THE BURQA: PRISON OR PROTECTION

Linked with Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom WILPF. Then with The Killid Group TKG, and with institute for war & peace reporting IWPR (both on 13th July).
Also linked with picture of the year, with a video: Inside Story – Burqa ban in France? – 25 June 09, 24.20 min, and with Burqa ban: What Barack Obama could learn from Nicolas Sarkozy about Islam.

Published on WILPF, by Salima Ghafori (from: institute for war & peace reporting IWPR), May 20, 2005.

The oppressive Taleban regime is long gone, but many Afghan women are still afraid to abandon their burqas. “I feel naked without my burqa,” said Kabul woman Roqia, dragging large shopping bags and gasping in the heat. “I cannot take it off. I would feel that everyone was looking at me.”

More than three years after the fall of the Taleban, the streets of Kabul are still awash with ghostly blue shapes. Burqa-clad women surround cars at traffic lights begging for “baksheesh”. They float through the city’s bazaars and perch on motorcycles behind their husbands, often holding a cellular phone to their azure-covered ears.  

But now that the baton-wielding religious police are no longer around, what makes a woman cling to a stifling nylon shroud? Soraya Parlika, director of the Afghanistan Women’s Union, believes the burqa provides a sense of security in dangerous times.

“Kidnapping of women and children is on the rise, crime is increasing, and women feel safe in a burqa,” said the diminutive 60-year-old, who is an outspoken advocate for women’s rights …

… “Wearing a burqa was a tradition in our society, and then tradition changed to coercion,” said 30-year-old Kabul woman Zahira. “The Taleban made it an Islamic duty, but hijab does not mean a burqa.”

One prominent Kabul mullah, who asked to remain anonymous, agrees the Muslim faith does not prescribe the wearing of the burqa, saying the Taleban’s actions in forcing women to wear the garment were actually against the laws of Islam. “Women are required to wear the hijab, which allows the face, hands, and feet to remain uncovered,” he said. “Those who say that the burqa is part of Islamic law are mistaken.”

But tradition dies hard, particularly in a society where literacy rates are low and most people get their information by word of mouth. In the Taimani neighborhood of Kabul, IWPR’s questions about the burqa provoked an angry reaction from one woman.

“Wearing the burqa is part of Islam. Every Muslim woman must wear one. Why are you disobeying the laws of Islam?” said the woman before rushing away with her burqa billowing behind her.

Even some of Kabul’s more progressive women were in no hurry to throw away their burqas after the fall of the Taleban in late 2001.

Nadira, a psychology lecturer in her thirties at Kabul University, kept hers until last year because her family feared for her safety. But she chafed at the anonymity of the veil, which she felt deprived her of the respect her position deserved.

“No one recognised me under it. Faculty and students just called me ‘khala’ [auntie] which made me very upset,” she said. “So I used all my powers to persuade my family to let me get rid of my burqa.”

And Tajwar Kakar, the former deputy minister of women’s affairs, is staunchly anti-burqa. “While it is an Afghan tradition, the situation for women has now improved 100 per cent. Women, particularly those in government, should not be confined in these coverings.”

There is, however, one group that bitterly regrets the passing of the compulsory covering – Kabul’s burqa-sellers, who have seen their incomes plummet as women throw off the veil. “We used to sell 20 to 30 burqas a day under the Taleban,” said a shopkeeper in mid-town Kabul. “Now we sell only five to ten, and those mostly to women from the provinces. Burqas are no longer profitable.”  (full text).

(Salima Ghafori, the author of this article, is a staff reporter for IWPR and a contributor to Mursal Weekly magazine).

Read also her article: Afghan women not ready to cast off burqa, by Salima Ghafari, June 5, 2005.

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