Malalai Joya and the Burqa

Malalai Joya’s memoir, A Woman Among Warlords, brings up many examples of gender inequality in Afghanistan.  In this post, I want to focus on her relationship with the burqa.  The burqa has been a great source of controversy all over the world, specifically in countries where women do not have to veil themselves.  In  May 1992, the Afghan government “announced a new set of rules governing the conduct of women: the ‘Ordinance on the Women’s Veil.’  It proclaimed, “A denier of the veil is an infidel and an unveiled woman is lewd” (Joya 28).  Because this rule was enforced by the government, women were forced to wear the burqa.  Women also veiled themselves “because of the fear of being kidnapped, raped, and murdered” (Joya 28).

There are many arguments for and against the burqa.  In the text, Joya discusses instances when she felt oppressed by the burqa and other instances where she used it to her advantage.  Once Joya’s family settled into Herat, Joya had her first experiences with the burqa.  She says, “It was during these years that I had to learn to wear the burqa, and I didn’t like it… It’s not only oppressive, it’s more difficult than you might think…” (Joya 38).  Here, she presents a common argument against the burqa.  There are many reasons why people find the burqa oppressing.  First, women were required to wear it even if they did not want to in order to protect themselves.  Also, the burqa hinders a woman’s ability to partake in physical activity.  As women in Mingora said, the burqa is “a physical limitation and a symbol of social imprisonment.”  This brings up a point that is often used by Westerners to condemn the burqa.  I feel that Westerners have become so concerned with the burqa because it is so public.  It is “oppression” that you can see and feel, rather than something you hear about on the news.  As Tavernise writes, “The burqa was not the worst of women’s troubles, but it was one of the most public displays of what the Taliban wanted of women — that they disappear.”

The burqa is seen by many as a symbol of oppression, but not all women feel oppressed by the burqa.  Some women who have been forced to veil themselves publicly have found many advantages.  Joya says, “I remember one time we were stopped and searched, but my burqa saved me” (Joya 46).  As Joya references, women used their burqa to hide things from others.  In this case, Joya was hiding the books she gave to the girls in her classes, but the burqa can be used to hide other things, including weapons.  Because the burqa has several hidden advantages, it often provides women with a sense of protection and confidence.  This is especially true for the women who choose to wear the burqa themselves.  The burqa has come to be a religious symbol in that veiled women are able to identify themselves as Muslim to the people around them.  Alyan, a woman from Pakistan, says, “The whole country will find that many people cover and many people don’t. I feel confident in my religion and liberated that people don’t actually judge me on my appearance but on my intellect.”  Here, the burqa is seen as a way to challenge societal ideas about femininity and beauty.  (However, many people also find it problematic that women need to hide their bodies in order to avoid “tempting” men sexually.)  For other women, such as those in the conservative, tribal areas of Western Pakistan,  the burqa is a cultural tradition.

Even if women do not feel oppressed by their burqas, does the burqa not reflect a larger problem of gender inequality and sexism?  I feel that each situation has to be understood on its own.  For some women, the burqa is a source of empowerment.  For others, it is a symbol of their oppression.  Wearing a burqa is only problematic if and when women are not given a choice in the matter.  When this choice becomes a requirement, it can no longer be seen as empowering.  However, how are women affected if they are banned from wearing the burqa in public?  For over six years, the French government has been pushing to ban the burqa because it is a “sign of subservience.”  However, this has also raised great controversy.  Yet again, this takes away a woman’s right to choose.  Although many people are in support of this ban, others are extremely bothered.  The president of France, Sarkozy, believes the burqa is “an insult to women.”  I believe that each person is entitled to their own opinion, but it is wrong to force it upon others.  To learn more about the reasoning behind this proposed ban, click here.

In the text, Joya cites the advantages and disadvantages of wearing a burqa from her own personal experience.  However, would she have found these same advantages if she was living in a society where men and women were considered equal?  The burqa often helped her feel safe, but this is because it prevented her from being assaulted.  In the beginning of her memoir, Joya says, “The sad fact is that in Afghanistan, killing a woman is like killing a bird… we remain caged in our country… In most places it is still not safe for a woman to appear in public uncovered, or to walk on the street without a male relative.  Girls are still sold into marriage.  Rape goes unpunished every day” (Joya 2-3).  If we look at the burqa in the context of Afghan society as a whole, it becomes clear that there are many forms of gender inequality at play.  The burqa (in this context) is not a choice, but a way to counter gender inequality.  However, you cannot rid a nation of gender inequality by further oppressing women.

Here is a video which discusses the link between veiling, sexism, and culture from a feminist perspective.


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Toasar
    Mar 25, 2010 @ 12:57:12

    The burqa has not always been a requirement in Afghanistan as the enclosed pictures taken in the 1920’s disclose.


    • michelleg3399
      Mar 25, 2010 @ 13:08:59

      Those are great photographs! In my post, I did not really discuss much of the history of the burqa. Instead, I chose to focus on the time from when the burqa became a requirement in 1992. I feel that it is very important to understand that the burqa was not always required in Afghanistan, so thank you for mentioning that.


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