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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

ESSAY: Viewing the World From Behind a Taliban Veil




KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- The first thing that strikes you is that the world suddenly looks like pea soup. Faces are indistinct and distances are hard to calculate. Stepping off a broken curb onto a rubble-strewn street, for example, takes great skill. Navigating through chaotic traffic, with motor scooters careening past donkey carts on all sides, becomes a nightmare.


The second thing you notice is that it is stiflingly hot. You can breathe, but you feel claustrophobic almost immediately. Within minutes, you are seized with a compulsion to tear at the choking folds of cloth swathing your face and body.


At least that is how it felt the first time I put on a burqa, Taliban-style.


I had been in Afghanistan almost a week, watching faceless women negotiate sidewalks and bazaars. Snug cloth caps covered theirhair, and, from their foreheads downward, pleated nylon robes of pastel blue or green or yellow billowed around them like spinnakers as they walked. The only concession to sight was a slightly looser square mesh of material around the eyes.


So puritanical are Afghanistan's current rulers, the all-male Taliban movement, that they have declared insufficiently modest for females over 12 both the Arabic hejab, a long coat with a nun-like head covering that can be drawn across the lower face, and the traditional Afghan chador, a large shawl covering the head and torso.


It was hard to know how ordinary Afghan women felt about wearing the burqa; I was forbidden to interview any and was accompanied throughout my travels by a government guide. Several Taliban officials and other Afghan men I met, especially here in the more conservative southern part of Afghanistan, assured me that many women liked to wear them because they afforded complete privacy from prying male eyes.


But I had seen the flushed cheeks and undisguised relief on women's faces when, upon reaching an all-female sanctuary, they could finally fling the sweltering garment back over their heads and relax. Both in my interviews with professional Afghan women who were refugees in Pakistan and in my one opportunity to meet women such as teachers and nurses in an internationally run clinic in Kabul, several expressed strong resentment at being forcibly relegated to anonymity.


As a Western woman in Afghanistan f in fact, maybe the only Western woman in Afghanistan during one week in September f I enjoyed a privileged position of sorts. Because I was a foreign visitor, I was treated more or less as a man. I was permitted to eat with men, while their female relatives, never introduced, had to wait until we were done. I was allowed to converse with male officials and strangers in the street, although some were discomfited by my attempts.


At the strong urging of my colleagues and local guides, I wore a shalwar kameez, the loose-fitting, long-sleeved Pakistani trouser and dress ensemble, as well as a chador over my head during the entire visit. But as a matter of both principle and sanity, I refused to wear a full burqa. As a result, I constantly drew startled stares in the street, as well as occasional muttered remarks that were unmistakably lewd, as if I were inviting them by my state of undress.


When I finally put on a hyacinth-blue burqa as an experiment, in a small shop that had specialized in selling them for 70 years, I felt an odd combination of humiliation and security. During those first few moments, as I stumbled half-blind along a city sidewalk, I could understand the appeal of being anonymous in public. At the same time, I could easily imagine the rage that builds up inside when one's identity is literally smothered.


In fact, there were a number of times during my visit when, veiled or not, I was deliberately made to feel as if I didn't exist. To certain purist officials and members of the Taliban, my unusual status as a Western journalist was simply not enough to overcome their religious scruples f or was it their profound contempt?


At the foreign ministry in Kabul, which had arranged my visa and requested that I check in upon arrival, the Taliban guard refused to allow me to enter the building. While I cooled my heels beside a rosebush, my Afghan driver was ushered inside to obtain my press credentials and discuss the rules and regulations governing my visit to the country.


On several occasions, I was introduced to Taliban officials or Afghan men in the company of other foreign male journalists and visitors. When everyone around me began shaking hands, I automatically held out mine, too f only to have the Afghans glance down or turn away in embarrassed disgust. Each time, I felt like a leper.


To be fair, there were other times when I was received with cordiality. The foreign ministry spokesman, whom I finally met by knocking on his residence door, turned out to be a charming and cultured historian who had lived for years in Italy. He offered me tea and cookies and fruit, and we chatted about Europe. By then, however, I knew better than to try and shake his hand.


Much to my surprise, the restriction that affected me most, and made me identify with Afghan women in a way I never expected, was being banned from entering any mosque or place of worship. Five times every day, the men around me stopped whatever they were doing and trooped off together to pray, while I was politely asked to wait behind.


This is the central ritual of Islamic life and in Afghanistan today, where Islam is now the single dominant institution, worship has become crucial for socializing, exchanging news and opinion, reinforcing friendships and cultural bonds. And it is a collective ritual from which women are totally excluded. They must pray, of course, but in seclusion, usually at home and often alone.


On the road, even in the middle of a desert highway, trucks and taxis would suddenly pull over. All the male drivers and passengers hurried off to a sheltered spot and gathered to pray as one. The few women passengers, meanwhile, remained where they were. Completely shrouded, they silently descended to kneel beside their vehicle, bowing several times to the ground, then climbed back inside to wait.


Each time I watched this happen, it felt as if half the population belonged to a secret spiritual brotherhood, and the other half could only slink around the fringes, copying their gestures. Even though I am not a Moslem, my resentment and indignation surged. Behind a burqa, I could not help thinking, it must be very hard to see God.


Pamela Constable is a staff writer for The Washington Post.