‘It’s a personal choice’: understanding of burka wanted

February 18, 2021

A woman believed to be Oamaru’s first resident to wear a burka hopes to dispel common misconceptions about the religious dress.

Originally from Egypt, Nesrin Attia moved to Oamaru in October last year to join her husband Ahmed Elsaka, who moved there two years prior to work as a doctor at Oamaru Hospital.

The couple were neighbours in Egypt — a "silent love" as Mr Elsaka described it — and by tradition, Mrs Attia kept her maiden name upon marriage.

Since moving, she had experienced both positive and negative reactions towards her.

She had been called a ninja, had teenagers make bomb sounds at her, and negative comments had been made about her burka.

One woman had yelled at her while driving past.

What upset Mrs Attia about this was how the driver kept going, and she could not explain her choices.

It was not the first time Mrs Attia had worn a burka* while living in a Western country, having spent eight years in Ireland and two years in the United Kingdom.

Nor was it her first time in New Zealand; she had previously lived in Rotorua and Invercargill for Mr Elsaka’s work.

The couple had six children, three of whom studied and lived in Dunedin, and one in Christchurch.

Their two youngest lived with them in Oamaru.

A big misconception she encountered was the idea that her husband forced her to wear the burka.

In actual fact, Mr Elsaka had suggested removing it when they were met with insults.

"People think women are forced to wear the burka, but we continue to wear it in Western countries," Mrs Attia said.

"It’s a personal choice ... it makes me feel closer to God."

She started wearing a hijab after reading a book about them while living in Saudi Arabia, then transitioned to a niqab (which showed only her eyes).

She was confident in her decision, and negativity did not bother her as much as it used to.

What did make her sad was how the "mockery" made her her children feel.

"They say they don’t want to go out with me."

She started avoiding school events, trips, or social gatherings to protect her children, who had experienced bullying.

However, she had had positive experiences too, and was touched when people greeted her in Arabic, stating "salam alaikum" (peace be upon you).

She and Mr Elsaka appreciated how friendly people in New Zealand were, and it gave them confidence.

"I’m so grateful to New Zealanders because they are ready to accept and love others despite their different cultures."

Mrs Attia wanted to be more "integrated in society and make new friendships" without her burka being a barrier.

Once settled, she hoped to volunteer at a charity shop, and buy a caravan from which to sell and give away homemade Egyptian food to those in need.

*Mrs Attia used the terms burka and niqab interchangeably during the interview