In the Land of Blue Burqas: The Ghosts of the Afghan Desert by Chryssoula Katsikoudis

burqa2A burqa – “an enveloping, loose garment covering the entire body and having a veiled opening for the eyes, worn by Muslim women.”

Beneath that piece of clothing lies a forbidden face; a face of hidden beauty for the sake of faith. With the sun rising and setting in the Afghan desert, the shadows in the sand reflect the lives of women in Afghanistan. As they make their way through the desert, that blue, turquoise color of clothing, hiding their identity, turns the desert into a field of sand and blue waves, longing underneath the blazing sun; hidden away from the world to see. Equality for women was partially nonexistent in Taliban ruled Afghanistan. Today, although girls and women are allowed to go to school and have jobs in certain cities in Afghanistan, armed warlords still rule many parts of the country brutalizing the region with their laws. Many of the girls-schools have been burned down, girls are still being abducted on their way home and sexually assaulted. The most unbelievable atrocities against women committed in Afghanistan as a result of a twenty year war cannot be denied. However, this was not always so.

Before 1979, Afghanistan was a prosperous nation, a peaceful society with greater freedom for its people. Afghan society was made up of courageous women; equal to men. They had jobs, were allowed to own property, and dress to the latest fashion of the mid-seventies. However, as wars swept through the lands, especially post 9-11, the evolution of the role of women became a symbolic matter, and women were now seen as nothing more but the reproducers of the Afghan identity; sacrificing their own. With their fierce and spirited life reflected and studied through their stories, were now stories of enduring strength during a time of war; the hell they had to cross, wishing every night that God had never created “the woman.”

Afghanistan has been ruled by many conquerors; dating all the way back to Darius (500 BC) and Alexander the Great (329 BC) making Afghanistan his gateway to India. The Islamic period began around the seventh century and lasted all the way until the eighteenth century which included the rule of Genghis Khan in 1220 AD. The Afghan Empire lasted from ca. 1710-1826. It was under King Amir Habibullah Khan that Afghanistan won its independence from Britain in 1919, establishing a Monarchy which granted rights for women. He had ordered that women no longer wear the veil, and abolished slavery freeing women from cuncubinage.   Queen Soraya established the first women’s magazine Irshadi Niswan (The Guide for Women). During the mid-1970s, Afghanistan was proclaimed a Republic under Sardar Mohammad Daoud Khan, eventually becoming a Marxist State and dictatorship in 1979 under Nur Mohammad Taraki. It was not long before the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan; that is when the lives of so many women would never again be the same.

For the past twenty years, the scars of war that scattered throughout the deserts of Afghanistan are still visible today. As a result of land mines implanted during the war with the Soviet Union, famine, and endless wars, one human dies every five minutes; men, women, and as it is often the case, children. Even after the invasion, occupation, and construction of Afghanistan by the United States in 2001, one of the seven of “Operation Enduring Freedom,” women living in what is now the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan are still exposed to violence and major violations of human rights. Although the burqa is no longer a mandatory requirement to wear, many women outside of the big cities still wear it; more than ten years after the Taliban regime ended. The Taliban may no longer rule their desert Empire, but there are still warlords scattered in the urban areas of Afghanistan, who subjugate women to their rules. Furthermore, women living in cities who still wear the burqa believe that it is considered an honor to wear it. In that context, looking back to the Taliban rule, is it the government that keeps these women hidden underneath a piece of garment, or is it culture that forces the government to impose these sanctions on women?

In Afghanistan, each ethnic group has a name and an imagine of its own, meaning each family has different names which compare to those of clan names seen in some African tribes. However, women who make up half the society in Afghanistan have no name or image because they are covered from head to toe. They are called “siasers” or black heads; nameless and faceless identities living underneath a clothed cage, depriving them from hope, love, and courage. As these women dressed in colorful burqas pass the desert under the blazing sun, they are only a reflection against the yellow sand and orange sun which rises and sets from the western sky. The imagery gives it a small hint of beauty against the irony of oppression and captivity. Hence, even when veiled, these women express themselves through colors wearing bracelets and different shades of nail polish; giving them a small purpose in the forbidden world they live in. What about love? Does love pass through the covering of the burqa?
Despite post-Taliban regime, the fate of many women are still tied to arranged marriages. With the hopes of education and leading a better life, many women are still clawed against their fate which is dictated by ritual. After eleven years of Western intervention, education and the right to work as a woman has been ratified and codified with International help, however, modernity is not enough to save so many women forced into marriages to men they despise but have no choice but to marry. Domestic violence as a result for being too liberal and too modern has spiked suicide rates amongst teenagers. Today, Kabul has one of the highest suicides rates amongst women in Afghanistan. It is the only solution many women take which is recognized by Islamic law: a women’s death, even by her own hands, marks the end of an engagement or marriage. Running away would result in jail time for many years.

A woman’s life expectancy in Afghanistan is roughly at 44 years of age. During a time when Afghanistan prospered as a nation and women had rights contributing to society as equals hope was only believed in the context for a better future for every man, woman, and child. That dream shattered when the country got ravaged by war, death, and grief. Women under Taliban rule endured the worst as they became walking ghosts of the Afghan desert. Their children sent off to war or marry Taliban war lords left them not only stripped from their identity but they had to give up the last part of their existence which defined their only purpose in society; motherhood. Despite marking almost eleven years since the end of the Taliban regime, with the help of International organizations it seems as if life would find its way again for Afghan women. Unfortunately, it is not the case. A country politically and economically unstable these women discover hope only through their dreams. Every person needs a reason for living, and in difficult circumstances hope is that reason. For the thirsty it is water; for the hungry it is bread; for the lonely it is love. For a woman living under full cover hope is the day she will be seen.

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