Beyond the Burqa in Afghanistan: Between Modernity and Tradition

Two of Aina's photographers, <b>Farzana Wahidy</b> and <b>Freshta Kohistany</b>, present contrasting images of contemporary Afghan womanhood. Behind them is the Kabul River Bazaar.

Two of Aina’s photographers, Farzana Wahidy and Freshta Kohistany, present contrasting images of contemporary Afghan womanhood. Behind them is the Kabul River Bazaar. Fardin Waezi / AINA PHOTO AGENCY / AFGHANISTAN

During the Taliban era, many in the liberal world saw the burqa as the symbol of Taliban oppression. Now the Taliban are ousted from power, yet the burqa remains firmly on the heads of all sorts of Afghan women.

Why? Because the burqa is a symbol of traditionally conservative Afghan society which pre-dates the Taliban, in which women are viewed as men’s possessions, to be kept hidden from other men. Freeing Afghan women from the burqa can only be achieved if the mindset of the nation changes. Removing the Taliban does not solve the problem.

The same applies to a range of other issues – such as inequality between men and women and underage marriages – which are embedded in the traditions of Afghan society. These customs are extremely hard to change, as most Afghan people and institutions either passively endorse or actively follow them.

At a local level, traditional conservatism is kept alive though the jirga (assembly of elders) and shuras (councils or consultations). These largely democratic, but old and male, institutions decide on a wide range of issues from family matters to land disputes.

They are useful for dispensing swift justice in a country which, after decades of conflict, has very little in the way of a formal legal system. However, they punish those who break with tradition in ways that are inconsistent with human rights standards – as I found on hearing the story of Homaira, a mother of five children living in the Parwan province of Afghanistan.

On the run

While high on drugs, Homaira’s husband, her brother-in-law and her brother got into a scuffle. Homaira’s brother-in-law shot her brother, who died instantly. Homaira’s brother-in-law and husband went into hiding.

Following tradition, Homaira was taken back to her parents’ home, whereas her children, including her two-year-old son, were given to her in-laws. Homaira stayed in her parents’ house while another of her brothers sought her husband and brother-in-law to exact revenge.

When the search didn’t bear fruit, Homaira requested that her parents and brothers allow her to go back to her in-laws so that she could be with her young children. The parents and brothers did not agree, but Homaira left anyway to join her kids.

Leaving the house against her brothers’ wishes was a big mistake. Homaira was disowned in a gathering attended by hundreds of people in a local mosque, where her brothers swore to kill her for her disobedience. Fearing for her life, Homaira is still on the run with her five children. And popular support remains with her brothers.

Afghanistan’s national Western-style justice system has little impact on this type of traditional conservatism, where women who are raped are imprisoned rather than the men who rape them, and women who try to escape hardship are punished for setting foot outside their homes.

Although Western NGOs are working to strengthen the central justice system, its institutions are ill-equipped and often inaccessible to those who need it. How can a village woman, suffering from domestic violence, be expected to travel by donkey for two days to get to a city court and start legal proceedings that might take months to complete?

The reality is that more than 80 per cent of Afghan people prefer the traditional justice system because it is fast and local, albeit unjust and not human rights-friendly. It is futile to demonize the traditional system and expect people to subscribe to an alternative that is unknown to them.

What about Mrs Karzai?

Even people who do know about alternatives and who wield considerable influence openly endorse some of the customs that lead to human rights violations. Take the example of segregation – a tradition rigidly imposed on most women. The country’s President, Hamid Karzai, has so far kept his wife behind closed doors and out of the public eye. Mrs Karzai, who is a medical doctor, does not even attend state visits or other official engagements with her husband.

One prominent female parliamentarian and human rights activist has decided to remain in a bigamous and violent marriage in exchange for kudos within a traditional community that frowns upon divorcees. This personal moral sacrifice is winning her the political support of the traditionalists. However, she is setting a very bad example for ordinary people who want change.

Some officials use their office to impose traditional values. For instance, the Minister of Culture, Abdul Kareem Khuram, banned the broadcasting of Indian soap operas on Afghan TV channels because, he said, they challenged Afghan traditional values. The dramas showed bare arms and midriffs, and depicted social issues such as children born out of wedlock – and were massively popular with viewers.

The Government presents itself as a liberal force for change. But, at a personal and local level, it endorses ideas that are outright violations of human rights and freedoms.

This contradiction is reflected in society. When I asked a 28-year-old NGO worker, Zabi, about women’s segregation, he said: ‘I respect and am friends with women I went to university with and work with. But when it comes to my sisters, I am a bit strict. I don’t want people to talk about them behind their backs. They can go to university but can’t be friends with men. When they get married they can change, depending on their husband’s thinking on these matters. Afghan society is not a good place for free women.’

