What do Afghan Women Want?

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An Afghan woman wears a burqa while walking through the hills outside Kabul

Shahnaz Abdul is something of a feminist in Afghanistan. Exuding confidence and a no-nonsense attitude, she has practiced law for 22 years and is now assigned to the High Court in Kabul. The day the Taliban banned women from working "we were so sad, so angry," she remembers. But after a few months stuck at home, Shahnaz, 43, began reading to keep herself occupied; law books, mostly, and a history of Afghanistan. When the Taliban forced all women to wear the burka, that long all-encompassing cloak that hides women's bodies, faces and identities, Shahnaz bought the cheapest she could find, figuring that the law would not last. Though she had always made do with a simple headscarf in deference to Islamic modesty, as a kid she had played dress ups in her mother's burka "so it was not difficult for me to get used to it again." The law stuck and wearing a burka became an uncomfortable habit: "in the summer you sweated in there, and in the winter you froze. It was a kind of punishment."

It's surprising, then, at least to western sensibilities, that four months after the overthrow of the ideologues Shahnaz still wears the burka whenever she leaves the house. Westerners expected the end of the Taliban to be followed immediately by the shedding and shredding of what we saw as one of their most visible symbol of oppression. And in the first few days after the Taliban's ouster we rejoiced in the pictures of Afghan women peeling off their burkas to feel the sun on their faces. But Shahnaz says we got it all wrong. The burka itself is not oppressive; what was cruel, she says, was the edict forcing women to wear it. "Now the Taliban is gone we will take it off when we want to. Maybe in summer when it gets too hot," she says, sitting in the living room of the house she shares with her father, Abdul Jan, a former military officer in the Afghan army. "But it's our decision. No one else's."

The burka, or more correctly the chadari, has long been traditional wear for Afghan women in the countryside and in conservative cities like Kandahar. In 1919, the first Afghani king encouraged women to shed the head to toe garb by revealing the face of his wife in public. Many women in the more liberal cities obliged and by the 1980s less than half the women in Kabul, the capital, wore the burka. Under the Taliban, women had little choice: wear the robe in public or face a vicious beating. But Afghan women say this was more inconvenience than hardship. "Under the Taliban women weren't allowed to leave their houses, weren't allowed to work in an office, weren't allowed to study," says Sakina Hashimi, head of vocational training at Afghanistan's new ministry of women's affairs. "These were the big problems for us. Not the burka."

Many women who did not wear the burka before the Taliban took over say they are still nervous about security and, for now at least, prefer to remain anonymous in public. A few rely on begging to get by and so prefer to go incognito. Others simply say they are used to the burka and feel uncomfortable going without it. "I feel safer wearing the burka," says Qasida, 26, an engineering student at Kabul University. "There are places you go where men look at you; it's just easier to be covered." When the Taliban forced Qasida to stop attending classes she continued her studies at the home of one of her female teachers, smuggling books through the streets hidden under her burka. "I really think it's up to each woman to decide. We can study with or without."

The government is encouraging but not forcing women to be rid of the things and women working in offices are asked to wear headscarves rather than cover their face completely. Most rural men believe women should be fully covered but many men in the larger cities share the sentiments of Kabul traffic cop Ghalaam Azart: "It's part of our culture and tradition for women to wear one but the decision lies with them. I cannot demand."

Many Kabul women said they planned to start going burka-less from the Afghan New Year, which was celebrated last week. Nasrin Qasim Zai, who works in Kabul University's student registry says many of her friends are waiting for other women to lead the way. She pulls her light blue-colored burka back to reveal dark lipstick, gold earrings and faux leopard skin high heels. "Women will discard the burka only gradually as the security improves," she says, as she waits with friends for the bus home after work. "The important difference now is that we have a choice. Nothing's forcing us." Not Taliban dogma, or Western expectations.