Community writing program spotlight

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Mystique of the Burqa

The anonymous, invisible women of Kabul meander in the teaming markets, their pleated ankle-length burqas swinging softly. Like pale blue ghosts, they float by. Phantoms. Without personality. Indistinguishable, one from another.

"How does a child find his mother?"

I am arriving in Kabul, Afghanistan for the first time. My driver is Jamal, who becomes my educator on the ways of the streets. He is about 30 years old, with a short, uneven beard -- a leftover of the Taliban rule when all men were required to wear beards. The smells of greasy fried foods, strong with onions and garlic, and odor of smoking tobacco are soaked into his clothes of rough cotton in need of a good toss in a western washing machine. I think he is surprised that I sit in the front seat with him. The thought strikes me: I am as foreign to him as he is to me, in this ancient land where men and boys live under one set of rules and little girls and hidden women another. I have much to learn.

"It is the shoes," Jamal says. "Children know their mothers by their shoes."

"The shoes?"

Jamal weaves in and out of the chaotic traffic as he educates me. I hold my breath in anticipation on both accounts.

"All men know when a young woman walks by. The shoes will tell us, and then we know to stand tall and be tough."

Flirting Taliban style!

I begin to get a hint of how men, Jamal included, ascribe attributes to women beneath the veils. They build illusions of who stands beneath, illusions based on posture, stride, and the shoes -- the only visible distinguishing feature of an otherwise concealed person.

"A man knows if a woman is young or old by her shoes. I know if it is worth it to walk past this woman or not. I know if she is from a rich family or poor family. I know if she is healthy or not." And so he goes on, confident in his fantasies about each female.

In this land of veiled women, the young and old alike find ways to compensate for their loss of uniqueness. The young mother wears distinctive shoes, so her child can find her in the market place. The young girl finds a way to 'look pretty' when going out by wearing high heels. The randy teenager, for even the Taliban cannot control the hormones of 16-year-old boys, finds a bit of titillation in seeing toes--covered by socks--peeking out of shiny-tipped sandals. And the father, looking for a potential wife for his son, spots a worthy candidate in expensive shoes.

I am looking at the feet of women now with the intensity of someone with a foot fetish. Can one live a whole lifetime knowing your neighbors only by their shoes? In a society where no social greetings exist between men and unrelated women, there is no need to worry about making small talk, but, if one did, I imagine it going this way:

"My, my you are looking good today. Your shoes are quite nice and so clean. They look very comfortable. Have a good day!"

"Business must be good for your husband; you have on new shoes today."

"You must be feeling better now. I notice that you are not wearing your special orthopedic shoes."

No where else in nature are males and females of a species separated so totally as in Afghanistan under Taliban rule.

Jamal arrives one morning with a lovely, wide smile, exposing neglected teeth covered in nicotine stains. He has a tooth missing on the upper right side of his mouth but seems unconcerned for these small faults.

"What are you smiling about today?" I ask.

"Today is a windy day."

How can I help but ask, "Why does the wind make you so happy?"

"Madam, the wind moves the burqas against the women's bodies, and I can see their form." With a bit of shyness, Jamal fairly swoons as he continues, "Allah makes the wind to blow. I must look where I am going. The two occurrences bring about an unexpected pleasure."

I'm caught up in his explanation. Is this innocence in life to be seized on and celebrated, or is it a travesty of the modesty being demanded of the women? There is a simple joy Jamal receives from looking at a woman's form against the windblown burqas, with no need of further graphic disclosure. The wind is the provider of his entertainment today, and it feeds his imagination.

But then, I think of the enforced wearing of the burqa that so strips a woman of her individuality and her freedom of expression. Merely by the wind pushing or lifting her burqa against her body, she excites the men looking at her. It is a small violation without her knowledge, permission or control. A free woman can choose to dress for effect, but the poor Afghan woman has no choice, and furthermore will be blamed for being provocative if the wind lifts her covering and exposes even her ankles.

I can't imagine what the sight of an ankle will do to poor Jamal. Surely he will have to pull to the side of the road to regain his composure!

"If a woman is out and passes her husband, will she ignore him or greet him?"

"Never, never madam will the woman not greet her husband and offer him respect. It would be as she wants." Jamal is sure.

But I wonder, would she take that moment of passing to claim the one freedom given by cover of the burqa -- her anonymity?

Sue McIntyre worked extensively throughout Africa, Central Asia and South Asia as a Disaster Response specialist for non-government organizations and for the US Government. Her most recent work was in Sudan and South Sudan as a Senior Humanitarian Advisor for the US Government. She writes about her experiences as a humanitarian in war zones in Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo. She brings a unique, woman's point of view to many experiences where there were few women working. Her present article focuses on her experiences in Afghanistan in 2002. She is a graduate from Boston University and holds an M.Ed. from the University of North Carolina.

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