May 19 2010 –
KABUL, Afghanistan – After a hard day at work, my neighbor usually changes out of her uniform, applies her lipstick, a dab of mascara, and a dusting of eye shadow.
Then she puts on her powder blue burqa and commutes home.
When asked why she bothers primping when she is about to completely cover up, she giggled. “I wear the makeup for myself. It makes me feel good.”
Fatima (who asked that her real name not be used due to security concerns) said she wears the burqa outside because it makes her feel more secure. “No one will notice me if I’m covered up.”
She is very distressed by recent European legislative moves to ban the burqa – a catchall term used to describe the Islamic headdress that wholly or mainly conceals the face.
The idea of banning the burqa because of concerns about gender equality, as well as security, has become a hot-button issue in many Western European countries.
Just this week, France’s parliament unanimously adopted a formal resolution to ban the burqa, calling it “an affront to French values.” The measure is expected to become law in July. Meanwhile, Belgium’s lower-house legislators voted to outlaw the burqa last month and similar bans have been proposed in Switzerland, Italy and the United Kingdom.
Fatima is befuddled by the ban. “But why?” she asked. “It is a part of our culture, part of our tradition.”
She is one of many Afghans who think that Muslims in Europe should be allowed to observe their traditions and customs, and choose what they want to wear.
Of course, the idea of choosing whether or not to wear the veil was an option Afghan women were denied during the reign of the Taliban. Afghan women were forced to wear burqas because, as a Taliban spokesman said, “The face of a woman is a source of corruption.”
‘Great … for business’
“That was a great time for business,” says Abdullah Aziz, who runs a burqa stall in central Kabul. His best sales were during the Taliban years; since their fall from power in 2001, sales have dropped by as much as 50 percent.
But with the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism and Taliban influence, business is picking up, according to Aziz, who cannot comprehend European attempts to ban the burqa.
“Every country has Muslims, and they should not be penalized for this. It should be up to the individual to choose,” he said. While he accepts that some women might choose to wear just a head scarf, he believes the burqa is the most appropriate form of dress for Afghan women.
‘Freedom of choice’
Not so, says Shukria Barakzai, a prominent and influential member of parliament. She hated every moment of the five years she was forced to wear a burqa during the Taliban rule. But, though she does not like what the burqa represents, she also finds recent European legislation efforts reprehensible.
“Leave women to wear burqa if they want, just as they can wear blue jeans if they want,” said Barakzai. She says she is shocked that democratic nations would pass laws that restrict personal choices.
“What is the difference between radical Islamic groups and people who make these anti-democratic laws,” she asked. “Democracy means freedom of choice!”
Some women’s groups fear that European anti-burqa laws could even create a backlash in Afghanistan, and play into the hands of the Taliban. They fear that more Afghan women could be coerced into wearing burqas as a form of defiant expression against the Western ban.
Meanwhile, women here rebel in their own small ways. When the Taliban ruled in Afghanistan, women were not allowed to wear high-heeled shoes since “the sound of women’s footsteps could excite men,” according to the Taliban.
These days, especially in Kabul, peeking out from under the billowing hems of the burqa, you often see heels. Very high heels, defiantly making their mark.