Thu, Aug 17, 2006 - Page 13 News List

Lifting the veil on burqas

It's been five years since the Taliban regime was toppled, but the burqa has found new admirers and doesn't look like it's going out of fashion soon


Afghan women clad in traditional burqas. Whether they call it "Observing purdah" or "Hijab," the meaning is the same: a traditional Muslim woman's obligation is to hide her physical beauty from men to whom she is not related.

The burqa is ‘in.’

Actually the all-enveloping cloak has never really been ‘out’ in the five years since the fall of the ultra-Islamic Taliban regime that forced all women to wear it.

But in today's conflict-ridden Afghanistan, the garment seen by many as a symbol of oppression is finding new followers among Western women worried about anti-foreigner sentiment, and Western men looking for ironic gifts for lovers back home.

The growing number of women beggars and prostitutes on the streets of the capital are also choosing to hide their supposed shame beneath its all-covering folds.

And there are more and more cases of male insurgents caught using burqas to conceal themselves and their weapons — with security guard searches under the voluminous veil a no-no even in these troubled times.

For most Afghan women the burqa is still a widespread item that can be a security blanket, protection against the pervasive dust, a shield for a breastfeeding baby, or a nifty cover for a nip down to the shops without putting on make-up.

In his burqa boutique in Kabul's main bazaar, Waheedullah Najimi admits sales have roughly halved since the Taliban were forced out of government in 2001.

But he still sells about 20 a day, the shopkeeper says in his small store lined top to bottom with burqas of different colors, sizes and quality.

Most Kabul girls choose gray-blue, while in northern Mazar-i-Sharif white is also popular. Light blue is worn in some provinces, and green is used in Kandahar and Khost, Najimi says.

Among the demure colors are one or two splashes of pink and red — these are for foreigners looking for gifts, he says. As are the pint-size replicas, just right to cover a wine bottle, that sell for one US dollar a pop.

As with any fashion item, the quality depends on the buyer's budget.

A burqa in cheap, rough material delivered in rolls from Pakistan can costs as little as 200 afghani (US$4). One in a soft fabric with careful embroidery in the front can sell for seven times as much.

One of Najimi's customers today is wizened 60-year-old Sufi Qayoom, who has come to buy two new burqas for his dying wife.

“She is sick and old,” the turbaned man says, sitting on a stool near the door as young boys pass in the dust and heat outside with carpets slung over their shoulders, and a hawker shouts about a new readymade tea in a carton.

The burqas will be given to the women who will wash his wife's body before her burial. “If she doesn't have new clothes, maybe no one will wash her,” Qayoom says.

Sixteen-year-old Hangama wants a new burqa for after her wedding in a few weeks. She has hooked the hip-length front of the garment over the back of her head — as many women do when they need to see better — while she browses.

“It is difficult to wear, it is hard to breathe ... but it is good because men cannot see me, nobody can see any part of your body,” she says.

“If we don't wear the burqa, we feel like we are naked,” says 32-year-old Malalalai, who comes in a bit later.

Nineteen-year-old Najia is in the store to deliver 12 burqas into which she and her sisters have painstakingly pressed hundreds of narrow pleats.

Every week the family collects material that they pleat with a hot iron and water, a process they say is hard on their hands but earns around 100 afghani for each one.

They return the garments to the store for other women to pick up and attach the fitted skullcaps and lace grilles.

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