Banning the Burqa
The New Face of Western Imperialism
by Lorna Tychostup
The burqa is an image that burns in Western minds. Afghan women made anonymous by swaths of sky blue material covering them from head to foot—a face screen their only access to the world outside. The garment forced upon women by a ferocious and raging religious fundamentalism formulated by men—Taliban fanatics driving around in Toyota pickup trucks, stopping to whip these faceless blue ghosts on the street or hauling them off to be dug into holes in soccer fields to be readied for public stonings.
These images brought the world’s eye to Afghanistan. They were part of the post-9/11 war cry that saw Laura Bush bring women’s rights activists from groups like the Feminist Majority and Equality Now! and Afghan women exiles to the White House in November, 2001, just weeks after the bombing had begun in Afghanistan. The rhetoric centered on liberation. With the Taliban routed, the burqa would be tossed aside, and women would emerge and breathe freedom. Freedom not experienced since forced modernization mandates put forth by successive Afghan rulers and later during the Soviet occupation gave them limited rights.
Eight years later, the US is contemplating whether to surge the Afghan war effort in order to rid the growing Taliban and al Qaeda presence, or begin a slow drawdown of forces. This time there is no talk of freedom for Afghan women, who, due to the complete and total lack of security in their country, have opted to re-don the burqa—a Western name given to the garment Afghans call a chaddari—for safety reasons.
There is no talk of the conservative backlash against women or how they suffered in the wake of each of their forced “emancipations.” As gender and development expert Lina Abirafeh says in her book, Gender and International Aid in Afghanistan: The Politics and Effects of Intervention (MacFarland, 2009),
“Reforms have repeatedly flooded Afghanistan faster than the country can absorb them, should it choose to do so.”
Abirafeh lived in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2006, working on gender issues and researching the effects of gender-focused international aid in conflict and post-conflict contexts, focusing on gender-based violence. According to Abirafeh, in the 1920s Afghanistan was a secular country working to extend women’s rights, yet by the 1990s it was captive to religious fanaticism, tribal patriarchy, and underdevelopment. She cites the combination of colonialism, economic dependence, and rapid social change as “a recipe for Muslim fundamentalism to flourish—a phenomenon exacerbated by international pressure exerted at the intersection of Islam, the state, and gender politics.” The result leaves the place of women as the only controllable social factor left once economic and political arenas become dependent on external interventions.