From past to present: The significance of the battoulah
Text by Tahmina Begum
Living amidst a pandemic has meant a new set of rules in today’s society: excessive hand washing, one-way queues, social distancing and most importantly covering our faces. However, masking one’s face is not a new reality for all, as face coverings such as the battoulah have been in Middle Eastern customs for centuries.
The battoulah differs from the niqab, which is usually worn with a burqa. In layman’s terms, it looks like a gold or metallic mask, falcon beak-like in structure, that’s mainly worn over the top half of the face. This traditional face covering worn by Bedouin women from across countries such as Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt is worn for a variety of reasons. The first is literal: a battoulah protects one’s face from the harsh desert climate. Yet it also works to serve modesty, an article used to avert the male gaze.
The battoulah keeps its footing in recent history through stories that have been passed down to the young Middle Eastern women of today. Accounts on how one’s great-great-grandmother for example may have once worn the battoulah meets a sweet familiarity with now millennial and Gen-Z women buying face coverings that both protects them from COVID-19 while also emitting a sense of style and personality.
This traditional face covering worn by Bedouin women from across countries such as Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt is worn for a variety of reasons
Nowadays young Middle Eastern women aren’t usually seen in the battoulah day to day
Traditionally tailored to fit one’s face structure, the battoulah comes in an assortment of colours and cloths to mark various occasions. A battoulah can be cut out in silk or fastened together in metals or goat leathers while threaded with sequins.
Nowadays young Middle Eastern women aren’t usually seen in the battoulah day to day, but those from countless cultures in the Middle East have been seen paying homage to what their ancestors would have once worn and many Middle Eastern women of today are documenting their own iteration of a battoulah across the internet.
For young women who prefer their privacy, the battoulah could act again as a form of protection from different means
The battoulah may be a rare find in a millennial Arab woman’s wardrobe, but it is not going anywhere. In the National Museum of Qatar, a metal sculpture of the battoulah has been exhibited by artist and grandson of the former emir, Sheikh Hassan Al Thani. Musicians such as Abir represent their Moroccan background through beaded and crystallised face coverings on EP’s and albums. With scarves, burqas and niqab styles spiking in sales due to COVID-19, the battoulah is bound to experience a similar wave of interest.
Perhaps those that have been passed down battoulah’s as family heirlooms will rummage around for what’s now classed as an essential. Maybe women will get their face measured to don the traditional face covering again? For young women who prefer their privacy, the battoulah could act again as a form of protection from different means, but mainly it is another example of how the past is never that far from the future.
Photos: Cover – Ushen Edeel, 1,2 – Ushen Edeel, 3 – Woman Inside the Tent 1959/Klaus Ferdinand/National Museum of Qatar/Moesgaard Museum, 4 – Motherland/Hassan bin Mohammed Al Thani/Little Adventures/Shutterstock