What Are They Hiding? The Women Behind the Veil
By: Lambeth Hochwald
NEW YORK, Dec 16, 2001/ --- Not long ago, designer Miguel Adrover showed the fashion world a
collection rife with Middle Eastern inspiration, which riffed on traditional garb of the
people he observed in Egypt: sweeping caftans and layered tunics, traditional headwear and
scarves, many even stained to reflect toil and poverty.
This display of dangerous exoticism showed the industry's occasional haughtiness
(and perhaps our false sense of peace) - but it also suggested a new path for fashion.
That moment feels ancient now as our gaze turns from fantasy to the frightening fact of the
No article of clothing has garnered as much attention in the last few months as the
shroud-like covering Afghan women were forced to wear under the Taliban regime.
But for all the attention the burka and its impact on Afghan society are often misinterpreted,
says Farzaneh Milani, PhD, associate professor of Persian and women's studies at the University
"The burka-that some women wore before the Taliban took over the country in 1996-has been
sensationalized," she says. "The most detrimental thing the Taliban did was to deny women
access to the public arena and the burka is just one symbol of that ... What is significant
about it is not how it looks but, more important, that it immobilized women and delineated
public and private space, assigning public space to men and private space to women."
That private space was heavily restricted in itself, mandating that women (65 percent of the
Afghan population) be banned from schools and businesses save a few exceptions; they could not
leave the house without the presence of a male relative; they could not wear shoes with heels
Still, "how it looks," as Dr. Milani says, is the touchstone for the Western understanding
of how these women have suffered. It is also the trigger for so many misapprehensions and
tensions between Western women and those who embrace any form of religious dress, particularly
"Meaning doesn't reside in any garment, whether it's the burka or a mini-skirt," says Valerie
Steele, acting director of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City,
commenting on the layered and often contradictory meanings woven into the burka. "It's how we
interpret the garment. For most Westerners and for many Afghan women, the burka is seen as
being part of a more general oppression of women because it was enforced. Women were flogged
for not wearing it. But it also may be seen as something a woman should wear to appear modest
and respectful." And in fact, the burka, when worn as such - and not as enforced by regime of
religious fanaticism - is simply the manifestation of a basic Islamic tenet of religious
"Islamic society has always divided men and women and historically; women always wore the
veil," says Maya Chadda, PhD, a professor of political science at William Paterson University
in Wayne, New Jersey. "[The burka] was originally a garment for modesty since women were
considered temptations in Islamic religion. Women were forced to keep out of public places
because they were seen as potential corruptors of the Islamic purity of men."
Afghanistan is not alone in its mandates on clothing. In Iran and Saudi Arabia, for instance,
women are required to wear chadors, or veils. "Some Muslim women see veiling as being a symbol
of modesty and can cite verses from the Koran of how women should speak 'behind the curtain'
which could be interpreted as a veil or cloistering women in the home," adds FIT's Steele.
"Veiling had begun to disappear as part of modernization. Then things started to turn the
other direction after the 1967 war in Israel. College-educated women were making a statement
of Islamic solidarity by wearing the veil. It has been picked up by fundamentalist forces
insisting this is a necessary part of Islamic propriety."
Whether worn by choice or by force, Afghan and other Muslim women have often found ways to
retain a sense of themselves beneath the myriad folds and pleats of their dress. When Afghan
women are home, Dr. Chadda points out, they might even wear a skirt under the burka. "The
women of this region like the art of being feminine," she says. "Among women, they can shed
the burka and admire each other's clothing. Arabic women are extremely fond of cosmetics and
are very fond of gold."
"As a Muslim woman, what I find totally un-Islamic about what the Taliban did is that they
denied women their choice," adds Dr. Milani. "Of course there is celebration now that women
don't have to wear the burka. They don't have to cover themselves and they have the option of
how they want to present themselves to the world. The beards and burkas are emblems of the
Taliban society and their oppression."
But at other points in Muslim history the burka has stood for something quite different:
subversion. During the Algerian war against the French in the 1960s, the liberated women of
Algeria began to wear it as a symbol of their identity, says Dr. Chadda: "They were
nationalists and not part of this Francophone culture. They carried guns under their burkas
and they played an important role in carrying messages and doing spy work. They took on this
identity as a matter of choice. And, in Sri Lanka, which has a very small minority of Muslims,
the women never wore burkas until the recent civil war. Since they have come under attack, the
women have taken to wearing burkas instead of the traditional saris, as a matter of choice."
Now, after five years of having no choice at all, the women of Afghanistan can step out of
the shadow of their shroud and face their future - if they so choose. Still, there are many
fears and restrictions that may keep them behind the veil.
"Whether a woman wears a burka depends on her class and her village," says Dr. Chadda.
"It also depends on how modern her village is and whether she considers it disrespectful
to return to Western clothes and a veil."
There is also the fear that the Taliban will return to power, re-institute the burka and
punish those who have transgressed the regime's rules. "Before women shed their burkas,"
says Steele, "a lot are waiting to see what other women will do."
For now, it seems,
Afghan women, who have traversed so much rough terrain before, are approaching this new
horizon in an ironically parallel course as their Western sisters.