Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghan Women Still Bound by Burka

''It’s like a cage. I wish men could also be trapped like this so that they would understand how much we suffer.''
By Naqiba Barikzai
  • Women wearing burkas carry shopping down a street in Afghanistan. (Photo: Mohamed Somji/Flickr)
    Women wearing burkas carry shopping down a street in Afghanistan. (Photo: Mohamed Somji/Flickr)

Jada-e Leelami, the Street of Sales, lies in one of the busiest parts of Herat city. It’s usually packed with shoppers attracted by the promise of cheap clothing, many of them women covered them entirely from head to toe in sky-blue burkas.

Shopping wearing such an all-encompassing garment is not easy. Women have to raise their voices, trying to bargain with stallholders they can barely see from behind their veils. Sometimes they ask shopkeepers if they can draw their goods under the burka, so as to inspect them properly.

The sellers most often refuse.

“Women wearing burkas have stolen goods from my shop or from my neighbours’ shops many times,” said Jamaluddin, who sells embroidered shirts and other handcrafts. “We called the police, [but] the police then released them again because they are women, and so you find them in the market again the next day, stealing.”

But many women say that they have no choice but to wear the clumsy, all-enveloping garment.

 “The burka is like a cage,” said Mahjuba, a 42-year-old housewife who never learned to read or write. “I wish that the men [who want to impose it on women] could be trapped in this cage so that they can understand how much we suffer.”

The image of a woman wearing the voluminous covering came to symbolise Afghanistan under the Taleban. Although women have taken a far greater role in public life since their regime fell in 2001, the burka is still a common sight in many parts of the country.

Many argue that the burka is not an Islamic requirement of hijab, or modest dress. They also insist that it has no real root in Afghan culture, where women traditionally covered their hair and shoulders with a large shawl.

“I never wear the burka,” said Swita Duranai, a 28-year-old businesswomen who owns a jewellery factory in Herat city.

“As a Muslim woman, I follow the hijab that the creator talks about in the Quran. I am not obliged to imprison myself in metres of fabric in the name of modesty, because the burka is an imported phenomenon, not part of Afghan culture.”

Such clothing also served as a form of gender discrimination, she added.

“The burka distances women from society and leads to feelings of isolation,” she said. “One of the reasons the women of my country lag behind in academic, political, economic and social activities is the wearing of this burka.”

Malika Rasuli is deputy head of the women’s section of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHCR) in the west of the country.

She agreed that imposing the burka was an expression of gender violence.

“When men force women and girls in their family to wear the burka, this interferes in women’s ability to make their own decisions,” she said. “In fact, it means that it is men who deny women the right to choose the kind of hijab they want to wear.”

The robes cover a woman completely and are usually sky-blue, although white, brown and other shades are occasionally seen. Most are made of cheap synthetic material, with a mesh face-covering that allows only a limited view of the outside world.

Although the burka is most closely associated with Afghanistan, historians say it is a relatively recent arrival to the country.

Nasir Naiz, a cultural expert, said that until the Taleban era, the burka was only one design among many ways women dressed outside the privacy of their own homes.

 “There have been various trends in how women cover themselves over the last 100 years, and the burka is one of them.”

Naiz said that there was no definitive information on when and how the burka arrived in the region, but that it had first appeared in Afghanistan around 100 years ago as an import from India where it had been in turn introduced by Arab invaders.

King Amanullah, who ruled from 1919 to 1929, shocked the nation by allowing his wife Queen Soraya to remove her veil at a public function. During the 1978 to 1979 Russian occupation, many women and girls in the larger cities discarded the headscarf altogether.

TRADITIONS STILL LINGER

Some women say that wearing the burka gives them a sense of security.

Zia Gul, 41, a resident of the vilage of Imam Shash Nur in Engeel district, said that the burka was not only an Islamic requirement but served as a form of protection.

“I believe that if women want to be safe from male harassment and avoid being seen by strangers, they should wear the burka. This act has benefits of both in this world and the hereafter.”

However Mohammad Ihsan, who has run a shop selling burkas for the last 30 years, said that in his experience women did not wear the restrictive garment of their own volition.

“Many times I’ve witnessed a woman in tears because she did not want to wear the burka, being forced to do so by her husband and her father-in-law,” he continued

The 62-year-old recalled one particular incident in which a young woman was threatened with violence in his shop.

“The father-in-law of a newlywed bride who did not want to wear the burka warned her that he would beat her and told her, ‘You will enter our house wearing the burka and your dead body will only leave our house wearing the burka. Forget about wearing a headscarf.’”

Religious scholars say that the proper definition of modest dress has been the subject of debate by scholars for centuries.

This meant that there was no textual basis for the burka to be the ultimate expression of hijab, explained religious scholar Maulawi Sayed Husain Husaini.

“Hijab in Islam means covering the parts of women’s bodies which are private; the hands, face, and feet of women are excluded,” he continued.

Husaini explained that no specific model of hijab was mentioned in the hadith, the sayings of the prophet, or other Islamic texts. Therefore it was wrong to insist that the burka was the version of hijab mandated by Islam.

Officials say they are trying to spread awareness of what Islamic teaching really says about modest dress for women, and how alien the burka is to Afghan tradition. Conservative attitudes mean this is difficult, especially in more remote areas.

Mahjuba Jamshidi, head of the provincial department of women’s affairs, said, “The more people really understand the role of the hijab in Islam, the less men will insist on imposing the burka on women.

“This is why we do not stay idle but have tried, with the help of religious scholars, to explain to the public what the Islamic hijab involves.”  

Not all men support the imposition of such a restrictive garment.

“Wearing the burka really creates many problems for women,” said Sayed Jamal Faqiri, a resident of Herat. “I have seen for myself many times that burka-wearing women aren’t able to see ahead of themselves and so fall over while walking.”

But others, especially in rural areas, remain adamant that the burka was the only acceptable covering for female members of their family.

Mula Mohammad, a resident of the village of Bala Bolook in the Guzara district of Herat, was against the idea of women even leaving their homes.

“I do not want my women to go outside the house. Their place is the kitchen, not outside,” he said, refusing to allow any female members of his household to be interviewed.

“I would cut off my women’s feet if they ever left the house without wearing the burka.”

This report was produced under IWPR’s Promoting Human Rights and Good Governance in Afghanistan initiativefunded by the European Union Delegation to Afghanistan.