Burqa Proves Hard to Overthrow

The removal of the Taleban has not freed the country's women from the head-to-toe dark blue garments that came to symbolise oppression and cruelty.

Burqa Proves Hard to Overthrow

The removal of the Taleban has not freed the country's women from the head-to-toe dark blue garments that came to symbolise oppression and cruelty.

The image of a woman wearing the traditional, all-enveloping body cover known as the burqa came to symbolise Afghanistan under the Taleban, but it was a part of the country's history long before the student militia came to power.

The authorities had little difficulty in enforcing its rule that women wear the covering at all times on the rare occasions that they were allowed to leave their homes. It was a common sight even in the areas controlled by the anti-Taleban Northern Alliance. The only exception was found among the nomadic Kochis, who have never worn them.

Many western observers thought that women would throw off the oppressive garments when the Taleban were overthrown last year, but only a handful switched to the more comfortable hijab-e-mutlaq - used as a head cover or a veil depending on circumstances - a popular choice across the Islamic world.

Most women still choose to cover up while on the street but prefer the hijab in their offices, schools and when visiting Kabul's many international agencies.

While they remain hesitant over dispensing with the burqa, there's no doubting the fact that since the fall of the Taleban women have been more visible in Afghan society.

More than 200 participated in the recent Loya Jirga. Their voices were heard, notably when a number took former head of state Burhanuddin Rabbani to task for "ravaging" the country. Significantly, TV pictures from inside the assembly compound showed confident, articulate women wearing headscarves and loose dresses instead of the burqa.

Yet the garment remains a controversial topic, especially among younger women who strongly associate it with the student militia era.

"I didn't wear the burqa at first during the Taleban time," said Farishta Masooni, a student at Rabia Balkhi Shaheed School in Kabul. "I told them that the covering of women's face, hands and feet may be demanded by the Taleban but it was not required by Islam."

However, the horrific punishments meted out by the student militia - which became synonymous with cruelty to women - proved a strong deterrent and she eventually obeyed the order.

The Taleban earned worldwide notoriety in 1996 after a western television crew filmed members of the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice - the regime's feared religious police - beating women with bicycle chains for the crime of being "inappropriately attired" in public.

"I felt like a prisoner when I wore the burqa - it would give me a headache that would only go away when I slept. It is disgusting that the Taleban kept us in that pain for five years," said Sara Qayumi, a teacher trainer at the city's Pedagogy Institute, who has since replaced the all-enveloping garment with a simple shawl.

Dr Shafiqa Yarqeen, deputy minister of women's affairs, argues that burqa has no real root in Afghan culture. "Women didn't wear it in the villages and valleys," she claimed. "It was imposed on us by the Pakistanis through the Taleban. Hiding the face from men is a backward act."

She argues that more women will throw off the burqa once a democratic government, adhering to UN conventions on human rights and the rights of women, is established. Only then, she said, will they feel sufficiently secure that doing so will not provoke hostility.

Ruhullah Babakar Khel is a freelance journalist in Kabul.

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