Some women say it protects them from judgement and violence, others say it entices abuse. In either case, daily logistics can be extremely complex for Afghan women living life from behind the blue all-in-one.
“I feel choked when I wear the burqa and it is unbearable in warm weather,” says Shaima Wafa, who was forced to cover herself with a burqa from fifth grade onwards in school. The Herati stresses that her family would not accept any other less infringing head and face covering, such as the Iranian chador, which only covers the hair, or the black niqab, which covers the face but reveals the eyes. The burqa, chador and niqab are all forms of expressing hijab, 'modesty', within Islam.
For Nafeesa, a 50-year-old civil servant in Herat, wearing a burqa - which has netting to cover the eyes - used to simply invite abuse. “When I wore a burqa, I used to get harassed on my way to work. Cars would stop and harass me,” says the widow, whose husband died five years ago. “They didn't know I was their mothers’ age, so I had to replace my burqa with a chador,” Nafeesa told Afghanistan Today.
Facing new trends
The majority of women in Herat wear a burqa. The only exceptions are women who have lived in Iran or abroad, or are educated and active in social and culture life and wear the more ergonomic chador.
Imported alternatives to the burqa have become popular among the educated elite in Herat and stores selling Saudi and Iranian alternative 'hijab' can be seen in different areas of the city. Students like Neelab Aalami at Herat University often opt for long black outfits instead of a burqa, slowly diversifying women's options.
Mary Khajazada says she only wears a chador. “I did not leave my home even once under the Taliban because of the burqa,” says the Herati teacher, happy to live in a society where she has the choice what to wear.
Historically, changing dress codes have signalled the start of a new era in Afghanistan. King Amanullah began his reforms by forcing men and women to change how they dressed and tried to promote Western trends in the country. The Taliban forced people to avoid wearing anything Western and women were only allowed to wear the burqa
Burqas are still the most common form of hijab worn by Afghan women, although changes are beginning to creep into the landscape
Nearly 15 years after the fall of the Taliban regime, some women are adamant that there is still no safe alternative to the burqa. “The majority of women who do not wear a burqa remain single for the rest of their lives,” says Faqeer Ahmad Yarzada, emphasizing that women struggle to gain employment and are primarily dependent on men for income in Herat Province. “Men are not interested in marrying those who do not abide by hijab.”
Other women say the burqa helps them stay safe. This “tradition, hijab” says Naqeeba Barekzai, “is not about what you wear, but protecting yourself from the sight of those who are Islamically allowed to see you”.
“The British brought this culture into Afghanistan"
The burqa has become a global symbol of Afghan women and many in positions of power have reclaimed it as a distinct identity.
Activists and scholars in the region however argue that the burqa is a tradition imported through colonialism. “Islam never ordered wearing this type of clothing and it is a foreign tradition. It is not ours,” says Mahbooba Jamshidi, head of the Provincial Department of Women Affairs in Herat.
“The British brought this culture into Afghanistan for political purposes and closing Afghans’ minds,” says Atefa Mansoori, a Herat-based culture analyst, who believes the burqa as a form of hijab is in decline in Afghanistan. “Those who try to achieve power with the burqa are betraying the rights of women and those who think wearing a burqa is compulsory for women are insulting individual human rights.”