Perhaps it is not the personal wish of Zabi or Mr Karzai to keep their female relatives segregated, but they and millions of ordinary Afghan men feel compelled to follow Afghan tradition, which provides them with a collective security but leaves little room for personal opinions, freedoms and rights.

Elaborate trade-offs: women may agree to lose one basic freedom in order to gain another.

Elaborate trade-offs: women may agree to lose one basic freedom in order to gain another. Parwiz / AINA PHOTO AGENCY / AFGHANISTAN

Ways and ways of rebelling

There are many, however, who rebel and fight for modernity, choice, freedom and human rights. Everyone who attempts to rebel will face challenges from the traditionalists. Any success they have depends on their strategy towards these traditionalists.

For instance, I met a young woman, Wazhma Frogh, who is challenging the practice of child marriages and child abuse at a grassroots level. But she is using traditional means and methods to change tradition. For example, she uses Islamic scripture to defend women’s rights. When I met her she was busy organizing a mass prayer in a mosque for victims of child abuse, in order to raise awareness of the issue.

I also met a local shura or council leader from Parwan province who told me about his attempts to bring women into the local governance system – something that he said was ‘unthinkable’ a few years ago. He did this by creating a separate women’s shura first, so that segregation was maintained; then he slowly incorporated the men’s and women’s groups to form a big shura. He then introduced a quota system for the leadership of the shura so that women got a chance to lead. He was delighted at how the conservative locals had accepted change that was introduced gradually.

Those who attempt to bring about change through outright rebellion suffer the most. However, it is sometimes hard to gauge what is deemed acceptable and what is not. TV presenter Shaima Razayee found out the hard way. She was shot dead, two months after being dismissed from her job presenting a pop music show, for acting in a way that a council of scholars considered too ‘un-Islamic’. Her sins were laughing and joking with her male co-presenter and wearing a scarf that was deemed too small.

Some people just negotiate and agree to lose some aspect of their freedom in order to gain another. The burqa and marriage are two negotiating tools that most women use to keep traditions alive, while gaining some personal freedom in exchange.

Friba, a high school student, wears a burqa on her way to school. She says: ‘My father didn’t like people seeing my face in the street and he wanted me to stay at home. I begged him to let me go to school and he agreed, only on condition that I wore a burqa, and I agreed. I am very happy now.’

Her friend Mursal has just struck a deal with her parents over going to university. She has agreed to get engaged to a man of her parents’ choice in exchange for being allowed to go to university. ‘I really wanted to go to university, but I’m not sure if I have done the right thing. I am hoping that I will fall in love with him by the time I finish university.’

Most people who, to an untrained Western eye, appear liberated and educated may have had to choose a severe injustice in order to gain and practise the freedom that we see. Women usually lose out in these negotiations, while older men, the representatives of the conservative traditional society, have the upper hand – which they use to their advantage.

Sex in the city

Waheed, a privileged young man, had befriended a young woman. He told me: ‘I saw her on her way home from school. I gave her my business card with my number on it. That evening she called me. We spoke for hours. We met for a burger twice. And once I took her for a drive.’

When I asked him whether he intended taking any further the relationship with his mobile-phone girlfriend, he laughed and said: ‘I don’t want to marry her. Today she is my girlfriend, tomorrow she might become someone else’s. I can’t trust her. Girls like her are not trustworthy.’

The relationship between Waheed and his girlfriend was uncomplicated. However, I met Dr Suhaila, a gynaecologist from one of Kabul’s middle-class residential areas, who claimed to be dealing with cases of abortion in unmarried girls. She also gets enquiries about reconstructive surgery of the hymen to hide the signs of a sexual relationship before marriage. She said: ‘I used to deal with similar requests before and during the Taliban times too. However, at that time these issues remained hidden. Nowadays people talk about them and write about them, which gives the impression that things are getting worse, that there’s more immorality.’

The urban centres of Afghanistan now have huge expatriate communities where prostitution, alcoholism and drugs are rife. But there is also education, women with small scarves, male-female relationships and employment in such areas.

Traditionalists link all these vices and virtues and so instil in people fear of change; this makes it harder for those who want to promote education and greater freedom for women.

The people of Afghanistan have gone from living in one of the most highly regulated societies during the Taliban era to one that is now very much exposed to new ideas and practices. It is hard to achieve a balance between maintaining tradition and accepting change, especially during a time of war. The first step is for Afghans to recognize the practices within their culture which are against human rights and then find ways of dealing with them that are not too much of a threat to traditional institutions and customs.

The international community, too, must recognize that Afghanistan’s traditional systems have survived for hundreds of years and they cannot suddenly be swapped for Western ones. Only working within the existing systems, with patience and understanding, bringing about change slowly, and with subtlety, will succeed.


Zuhra Bahman is an Afghan writer and law researcher currently living in London. She visits Afghanistan several times a year and you can read her recent NI blogs from the region on This article was originally published in the New Internationalist