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My First Afghan Burqa

By Alissa J. Rubin     May 5, 2011 12:35 pm

Alissa J. Rubin is the bureau chief of The New York Times in Kabul.

Voices

GARDEZ, Afghanistan — For a recent story, I had to travel unembedded into an area largely controlled by the Taliban. The route passed through Logar Province, through the area where one of my colleagues had been kidnapped, and then deeper into Taliban territory. So I decided to do something I had never done here — wear a burqa. It was a window into the world as seen by most Afghan women.

Three Afghan women
Three Afghan women walked together in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, with a little girl, who hid herself from rain under her mother's burka.

Logar
The burqa here is a complicated item of clothing. Wearing one is seen by a number of women in Kabul — Afghan women as well as Westerners who live here — as a political statement: as acquiescence in or even endorsement of a hierarchy in which women have little power outside the home, and where their status is dependent on their being for all intents and purposes unseen. Some see it simply as a throwback to Taliban times, which they want to banish forever. When I told an Afghan friend here that I had worn a burqa for the trip, she shook her head and said, “Oh, no.” I could tell that she worried that next I might stop caring about women’s rights.

For the woman wearing the burqa, however, the experience can be quite a bit more routine. In many parts of Afghanistan, for a woman’s face and neck and arms to be seen is to be considered cheap. And to be cheap is to be at risk of death. A woman who is seen as a prostitute, or as someone with the intent of seducing men, is a candidate for an honor killing. Although it reflects the culture’s restrictive views about women, wearing one is a ticket to getting out of the house, to going to the market or to a friend’s house or to visit your mother or to work, because if you are wearing one you are unlikely to be accused of being a seductress.

I was busy and one of my Afghan male colleagues went to buy one for me — a mundane event because men often buy a veil or other item of modest clothing for a female member of the family. Although the most common burqas are the blue ones, they come in four colors: blue, white, yellow and black. The average burqa is a cheap item, costing about $13 to $14, which is pretty inexpensive for something you wear every day. My colleague, who was very pleased that I was buying one because he and his other Afghan drivers and journalists feel safer when they are with someone who looks Afghan rather than Western, brought back a standard blue one.

I tried it on, awkwardly. I had always thought of the women wearing them as blue ghosts or as invisible — because a woman without a face in a sense does not exist. You cannot see her approval or disapproval, her smiles or tears; even her laughter is muffled by the fabric. I put the thing over my head and for a panicky moment could not find the mesh that is supposed to go in front of your eyes so that you can see enough to walk on the street and do your chores. Then I found the cap part that keeps the whole contraption in place, but the cap was a bit small and kept riding up, depriving my eyes of the thin ribbon of semi-transparent fabric mesh that goes in front of them, this mesh being my only link to the outside world.

Contrary to my fears, my vision was only somewhat blurred by the mesh. It made me think of those purdah screens of intricately carved wood that women used to sit behind on balconies in conservative areas of India and the Arab world. The women could see out, but the men could not see in. Thus a woman’s curiosity about potential suitors could be satisfied without the suitors having the chance to tarnish them with lascivious looks. With the fabric draped around me I moved awkwardly because I couldn’t look down and see my feet, and I was worried about tripping.

One of the few practical features of the modern-day burqa is that it is considerably shorter in front than in back. The front hangs only to the waist or hip, so that your hands can get out easily to do things like choose onions and carrots in the market, or to hold a baby without having to make the baby sit on a clump of bunched-up fabric. I realized that I had never noticed what a woman did with her hands when she was walking — did she keep them under the burqa or could she stride along with them swinging by her sides? I asked my Afghan colleague. Of course, she kept them modestly beneath the cloth.

Women who regularly wear burqas have adapted them well beyond the shorter-in-front, longer-in-back design. If the cap part fits firmly, you can throw back the front part of the burqa that hangs over your face so that your face is open, and then when you see a situation coming (such as an unknown man approaching) you can pull it down, like a person drawing a shade. I had watched an Afghan woman do just that: as she entered our compound in the morning, she flipped up the fabric that hung over her face and as she left in the evening she flipped it down. When flipped up, the whole affair reminded me of wearing a bridal veil — except that if you are an Afghan woman, you wear it every day.

Having tried it on, I rapidly took it off, glad to delay wearing it until the day of our journey to Taliban territory.

The day of our departure, I put it on (flipped up, face open) for our departure from Kabul because no one was worried about people seeing my face in the city. There are many Westerners here, and usually I wear only a long scarf or a shawl draped over my hair, with blond wisps protruding. As we approached the gates of the city, where the checkpoints begin, my Afghan colleague gently suggested that I flip down the front piece of material so that I was fully covered. Then the Afghan police peering into our car would assume I was a wife or mother and just wave us through.

I felt rejected with my burqa down, as if I were not good enough to be seen in public. I leaned back in the seat and felt a wash of passivity come over me. Nothing was demanded of me except silence. I could sleep through life in this veiled state or, if I were someone who readily got angry, I would probably feel moved to tear it off. But I am not someone who readily gets angry, and I knew how much the trip depended on my being invisible until I absolutely had to show my face in order to do interviews.

The car windows were closed and soon, passive or not, I felt I was suffocating behind the fabric. Burqas are made of a cheap nylon and while light in weight, they do not breathe and in a matter of a few wearings come to carry the stale sweet-sour smell of sweat. I rolled down my window. The sense of quiet in my blue tent wasn’t bad when I was in a car and had a slight breeze blowing in. I looked out at the men in the small bazaars we passed through. I could see them and they couldn’t see me, and I felt a certain satisfaction — and dismay. They did not care about seeing me. I knew that many Muslims would say that when a man does not look a woman in the eye, it was a sign of respect, but for me it was also a sign of their not being interested in who I really was. I was simply “a woman,” and “a woman” deserves respect — not necessarily this particular woman.

We had left early and I hadn’t had any breakfast, so I took out a piece of Afghan naan bread and began to munch it under my burqa. I liked that no one could see me eating. I followed the bread with an apple and considered what life would be like lived in this cocoon. I took out a notebook and began to write on my lap. It was private and quiet. I remembered playing house with my sister when I was 8 and she was 5; we put a plastic opaque sheet with the outside of a house painted on it over a bridge table and sat under the table and felt invisible. Because we couldn’t see, our hearing became more acute and we would listen as different people walked down the hall that went past our room. The quick tapping steps were my mother. The slower, more ponderous steps were my father, and we could hear him pause, look into the room where we were hidden under the table and, not seeing us, continue down the hall to his bedroom. The rustling of shopping bags was my Great Aunt Rose, who always arrived with some present for us, and we would duck out of our pretend house and run to see what she had brought.

And that, of course, was the problem. I couldn’t choose when to duck out of my blue house. I needed permission.

I could see we were passing through empty country for a stretch, and I leaned forward and asked my colleague, “Can I pull up the burqa now?” “Sure, Alissa,” he said. I flipped it up, but then as we passed through a small bazaar, he looked back at me wordlessly. I flipped it down.

The words of St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians floated into my consciousness. They are about the longing to be seen fully for who one is:

“For now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part; then shall I know, even as also I am known.” [1 Corinthians 13:12]

The longing to know someone and be known by them — not just one person, but in all one’s daily dealings.

That is what feels missing in a veiled world, or at least for someone who comes to it unveiled.

Source: The New York Times.