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Aug-09-2010 01:20printcomments

The Burka: A Taliban Imposed Canvas Prison

Traditional dress for Muslim women?

Afghan women in historic Mazur-e-Sharif near the Blue Mosque.  Salem-News.com photos by Tim King
Afghan women in historic Mazur-e-Sharif near the Blue Mosque. Salem-News.com photos by Tim King

(SAN FRANCISCO) - On our Iran Air flight from Frankfurt to Tehran, each of the stewardesses wore a "hijab." When we entered Iran's airspace, an announcement over the intercom told the women to put on their hijab or a head scarf.

My wife, as did the other women on the flight, obliged by putting scarves on their heads. My wife wore a scarf covering her hair for our entire Iran visit.

Woman in Tehran wearing hijab.
Photo courtesy: Roya Barette

Why do Iran and other Muslim countries require a woman to hide her hair or her entire body. Because they believe God has made it an obligation for believing women. In the Koran, God tells the believing men and women to lower their gaze and to dress modestly.

He (God) specifically addresses women when He asks them not to show off their adornment, except that which is apparent, and draw their veils over their bodies. (Koran 24:30-31)

Thus, God requires Muslim women to dress modestly and to cover in public or in the presence of men who are not close relatives.

These verses of the Koran are known as the verses of hijab and many Islamic scholars believe that they make the wearing of a hijab mandatory.

Some countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar do enforce a dress code. Women there are expected to cover their hair and wear some sort of loose fitting, full-length garment over their clothes.

However, for the majority of Muslim women around the world, to cover, or not to cover, is a freely made choice. We have noted in our travels to Indonesia, Egypt, and Morocco, that very few women wore such coverings or even a hijab.

Ostensibly, the hijab frees women from being thought of as sexual playthings or from being valued for their looks, or body shape, rather then their minds and intellect.

As the argument goes, no longer slaves to consumerism, the hijab liberates women from the need to conform to unrealistic stereotypes and images dictated by the media.

Wearing a hijab and dressing modestly and covering the hair, may even minimize sexual harassment in the workplace. Supposedly, the aura of privacy created by a hijab is indicative of the great value Islam places upon women.

Afghanistan Under the Taliban

Both of these women in Kabul told Salem-News.com they were
permanently crippled by violence generated by the Taliban.

The Taliban is an Islamic fundamentalist group who emerged from the koranic schools in Pakistan. The majority of the Taliban are ethnic Pashtun.

The "burka" is the mandatory garment of the Pashtun tribes. After the the departure of the Soviets in Afghanistan, the Taliban came to power and made the wearing of the full burka mandatory. The burka became a canvas prison, devaluing their women.

Under the Taliban, Afghanistan went from a twentieth century country to a medieval society.

Wearing a burka, a women cannot clearly see more than a few yards away. Those with glasses cannot use them. It guarantees control over a woman's body as it covers the eyes with a thick veil, which prevents the wearer from seeing normally.

And because the canvass grid limits peripheral vision, women become dependent on others to effectively move around, especially in open areas. The thick veil of the burka prevents the face and eyes to be visible. The garment extends to the wearer's feet, making it difficult to walk or run. The burka weights about 14 pounds. Imagine wearing a 14-pound garment every day.

The Taliban prohibits women from singing, dancing, playing musical instruments, engaging in sports, employment, schooling, and even flying kites, an Afghan national pastime. Only male physicians are allowed to practice in hospitals, but they are not allowed to treat or operate on women.

When a woman is pregnant, the Afghans say she is sick. Ninety-serven percent of Afghan women give birth at home because they are forbidden to call male physicians. Forty percent of Afghan women die of childbirth complications. Under the burka, the child cannot see his or her mother's face or receive skin contact.

During breastfeeding, the child cannot see the mother's face and the mother cannot clearly see her child's expressions through the burka, thus negating basic bonding between mother and child.

Young guards of the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice once patrolled the streets with whips, sticks, and rifles. If women were seen wearing makeup, exposing their faces or even laughing, they had to take them in without any legal defense.

Women have even been beaten because they enlarged the holes in their burkas in order to see better. Some of the penalties for these violations include stoning, amputation, torture, flogging, and public executions.

Don't miss the famous song 'Burka Blue' performed by a group of Afghan girls who
worked with a German production company to record it.

In stoning, the woman is put into a hole in the ground and covered up to her chest with dirt, then men stone her to death. The stones should not be too big so as to cause immediate death, nor too small as then they are not considered stones.

There are thousands of widows who must beg in the streets or prostitute themselves because under the law they cannot receive their husbands' inheritance.

Despite the new constitution of 2004, Afghan women can be purchased, sold, or be part of an inheritance. Forced marriages continue where about half involve young girls under sixteen.

Many Afghan women leave their homes only twice in their lifetime, when they get married and go to live with their husbands, and when they die. Suicide by fire and domestic violence are widespread.

Since the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan by the United States, not much has changed for Afghan women, despite the promises of the international community, not only in areas controlled by the Taliban, but also in areas controlled by the international coalition.

