Looking Behind The Burqa

Despite the veil, Afghan women are far from submissive. Tim McGirk on the open, engaged women of Afghanistan

Monday, Nov. 26, 2001

It's hard to believe that women who are hidden under a burqa retain a sense of style, but they do. This year's trendy color for burqas is a pale sky blue. A few years back it was a coppery brown. The fashion center for burqas -the Paris, if you will, of Afghanistan - is Herat. Afghan women rave about the delicacy of its embroidery, the exquisite pleating which gives the burqa a shimmering, watery feel but which takes hours to iron.

Vanity in Afghanistan can be a form of rebellion. In Kabul, women would allow a bit of lace trimming to show at the edge of their burqas, and they spent a lot of money on fancy shoes imported from Iran. There was even a brief period in which women wore white socks, before these were banned by the Taliban as too provocative.

Most educated Afghan women I've spoken to loathe the burqa. It induces panic, claustrophobia and headaches. It's a psychological hobbling of women that's akin to Chinese foot binding. It's also life-threatening. Imagine trying to negotiate crossing a busy Kabul street, dodging donkey carts, careening buses and Taliban roaring by in their Datsun pickups when your vision is reduced to a narrow, mesh grid. The plus point of a burqa is that it confers invisibility on a woman. In lawless Afghanistan, that's a necessary shield.

In Kandahar province, not all women wear burqas. The Kuchi nomad women never do. They are fiercely independent, usually wreathed in silver necklaces and dressed in spangling embroidery, and they stare boldly back from atop their camels when you cross them on the roads. It's their custom to go unveiled, and because the Taliban Vice and Virtue Police usually stay in the towns, and the Kuchis have ferocious dogs and even more ferocious husbands, these nomad women are left alone.

At the refugee camps, it's the women more than the men who do the talking. The men are stoic in their grief, while the women keen. At a camp near Spin Boldak, on the road between the Pakistani border town and Kandahar, few Taliban were on patrol and the burqas were off. Most women wore shawls, and they revealed their faces, often decorated with tattoos on the chin and forehead, when they were speaking of how they escaped Kandahar during the bombing raids, or trekked for 15 days to reach a road when they were fleeing Uzbek troops advancing on their villages. Afghan women never struck me as submissive.

Only once did I enter a tent when the women hid their faces. The husband sold plastic jewelry on a street in Kandahar, and he had two wives. The second one was his dead brother's widow. He explained to me that his two children died during a nighttime bombing raid last week on Kandahar. They thought it was safer to sleep outside. Then his wife, who was wrapped in a dark green shawl, said: "My baby died while I was giving him milk. He was killed by a flying piece of metal while he was in my arms taking my milk." She began to cry, and her sobs were muffled by the veil. Then she began to shake, an evergreen bundle of sorrow in the back of the tent.

Afghan tribes are constantly feuding with each other, and women are fair game for rape or kidnap. When the Taliban say that a woman shouldn't go on the streets unescorted, they claim it's for the women's own protection. The Taliban cover women because they're afraid of their own desires. These are boys who were shoved off to the madrassas at an early age because there at least they would get a meal and some education. What they missed was any contact with women. They grew estranged from even their mothers and sisters, and they feel more comfortable around men. It's common to see two young Taliban strolling around, rifles slug over their shoulders, laughing and holding hands. The Taliban would thrash any male-female couple who dared hold hands in public.

See the full Tim McGirk Archive at Time.com or on The Comedy Lounge.

Submitted By: Anonymous
Dec 3, 2001 16:48

This joke is rated: PG