only one?) wore their shawls covering their hair and face even when on the roof. The roof, in early afternoon is a private place. Usually there are no men in sight. It’s hard to hang up clothes while wearing a shawl that covers everything but eye slits. Sometimes their shawl would slide and they’d put the bucket down, go inside, and come back out with the shawl pinned tight. Once I saw a ten year old, with her head awkwardly covered, coming back from buying oil, pulling a crying toddler back to the house.

A week later, I was outside with my kids in the late afternoon when I noticed the new renters on the roof watching me. Another lady joined her and they watched till their curiosity got the better of them — and then one lady wearing a burkha came out with the ten year old girl and the toddler. Like everyone who sees us for the first time they had thousands of questions “Are you Bengali? Do you speak Bangla? Do you live here?” I enjoy talking to people. But it’s hard to talk to the person when all you can see is their hands, feet, and little glimmers of eyes behind the glasses, and all the rest cloth. It takes more time to warm up.

The next day, at sunset, (again) the kids were playing outside and us ladies were sitting on the grass. The ten year old from the new renters’ house came out and joined us as she kept an eye on the toddler. The ladies asked her all their questions — how many brothers and sisters do you have? Where are you from? What does your older brother do? Why did you rent this house?
And then, “Is that your mother?” There was a burkha-clad woman with her face veiled looking at us from inside the walled house.
“Does she always wear a burkha?” asked Rohim’ma. I was glad she asked because that certainly was my question. In my neighborhood, I think all the married ladies (including the Hindus) cover their heads when they are outside the neighborhood. A few of us cover when we are outside or when there are lots of unknown men around. And maybe 10% of us might cover our heads when we are on the roof. None of us cover our faces. A few of us wear burkha when we go far out of our neighborhood — but in the neighborhood, in the empty lots, surrounded by family and friends, we all relax.

“Yes, that’s my Mom. She doesn’t wear a burkha when she is inside!”
“Do you all always wear a burkha when you go outside the house?” asked Rohim’ma again.
“Because it’s ফরজ (mandatory), right, Apa?” She said turning to me. I happened to have sleeves down to my elbows and my head covered.
I was caught off guard and replied, “In God’s eyes, wearing a burkha is not as important as being honest and kind.”
“But it’s mandatory, to cover your head and your chest and arms, ” the girl continued. Maia wandered off into the bushes and I went to get her back to the grass. When I came back, the girl was still talking. “It’s not enough to cover when you go outside your house. Look, across the pond, you can see that lady’s whole stomach!” We all looked, and it was true. Shojol’dadi was cooking outside their shack-house and her sari wasn’t covering much.
“Hu,” said Faisal’ma in her colloquial way, and she tucked her sari better so that it hid her back, belly, and hair. She looked very insecure, like she was being judged for her sin.
“There are lots of kinds of Muslims, not all the Muslims in the world keep purdah the same way.” I said. The ten year old continued to talk excitedly about all the rules in Islam.
Maia was into trouble again, so I couldn’t focus on the conversation. When I came back, the ten year old was passionately saying,
“and he said, ‘I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me, I was in prison and you didn’t visit me, I had no clothes, and you didn’t help me.’ We have to love our neighbors. That is what Allah wants.”
I was surprised. Did this ten year old girl know she was reciting from the New Testament? In her family’s understanding, is extreme modesty part of loving your neighbor?
After that, the ten year old’s little brother ran down the road, and she ran after him and disappeared into her house. Us ladies sat around quietly on the grass.
“She’s talkative.” said Rohim’ma.