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The Burqa Meena 1956-1987 Malalai Joya -- December 2003 Buy Postcards
The Burqa
Women under Wraps

The burqa is a product of tribal culture, not Islam. In a tribal society a clan must be feared and respected. Boys who fear and respect you don’t seduce your daughter. If they do, you are supposed to murder them, but that could lead to vendetta, possibly lasting generations. You can avoid vendetta and show you are a tough guy still by blaming and killing your daughter, the so called “honor killing.” A man who strangles his own daughter because the local boys don’t respect him is a pitiable wretch. Since the consequences of teen-love are so terrible, measures taken to prevent it seem only prudent, including baggy clothes and confinement. Afghanistan has some socially conservative communities where family honor and vendetta still thrive. The Taliban come from such a place.

As the Taliban displaced or absorbed local warlords, they forced their social code on everybody, including towns where the old ways were a distant memory. Women had to wear the burqa in public, a full length garment that conceals everything except hands and ankles. Since Taliban law enforcement also stopped the thefts, rapes and murders that had become commonplace, the burqa law was a small price to pay. Taliban laws that forbade education and jobs for women were more limiting and resented than the burqa. Women who broke the rules were beaten with rods.

Notice how the woman’s hand pulls the fabric under her face? You see this a lot in photographs, I think it’s because they have to continually pull the mesh window into alignment, like a bad Halloween costume. Imagine not being able to communicate with expression. No smiling, no frowns. If I could not stare angrily at people I wouldn’t make it through the day. Can women see perfectly through the mesh? or hear clearly under the fabric? No. The burqa may have legitimate roots and be none of our business, but it certainly diminishes women’s lives.

The women’s rights revolution in the United States was traumatic enough without foreign troops to enforce it. Coercive efforts to change the lives of women made Communists and fundamentalists unpopular in Afghanistan. We should avoid making the same mistake. Maybe someday we might make a few comments about how their women could be liberated like ours, but while we have armed men in Afghanistan it would be better to keep out of Afghan private lives as much as possible.