Public Comment

The Burka: A Taliban Imposed Canvas Prison

By Ralph E. Stone
Monday August 23, 2010 - 09:42:00 PM

On our Iran Air flight from Frankfurt to Tehran, each of the stewardesses wore a "hiyab." When we entered Iran's airspace, an announcement over the intercom told the women to put on their hiyab or a head scarf. My wife, as did the other women on the flight, obliged by putting scarves on their heads. My wife wore a scarf covering her hair for our entire Iran visit.  

Why do Iran and other Muslim countries require a woman to hide her hair or her entire body? Because they believe God has made it an obligation for believing women. In the Koran, God tells the believing men and women to lower their gaze and to dress modestly. He (God) specifically addresses women when He asks them not to show off their adornment, except that which is apparent, and draw their veils over their bodies. (Koran 24:30-31) Thus, God requires Muslim women to dress modestly and to cover in public or in the presence of men who are not close relatives. 

These verses of the Koran are known as the verses of hijab and many Islamic scholars believe that they make the wearing of a hijab mandatory. Some countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar do enforce a dress code. Women there are expected to cover their hair and wear some sort of loose fitting, full-length garment over their clothes. However, for the majority of Muslim women around the world, to cover, or not to cover, is a freely made choice. We have noted in our travels to Indonesia, Egypt, and Morocco, that very few women wore such coverings or even a hijab. 

Ostensibly, the hijab frees women from being thought of as sexual playthings or from being valued for their looks, or body shape, rather then their minds and intellect. As the argument goes, no longer slaves to consumerism, the hijab liberates women from the need to conform to unrealistic stereotypes and images dictated by the media. Wearing a hijab and dressing modestly and covering the hair, may even minimize sexual harassment in the workplace. Supposedly, the aura of privacy created by a hijab is indicative of the great value Islam places upon women.  

Afghanistan Under the Taliban 

The Taliban is an Islamic fundamentalist group who emerged from the koranic schools in Pakistan. The majority of the Taliban are ethnic Pashtun. The "burka" is the mandatory garment of the Pashtun tribes. After the the departure of the Soviets in Afghanistan, the Taliban came to power and made the wearing of the full burka mandatory. The burka became a canvas prison, devaluing their women. Under the Taliban, Afghanistan went from a twentieth century country to a medieval society. 

A women cannot clearly see more than a few yards away when wearing a burka. Those with glasses cannot use them. It guarantees control over a woman's body as it covers the eyes with a thick veil, which prevents the wearer from seeing normally. And because the canvas grid limits peripheral vision, women become dependent on others to effectively move around, especially in open areas. The thick veil of the burka prevents the face and eyes to be visible. The garment extends to the wearer's feet, making it difficult to walk or run. The burka weighs about 14 pounds. Imagine wearing a 14-pound garment every day. 

The Taliban prohibits women from singing, dancing, playing musical instruments, engaging in sports, employment, schooling, and even flying kites, an Afghan national pastime. Only male physicians are allowed to practice in hospitals, but they are not allowed to treat or operate on women.  

When a woman is pregnant, the Afghans say she is sick. Ninety-seven percent of Afghan women gave birth at home because they are forbidden to call male physicians. Forty percent of Afghan women died of childbirth complications. Under the burka, the child cannot see his or her mother's face or receive skin contact. During breastfeeding, the child cannot see the mother's face and the mother cannot clearly see her child's expressions through the burka, thus negating basic bonding between mother and child. 

Young guards of the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice once patrolled the streets with whips, sticks, and rifles. If women were seen wearing makeup, exposing their faces or even laughing, they had to take them in without any legal defense. Women have even been beaten because they enlarged the holes in their burkas in order to see better. Some of the penalties for these violations include stoning, amputation, torture, flogging, and public executions. 

In stoning, the woman is put into a hole in the ground and covered up to her chest with dirt, then men stone her to death. The stones should not be too big so as to cause immediate death, nor too small as then they are not considered stones. 

There are thousands of widows who must beg in the streets or prostitute themselves because under the law they cannot receive their husbands' inheritance. 

Despite the new constitution of 2004, Afghan women can be purchased, sold, or be part of an inheritance. Forced marriages continue where about half involve young girls under sixteen. Many Afghan women leave their homes only twice in their lifetime, when they get married and go to live with their husbands, and when they die. Suicide by fire and domestic violence are widespread.  

Since the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan by the United States, not much has changed for Afghan women, despite the promises of the international community, not only in areas controlled by the Taliban, but also in areas controlled by the international coalition. President Hamid Karzai was once seen as a champion of women's causes and a welcome change to Taliban rule until he failed to deliver on promises to appoint women to cabinet posts. In 2009, he angered international allies by signing onto the so-called "rape" law, containing clauses making it illegal for woman to refuse to have sex with their husbands, and women could only seek work, education or visit the doctor with the permission of their husband. It was dropped under international pressure. 

The United States' war in Afghanistan is unwinnable. When the coalition forces finally leave, the Taliban will either regain control of the country or at least exert considerable influence over the country's affairs ensuring that Afghan women will continue a miserable existence. Will the plight of Afghan women have any influence over our exit? Probably not. 

When the niece of Aishah Bint Abu Bakr (the Prophet’s wife), Aisha bint Talha was asked by her husband Musab to veil her face, she answered, "Since the Almighty hath put on me the stamp of beauty, it is my wish that the public should view the beauty and thereby recognize His grace unto them. On no account, therefore, will I veil myself." 

I recommend the film "Kandahar" and "Kabuli Kid." I also recommend the following books: "The Bookseller of Kabul" by Åsne Seierstad; "The Kite Runner" and "A Thousand Splendid Suns" by Khaled Hosseini. I am sure there are many other films and books on Afghanistan.  

Source: Partly based on "The Canvas Prison," a PowerPoint presentation by an unknown author. The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) has much information about the plight of women in Afghanistan. <>