Daleaway sent me this slideshow about wearing the burqa in Afghanistan. Some of the images are disturbing, as are many of the stories. Pick a moment when you are feeling strong to watch it.
It’s also available on youtube: The Canvas Prison
The slide show is circulating on the net, and it seems to have been around for a month or so now. I can’t find who made it, but some of the matters it refers to are also discussed in this article in Time: Afghanistan: When Women Set Themselves on Fire. The slideshow also refers to the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). I spent a bit of time on the RAWA site: again, some of the material in the slide show is consistent with the information there. I’ve found it hard to track down some of the claims it makes about the origins of the burqa, but the history of the burqa is not central to the points being made in the slideshow.
I found the slide quite wrenching to watch. Some of the images frightened me, some brought tears to my eyes. I think that some of the colours and shots used are possibly tendentious, designed to bring to mind the massed ranks of masked, and frightening, stormtroopers in Star Wars. Even so, my dominant response was one of horror. The violence that is being done to women in Afghanistan is appalling.
I do not support banning the burqa. I do not see that adding another layer of repression will do anything for women who are forced to wear the burqa, and that if we ban it, all that will happen is that women who were previously allowed to at least walk the streets, will be forced to stay in their homes, all the time.
Even so, I think the burqa is a terrible garment. I have no problems with many forms of religious dress: if a woman chooses to wear say, the hijab, or a cross on a necklace, or some other item that indicates her allegiance to a particular way of life, that’s her business. Sure, her “choice” may be constrained, but equally, it may not be. And of course, the same can be said about many of the garments “chosen” by the most free women in the world, women living in Australia and New Zealand and Canada and the Scandanvian countries. Exceedingly high heeled shoes, anyone? To someone looking at my culture from the outside, the clothes that women are required to wear must look very odd, to say the least. What sensible person would insist that a woman wears shoes that damage her knees and hips, and make it difficult for her to walk, effectively hobbling her, and constraining her movement. Of course, we say it’s a matter of choice, but to someone looking from the outside, it could look like as though women are forced to wear these shoes. However, I would no more interfere with a woman in my culture choosing to wear high heeled shoes, than I would interfere with a woman in my culture choosing to wear the hijab. It’s her business!
I suppose that one critical difference is that women in my culture do not risk physical abuse if they choose not to wear high heeled shoes. Women in Afghanistan risk terrible violence if they do not wear a burqa. Given the threat of immediate violence, it is hard to see how a woman is able to choose to wear a buqa at all. She is required to wear it: there is no choice in the matter.
But a burqa is not a headscarf, nor a hijab. It seems fair enough to say that wearing the burqa in Afghanistan is not a matter of choice. But there are no analogies to be drawn between wearing a burqa in Afghanistan, and wearing a hijab in Australia or New Zealand.
Having said that, the makers of the slideshow make some points that are deeply worrying. They say that many educated and well-to-do Afghanis have left their homeland. This represents a great depletion of the human treasure of Afghanistan, the women and men who are teachers and lawyers and doctors and nurses, the people with expertise and skill who are needed in any country. Each time an educated person leaves, particularly people with specialised and critical skills, matters become worse for those who remain, whether by choice or because they have no means of leaving.
The most chilling point? They ask, why do the men of Afghanistan allow this to happen? Why do they not stand up for their mothers, their wives, their sisters, their daughters?
When I ask myself that question, I do not like some of the answers that spring to mind.
Action to take: RAWA has some suggestions on their website.