A young Afghan woman on breaking free of the burqa
It was dehumanising to grow up in Afghanistan under a veil. I escaped but others are now ensnared, says Sultana
I HATED WEARING a burqa. It made me itch, it made me sweat. And it made me invisible. Mine was blue with a small lace opening for the eyes, though underneath I wore a short-sleeved dress and tights. Walking in a burqa, I lost my usual confident gait: I hung my head lower, both hands clutching the edge of the fabric so I wouldn’t stumble. The very fact of wearing it made me feel inferior. To leave the house, when I became a teenager about a decade ago, I had to transform myself into a thing.
My way of protesting was to go out as little as possible, which seemed to be the only way I could protect my individuality. At home, I created a world of my own. But the desire to be part of the outside world never left me. I yearned to walk on the street and eat street food, swim in the lakes and know every corner of my town in a southern province of the country—to participate in life directly rather than simply observe it through my veil.
Our front door had a peephole that looked out onto the alley. Through it, I could see men buying snacks, old men sitting and chatting, or boys flying kites, playing cricket and riding bikes. I imagined how it would feel to walk there and interact with the world. Would I remember how to smile at people? Look them in the eye?
My parents, too, wanted me to step into my fullest potential. When other mothers praised their daughters for their cooking and housework, mine would claim that a woman’s real jewel is her education. When other fathers focused on how quickly they could marry their daughters, my father laughed if someone came to our house with a marriage proposal.
On some nights, when the neighbourhood was sleeping and only stray dogs occupied the roads, my father would walk with me outside the house to give me a taste of the world without a burqa. In the shadow of moonlight, we would stroll, hearing the sounds of crickets and dogs rummaging through rubbish. With each step I took, I felt free. Once my father disguised me as a boy to swim in the river that I used to go to when I was a child. At home, my parents allowed me to listen to music as loud as I pleased. In the late afternoon, after arriving home from work, my father and I would dance to melodic Tajik music. He didn’t want me to forget what it felt like to be free.
Sometimes I would get angry and loudly complain that I was forced to cage myself in a burqa. My mother would look at me with a solemn expression, place her hand on my head, and say, “Be someone who can leave this place.” She encouraged me to learn English.
And I did. Armed with an iPad, the internet and a free education website called Khan Academy, I taught myself English. And philosophy. And maths. And science. And history. I wanted to understand the world in every way possible, and my place in it. Solving maths problems gave structure to the uncertain world I was living in, even if just in my head. I felt liberated when I first learned to make a graph of a linear equation. On the page, drawing a two-dimensional co-ordinate plane and graphing an equation, the world was in my control.
Learning through a screen ten years ago was safer than going to school. There were several road-side suicide-bombings, and the building was occasionally used by the Taliban as base for attacks on government buildings. Besides, female students were threatened by the Taliban with having acid poured on them for attending classes.
It was different when my mother was a child in the 1960s. It was an era of hope: schools were opening for girls and wearing a burqa was not mandatory. In the evenings, when the room was dimly lit by the light of the heater, my mother would tell stories of her past, of a normal Afghanistan.
She spoke about the freedom she enjoyed and the choices women had in life, other than getting married. My mother grew up in an Afghanistan that was modernising. Her father wished her to become an educated and free woman. The wish came true. She became a lecturer at Kabul University. Sporting short hair, wearing a long skirt and blouse, she would walk to her classroom, filled with both male and female students. She even received a fellowship to study in Germany, but the civil war started and she wasn’t able to go.
Through these stories, I realised that Afghan women have the capacity to achieve something great in their lives. My mother believed that no matter how difficult the situation, you should always focus on what you can change. “Of course, you can’t change everything, but you can always change something,” she often reminded me when I got frustrated with the challenges that I had to face as a young Afghan woman.
So I studied. While most young women my age were getting married, I was learning how to argue like Socrates or apply mathematics like Newton. With each new thing I learned, I began to feel alive, like a plant that blooms when it gets water after it has been parched and dying. By allowing me the freedom of education, if only behind the four walls of our home, my parents gave me a window onto the world. More than that, they gave me the tools to create my own identity and make myself visible again.
Around five years ago, as the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated, I didn’t want its fate to become my own. I accepted a scholarship to study maths and science in America, leaving my parents in Afghanistan, with their blessing and encouragement. Today I am a university researcher in America and have published in my scientific field.
Now, another nightmarish reality has begun to unfold in Afghanistan, wiping out the progress Afghan women had made for their rights.
“Afghan women are sinking into an abyss,” my mother told me soon after the American troops pulled out last August. It felt as if someone stabbed my heart. My soul ached. “Any sign of women in public is removed. How can we teach young boys to respect women when on the street they see pictures of women torn down and see women beaten? Why does the tragedy of Afghanistan and of Afghan women have no end?” She cried as she spoke.
Since then, darkness has engulfed Afghanistan. My mind never stops thinking of my mother and all the women and girls trapped in the country, once again forced to hide their existence. A new decree has been issued that, unless accompanied by a male relative, women are in effect not permitted to travel by vehicle more than 45 miles (70km) from their homes. Female friends tell me that with no school and no future to look forward to, life has been reduced to waiting for death.
a new veil descends over Afghan women’s rights, and women in all parts
of the country are forced to stay behind closed doors, I feel the same
suffocation I did as a teenager beneath the thick, scratchy fabric of
the dark burqa. It feels as if the whole of Afghanistan wears that heavy
burqa which I hated so much, and that, underneath it, all Afghan women
Sultana is a university researcher in the sciences in America. Her surname is not disclosed for her family’s safety.
(The Economist Dec 29th 2021)