In the final week of Women’s History Month, I have decided to tackle a topic that has been on my mind for awhile. It is not so much a topic actually but rather an item of clothing. A few years back, my father returned from his time in Afghanistan with a gift. He brought his westernized, feminist, know it all daughter something extraordinary and like nothing I owned. He brought me a burqa. I want to share this burqa with you and try to respectfully encourage some awareness about the experience of wearing this article of clothing in a country very different from our own.
Truth be told, this is my second burqa. When I was a child, my father went to Afghanistan and brought me back a smaller burqa, one that actually fit on one of my Barbie’s perfectly. This burqa seemed part of another world, a piece of clothing I didn’t exactly understand but my Barbie wore from time to time while she went about her very important Barbie business.
While I was pregnant with my second child, my father brought me my second burqa. This time is was large enough for me to wear. I couldn‘t thank him enough, I was grateful to finally own one myself.
Why would that be?
First let me explain the burqa – or try to. The burka is worn by women in Afghanistan. Traditionally, it has been expected that women cover themselves entirely in a burqa whenever in public. It is said to be a matter of honor and one both men and women have upheld respectfully. And while this tradition has given way to western influences and fashion trends in recent years – perhaps with simple head coverings rather than a full length burqa – the Taliban do enforce the burka. In fact, in the eyes of the Taliban, it has meant a woman’s death if she doesn’t wear one in public. Regardless, enforced or not, women in provinces all over Afghanistan wear these coverings. (Please note that women cover themselves in many Islamic countries also, each garment having different names and social expectations.)
Are you a mother? If so, imagine yourself doing what you do: working, chasing down children, doing errands, cleaning, cooking, caring for your families entirely covered head to toe in a burka while in public. It is an awesome feat. Whether a cultural choice or not, I truly respect the women who wear them.
But you see this is all I understand about the burqa. I know what my father tells me and what I have read in books. So what do I really know or truly understand about its history or its meaning – positive or otherwise? I don’t. All that I do know now is what it feels like to wear one – and that has only been briefly.
(Oh yes, here I am. A privileged, American woman – annoyed when she has to wear a bra in public – and now I have a burqa and I want to see what its like. Groan. How condescending that sounds. But I don’t mean it that way. I am simply wanting to learn, to get it, to share this experience, if only for a moment.)
So I have tried on my burqa many times and here is what this western woman experienced. First of all, the burqa is hot. I guess they used to be made of more breathable cotton but newer ones are made with synthetic material so that they keep their color and their creases. And it is very hard to see through the burqa, but maybe I’m just not used to it. Also I initially thought my head was really big because the top of the burqa did not fit on my head well, it was constricting. After doing further research, I have learned this is typical for most women wearing one and it is not comfortable at all. And finally, its not at all easy to breathe in. There is no vent for the nose or mouth. I just can’t breathe in it for long. That’s why I always take it right off. I can’t breathe. I feel claustrophobic and closed in. So chasing children? Carrying food back from the store? I can’t imagine.
Now I am sure there are readers ready to discuss the matter of women’s repression in Afghanistan. And I am sure there are readers who feel offended by any lack of respect for the burqa and its place in Afghanistan tradition. While I certainly have my views, my post is not meant to judge the purpose behind the burqa. I am simply sharing the experience of a burqa, an experience many women have daily and I don’t. If you ever have the chance to try one on, please do if only to honor a woman’s lifestyle someplace far from our streets of Main Street, U.S.A.
And finally, a quick note. Do you know where I keep my burqa? It is kept in my closet, draped over the box which contains my carefully preserved wedding dress. It just seems fitting. After all, we too wear constricting garments which are expected of us. It’s just what women do here.
Cross posted at Type A Moms.