President Hamid Karzai was once seen as a champion of women's causes and a welcome change to Taliban rule until he failed to deliver on promises to appoint women to cabinet posts. In 2009, he angered international allies by signing onto the so-called "rape" law, containing clauses making it illegal for woman to refuse to have sex with their husbands, and women can only seek work, education or visit the doctor with the permission of their husband. It was dropped under international pressure.

Imagine, how much worse it will be for Afghan women when the coalition forces leave. However, the plight of Afghan women deserve more than to be just pawns in the debate over our eventual departure from Afghanistan.

When the niece of Aishah Bint Abu Bakr (the Prophet’s wife), Aisha bint Talha was asked by her husband Musab to veil her face, she answered, "Since the Almighty hath put on me the stamp of beauty, it is my wish that the public should view the beauty and thereby recognize His grace unto them. On no account, therefore, will I veil myself."


I recommend the film Kandahar and Kabuli Kid.  I also recommend the following books:  The Bookseller of Kabul by Åsne Seierstad; The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini.  I am sure there are many other films and books on Afghanistan.  

Source:  Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) <www.rawa.org>  RAWA has much information about the plight of women in Afghanistan.


Salem-News.com writer Ralph E. Stone was born in Massachusetts. He is a graduate of both Middlebury College and Suffolk Law School. We are very fortunate to have this writer's talents in this troubling world; Ralph has an eye for detail that others miss. As is the case with many Salem-News.com writers, Ralph is an American Veteran who served in war. Ralph served his nation after college as a U.S. Army officer during the Vietnam war. After Vietnam, he went on to have a career with the Federal Trade Commission as an Attorney specializing in Consumer and Antitrust Law. Over the years, Ralph has traveled extensively with his wife Judi, taking in data from all over the world, which today adds to his collective knowledge about extremely important subjects like the economy and taxation. You can send Ralph an email at this address stonere@earthlink.net




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Natalie August 10, 2010 12:26 pm (Pacific time)

So, If I were an Afghan woman telling the world about my difficulties, I would get in response: we feel for you, but sorry, we have our own problems; we're all the same, let's suffer together, and finally, that's your traditions, deal with it. Nice, I'm just glad I'm not in that position. I hope women of Afghan realize one day that if they really want changes they are the ones who should start influencing their men.

Editor: Natalie, there is a movie called 'Osama' that is criticized by many Pashtuns, but gives a shocking account of what life would be like, or was like, under Taliban rule.  I'll tell you that the only women who refuse to partake in the burqa who I met, were from the Communist years, when such things were not required, but then neither was religion.  I only know a little, but it is really amazing, how low the bar was set for these women.      


Ralph E. Stone August 10, 2010 6:02 am (Pacific time)

The U.S. war in Afghanistan is unwinable. When the coalition forces finally leave, the Taliban will either regain control of the country or at least exert considerable influence over the country's affairs ensuring that Afghan women will continue a miserable existence. Will the plight of Afghan women have any influence over our exit? Probably not.


Vic August 9, 2010 4:52 pm (Pacific time)

Anon 2:09 post....I never thought of that angle before...but it makes perfect sense !


Anonymous August 9, 2010 2:14 pm (Pacific time)

Felt strongly to add one more quick point. I feel for the women in afghanistan, I just feel that by invading/bombing a country, especially Afghanistan of all countries, will help the women there. In fact, it is my belief, that the military uses this stuff to gain support for war, but not only never make anything better, but usually make it worse. Look at Iraq and the DU, and fallujah.


Anonymous August 9, 2010 2:09 pm (Pacific time)

Women in America have their own barka, but its subtle and most do not notice. Altho, it is just as demeaning if not more. To explain this, would take pages, but its true. For instance, womens liberation, was not about womens liberation. It was a propaganda trick, because the dollar devalue by the federal reserve bank (who owns the media who tricked us), needed women working. Just the man working in the family did not pay the bills, which brings a type of revolt, which the federal reserve bank did not need just then. So, flood the tv with commercials showing how cool it is for women to work, how BAD the husbands are that disagree etc. I am all for equal rights, and women working, but the federal reserve bank USED these women for their agendas that would eventually destroy them. We are seeing it now.


Amanda August 9, 2010 12:15 pm (Pacific time)

The rest of the world IS like us, the Muslim world has just taken it several steps further. Woman are abused in America, even by the system at large - America just pretends to be above such practices.


Vic August 9, 2010 7:35 am (Pacific time)

Oregon has a large Russian "Old Believers" community which follows the Greek Orthodox version of Christianity. One of their rules is that married women MUST cover their hair when in the presence of anyone other than their husbands and married men MUST allow their facial hair to grow. Maybe us good "regular" Christians should ban these practices since they are different from the "norm"...After all WE know better than anyone else how everyone else should live, right? I am not for any form of abuse towards women and am so glad that in the US, women are NEVER abused, killed or raped...NEVER ! Why cant the rest of the world be like us ????

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