[Reader-list] Burqa in Afghanistan

SJabbar sonia.jabbar at gmail.com
Sat Nov 13 10:02:29 IST 2010

The Afghan blues
Advocates of veil say it earns women respect. But women have been punished,
killed, flogged and
insulted even under burka. Last year, the 'Swat video' shamelessly aired by
Pakistani TV channels,
showed a girl pinned to ground and flogged by Taliban. She was wearing
Sahar Saba

A week ago on my way home from work, in one of Kabul's dusty and unclean
streets I saw a little girl clad in a blue burka. She was hardly six and the
burka was especially tailored to fit her size. She was playing with other
children and was proudly displaying her burka. Her cute demeanor attracted
my attention. I kept watching her for a while. The manner she was conducting
her movements inside the burka made me smile. As I was leaving, the thought
of this child's future made me sad too. She and millions in her age will be
most likely forced under burka as me and my generation was. The situation
has not changed for my generation radically US' claims notwithstanding.

This little girl reminded me my childhood as well. Every time my mother
would receive women guests, we had extra burkas in our home. It provided my
siblings and cousins a chance to have enough burkas to play different games.
We used burkas to play hide and seek. We used burkas for role-playing. In
the absence of playgrounds, toys and recreational activities the burkas used
to be fun for us growing up in Refugee Camps outside of Peshawar in

It was fun also because we would play with the burkas and cast them off when
bored. My mother or other women in the family would remind us: 'don't worry,
soon you will have to wear it then you will know how it really feels!' Back
then it did not make any sense to me. Years later when Taliban were in
control of Kabul, I was traveling to Afghanistan from Pakistan. Now I was an
activist. In the first place, my family did not impose burka on me.
Secondly, I would have resisted it. But to enter Afghanistan, I had to
disappear under the infamous blue shroud associated with Afghanistan.

On my way to border town of Torkham, I had my burka folded in my lap. I was
wondering all the way if I would be able to manage wearing burka? Would I be
able to walk and see properly so that I don't attract Taliban's attention?
As soon we reached Torkham, my travel companion told me that from Torkham
onwards, I was not allowed to go without burka. It was a hot summer day.
Like other women, I disappeared under the blue bag. It was suffocating. My
visibility drastically reduced. It was indeed difficult to walk. I recalled
the warning: 'don't worry, soon you will have to wear it then you will know
how it really feels!'

We the poor Afghan women have to remain under burka all our lives. Even if
we are about to die, we are still not allowed to cast the blue bag off. A
few days ago, my mother was accompanying one of her relatives to a doctor. A
young mother of two, this relation of my mother was pregnant yet again. She
was indeed suffering. We all thought she would die. On her way to doctor,
she had forgotten about her kids owing to the pain she was suffering from.
But she did not forget to wear burka as she left home. She knew if she did
not wear it, her husband and other men in the family would be angry. It
doesn't matter if a woman is sick, if one is allergic to burka, one has
problem with her eye sight, all this is woman's issue. Men's issue is burka.
It protects their "honor" !

Today in Afghanistan more than 95 percent of women, for different reasons
(security, family tradition, imposition by men in family) have to wear
burka. Unfortunately, burka has arrived parts of Afghanistan it was absent
historically until fifteen years ago. In Noristan, for instance, where women
were often working in fields, they never dressed themselves in burka. It was
under Taliban's rule, even Noristani women were driven under burka. If they
did not cover themselves, they were punished.

During my long stay in Pakistan, I often would come across strange
arguments. Pardah (veil), I was informed by Pardah enthusiasts, earns women
respect. But in our society women have been punished, killed, flogged and
insulted even under burka. Last year, the 'Swat video' shamelessly aired by
Pakistani TV channels, showed a girl pinned to ground and flogged by
Taliban. She was wearing burka!

I have been asked many times by my Afghan sisters and when depressed I
myself sometimes wonder if something is wrong with us, are we such a shame
that we must be concealed so that we are not seen! No, like my sisters here
in Afghanistan, I know there is nothing wrong with us. It is our society,
our traditions, Afghan laws and patriarchy that is wrong.

Burka we know is a tool to control women. But for Afghan woman, it is a sad
reality that burka enables her to go out for education or work and offers a
refuge from insults hurled by men on the streets. The blue shroud is
paradoxically Afghan woman's prison as well as an intangible liberator too.
This is why out of 10 women, for example even in Kabul, one finds nine in
burka. They don't feel safe outside their homes without burkas.

For activist women, particularly on the countryside and in small towns,
burka has its own 'importance'. It was and is a tool of struggle. During
Taliban's time and even now, burka offers protection as women would carry
books, cameras and other documents under their blue burkas. For us in
Afghanistan, wearing or not wearing a burka is not as simple a debate as in
the West. Though I personally hope and wish there soon is a chance for
Afghan women to be free from this head to toe bag yet I also understand how
much has to be done in the fields of education, security, culture and
development before we can get rid of burka.

Sahar Saba is an Afghan women rights' activist. For many years, she was
spokesperson of Revolutionary Afghan Women Association (RAWA). Also, she has
worked with RAWA for many years in refugee camps in Pakistan and in
Afghanistan in different capacities. She has traveled to many countries in
the past several years to speak on behalf of Afghan women. She was born in
Kabul. Her family migrated to Pakistan where Sahar Saba became active with
RAWA. She has a law degree from London University and writes on issues
facing Afghan women.

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