The Burqa, or the traditional veil in Afghanistan, is the most usual custom of the Hijab. It covers the full body of women for their day-to-day, outdoor routines. There are many theories regarding where it came from. Some believe that it has come from neighboring countries like Pakistan, India, or Iran while others believe it is a fashion symbol of Afghan middle class women. The current custom, with different colors mostly with light blue, has been utilized for many years across the country.
However, there are also some other types of Burqa which are currently utilized by women in several regions of Pakistan and some south parts of Iran. There has been more than a decade since the establishment of a new democracy government in Afghanistan, where women are being granted remarkable freedoms after years of conflict and disempowerment in the country.
But there are still a myriad of patriarchal norms and de facto sexism existing in the country, particularly within communities in rural areas and tribal regions. Many Afghan women still need to wear the Burqa for different reasons, mainly because of family enforcement, lack of social security, street harassment, traditional and religious norms, and comfortability in public. Full coverage of the body helps Afghan women to stay anonymous while they are engaging in outdoor community activities such as shopping, accessing public services, visiting relatives and more important, commuting for work and school. Accordingly, for above mentioned reasons, many men also prefer to keep their female members anonymous while they are out of the house.
Although it might not be suitable for many women to wear, the Burqa is still a reasonable way that they can maintain their so called social communication in the current patriarchal society of Afghanistan. There are many conservative families, particularly in the rural and tribal areas, where they even prohibit their female members to be seen by or interacted with other male relatives other than their Mahrams (blood relative to whom marriage is forbidden). As a result, there is almost no social communication means for many of these women, and they are not in a position to make even a basic and relevant communication with other male strangers in the community.
There have been several attempts by past Afghan governments over banning or limiting the Burqa in public, where most of them have failed for some hasty and radical policies over a short period of time. For example, King Amanullah Khan and his wife Queen Suraya (1919-1929), and King Zahir Shah (1933-1973), had implemented some of the significant women’s rights movements especially for women’s education and women’s appearance in public. Their efforts were either rejected by community members or were limited only to big cities and higher class families.
Therefore, a majority of the women living in rural areas and tribal regions were deprived of those women’s social reforms and policies over the years. For many Afghan conservatives, particularly in tribal communities, the proposed women’s rights and women empowerment policies have been known as a western, cultural invasion and a promotion of non-Islamic norms over the Islamic norms and Sharia (Islamic laws). This is almost the same situation as of today, where a number of conservative Afghanistan parliament members have suspended the law on Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW), which was approved by a legislative decree of the President in 2009.
Apart from the social communication restrictions, other indicators, such as higher rate of female illiteracy, low representation of women in the community, lack of public awareness, and restricted gender biased norms in public and government systems, have also brought negative impacts on women’s social communication abilities. As a young developing country, Afghanistan needs to make sure to secure an appropriate environment that women can feel free to make an arbitrary appearance with their personal desire and identification.
The more women participate in the community, the more the prosperity comes to the society. Women with freedom of appearance in public and strong communication ability will further accelerate the reconstruction process of the country through strengthening their representation in labor market, higher education, better mental and emotional health, decision making process, women’s rights advocacy, and their participation in private and public domains. It also helps women to hold the government and other service providers accountable and become more involved for meeting their rights along with other members of the community.
Although wearing the Burqa in Afghanistan is one of the most rigid ways of coverage for women in the region, it is still a tool for social integration and mainstreaming for many Afghan women in the community. The persistence and consistence change within public and government system is required for the country in order to dismantle many of the old traditional gender inequalities and sexism operations. However, there must be always freedom of choice for Afghan girls and women, whether they wear Burqa or not for their public appearance.
1. An interview from the film by Brishkay Ahmed. (2012). Story of Burqa: Case of confused Afghan.
2. Queen of the Dessert: Suraya Tarzi, Queen of Afghanistan. (2010).
Photo by http://www.telegraph.co.uk
Kazem Shakib is a graduate of University of Pune in India and is currently a Fulbright student obtaining his Master’s degree in Gender Program at Loyola University Chicago. He’s focused on gender studies, women economy, and women empowerment. He has had considerable experience working with a number of development programs in Afghanistan.
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