Why are Afghan women still hiding?
Updated: Apr 10, 2018
October 12, 2014
In Kabul and Herat the majority of women have traded in the burqa for a wide range of personal head scarf styles. But in Mazar, the fourth largest city in Afghanistan, the indigo blue burqa remains the uniform of choice.
This was not our first landing in the Mazar-e-Sharif airport. Three years ago, baggage claim meant fighting on the back of a flat bed truck amongst other travelers for your suitcase as a guy randomly threw bags into the muddy street. This time, when we landed at the newly minted Mazar-e-Sharif International Airport, the largest in the country, it was shiny and gleaming. TV screens with travel information buzzed over the glass baggage claim terminal. Passengers quietly checked IPhones and gathered children. We were quietly impressed.
Mazar-e-Sharif sits on a flat plain in north central Afghanistan. Security is good. Suicide attacks are minimal. Turkish restaurants dot the neighborhoods while Turkish and Chinese fashions permeate the city's shopping malls. There are working traffic lights. On the surface, Mazar-e-Sharif is thriving under the tight control of one man, Governor Mohammad Atta, a former warlord who owns the city.
Our project was on local religious leaders promoting contraception in the community. We wanted to speak with a cross section of women to find out the prevailing attitudes on family planning and contraception. Despite Atta’s monopoly of the city, Mazar-e-Sharif is still known to be relatively liberal for women. High numbers enroll in university with many female doctors, lawyers, police officers and officials making up an educated middle class. Unlike the more infrastructure starved, conservative South, we assumed Mazari women would be more likely to speak with us. But then we began our search for women on the streets.
12 years after the US invasion, approximately 70% of the women were still wearing the traditional blue burqa — material draped over the woman's head fully covering her with a mesh screen over her eyes to allow looking out but not being seen. The burqa was obligatory under the Taliban but today it's not legally compulsory.
We knew the odds: it takes at least asking twenty Afghan women for an interview to get one to accept. This time it would It would take much more. The topic of reproductive health and one's sexual habits is a sensitive one in any country. Afghanistan is a notoriously closed society where traditions run deep and are rarely questioned. We were struck by how difficult it became to get any woman to agree to an interview.
On our first day filming the only women showing their faces were young girls and students wearing head scarves and trench coats. The unmarried minority, they were more worried about exams than family planning.
On our third day in Mazar, we set our cameras up at an open-air market. Every single women that passed by wore a burqa. Educated or not, no one lingered long enough to let us ask a question.
Regardless of the style of hijab, no Afghan woman can yet walk out of her home without wearing some form of head covering. Doing so still makes her a potential target of not only the Taliban but conservative Muslims. It's difficult to gauge whether Mazar-e-Sharif had grown more conservative since our last visit, or if it simply had stayed the same and that our expectations of progress were naively unrealistic. The disheartening fact remained: in Mazar-e-Sharif, we found more women wearing the burqa than we'd seen 3 years ago.
When asked why, women said the primary reason was practicality. The Karzai government had failed and refused to protect women against violence both inside the family and out on the street. Afghan laws continued to restrict women's rights in marriage and favor husbands and fathers in the prosecution of domestic violence and sexual assault cases. The last several years had seen an escalation in the deaths and kidnappings of female reporters, politicians, civil servants. Some women we spoke to said they were bracing for the potential return of the Taliban, of warlords and militias who ruled without impunity and an increase in sectarian violence. Rumors were rampant that neighboring provinces would soon fall to the Taliban and extremists in the coming year. The burqa offered some protection because obviously it made them feel invisible.
As American forces, NATO, and international agencies leave the country and conservative Muslims in tandem with the Taliban fight for control —and for women it is a fight over who will control their bodies and their access to social life---one can't help but think of the blue sea of burqa's in Mazar-e-Sharif as a complex web of responses.
Perhaps women were clinging to traditions in the hope of finding safety from harm, or perhaps the burqa is resistance against more than a decade of Western soldiers invading their homes-violating the most sacred of private spaces and killing their families. Or maybe because of Afghan women have been encouraged to take the burqa off and engage in Afghan society — wearing it is a re-affirmation of conservative Islamic values.
When I told women they could speak with their burqas on, they'd answer, “I don’t have my husband’s permission.” It was disturbing to realize these women were afraid of being punished by their husbands for simply having their voices recorded. The tragedy of Farkhunda, a young woman lynched by a mob of 100 men after challenging a local fortune teller was still a year off, but the message to Afghan women has been clear for decades: simply raising your voice against the status quo means punishment.
Back at our guesthouse, we tried to unpack the difficulties of the day. Perhaps the slew of journalists, filmmakers, photojournalists who had preceded us in the heyday of the war had left Afghan women wary and suspect. Were many of the women who refused us simply exhausted by the prying cameras and a sense of exploitation they felt at the hands of anyone who had held a camera? They told us how much they wanted their health problems solved and their sisters and mother's to be safe, but they didn't want foreigners on their land nor did they want them taking their pictures to sell to Westerners either. We couldn’t really blame them.
Producer and Camera: Maeva Bambuck and Sedika Mojadidi
Funded by the Innovation for Development Grant (IDR)
Broadcast on Guardian Multi-Media