“See its clear, stunning color. Look at the delicate designs of it, just drown in it, wear it and enjoy it,” he continued.
“You know that its embroideries have been made by hand; it is Afghan art. Don’t you want to look elegant with Afghan art? On the other hand, it is like a mask that protects you from dust and evil eyes; I will buy the most beautiful and expensive burqa for you.”
I looked away and said, “Thank you. If it is as beautiful and useful as you describe, then you better wear it. I don’t want it. For me it is like an ugly prison.” I continued with a smile. “Please don’t waste your money on it; just give me the money because I need to buy other important things.”
He shook his head. “No, no, no, just wear it once. I am sure you would love it.”
I knew if I agreed to wear the burqa once then I would be condemned to wearing it always. I knew it would become like an inauspicious owl over my head that would never leave. We had had this discussion for a long time, almost every night, and every time I refused to wear it.
First, it started off by gentle persuasion; my brother nicely encouraged me and I just as nicely rejected his suggestion. Later it continued in a serious tone. When we returned to Herat from Kabul the influence of relatives in my brother’s mind created more limitations for me and my sister and began to make my life miserable.
The question of wearing a burqa was becoming a nightmare. I imagined it as a blue ghost that wanted to hold me in a hole where I was set apart from real world, where I needed to hide my beauty. I would have no identity because no one could really see my face. Life was challenging me and I was learning how to challenge it back. Indeed, life in Afghanistan is a huge pain and challenge for a girl.
After several days, I decided that I couldn’t refuse something that I had never tried and couldn’t feel how other women would feel until I tried it myself. One day, when everybody was out and I was alone in the house, I tried on my sister-in-law’s burqa. I waited until the house was empty because I didn’t want to give the impression that I was the loser of all the arguments. As I stood in the middle of the room wearing the burqa I was still determined to stick by my decision not to wear the burqa.
For the first time I was looking outside from small holes. It was hot and I couldn’t breathe easily. It annoyed me to know that if I went outside no one would be able to see my face, especially men. I wouldn’t be able to look into their eyes and asks for my rights. I would be limited—a voice with no face—no impression.
While wearing the burqa, I remembered stories from women saying that Afghan men can recognize if it is a girl under the burqa or an old woman. I have heard that they know by the way women walk. I don’t know how much this claim was true; but if so it is funny that somehow Afghan boys have became experts. I can imagine how precisely they would look to find out and then approach the girls. I also heard from my cousins that Afghan men harass women with their words and harsh hands. Burqa is not for protecting women but to make wild men interested in them, arouse their appetites for women, and of course, break weak women that are afraid to talk with men and defend themselves.
One day, my brother commanded, “I don’t want to see any one of you out if you are not covering your face.” His wife was wearing a burqa, so she had no problem.
I complained to my mom, begging her to not force me wear a burqa. In front of my brother she quietly agreed with him but secretly she supported me.
She told me, “Don’t worry, we just carry a niqab (black cloth that is used for covering the face) with us when we go out, as soon as we see your brother is coming you wear it and when he is gone you take it off.”
“No mom. That is the same thing as wearing a burqa. I can’t live like this. Sooner or later he will have to understand this is my life and my way of living. I don’t wear one and no one should force me.”
My mother was very kind to not insist but I knew the problem was not going away.
Soon after, my brother came home very upset. I knew something bad had happened. I heard him tell my mom that his in-laws saw me without a niqab. They said to him, “We saw your sister in the street bare faced. Herat is a very dangerous city. Recently a girl was kidnapped and killed. Your sister is beautiful, she better cover her face.”
I was furious that they were interfering in my own business. They wanted to do the same thing with me as they did with their own girls—to imprison me. I had made my mind to stand against any decision that limited me. I could understand that they were worried about me, but they couldn’t force me to not have a social life.
That night we all gathered around the koursi (a wooden table with coal burning underneath and a blanket over the table that people sit around in the winter to keep warm); my parents, my three brothers, my sister, my sister-in-law and I were there. The subject started again; my brothers were asking me to wear a burqa because of my safety. My father was quiet but my mom would take both my side and my brothers’ side. She was still suggesting that I wear the niqab but not the burqa.
I argued confidently, “I have decided to go to work. How can I work while I am wearing a burqa or niqab? I wish to learn driving soon. How should I see and find my way while I am covering my face? Don’t you notice that Islam gave me the right to not cover my face and you are insisting against it?”
My brothers tried hard to reason with me. I could see they were concerned about my safety “You cannot go outside; the security is not good. You may drive or work when we get good security in our country.”
I couldn’t accept the choice of staying at home or wearing a burqa. It seemed no one could hear me. I was disappointed and near to breaking but still was fighting. I was tired; my throat tightened and I couldn’t control myself. I started crying but still argued. “Why you don’t understand? Why do you want to force me to do something that I don’t like?”
Suddenly my father said, “That is enough, I don’t want you to argue about this issue again. I didn’t force my elder daughter to wear a burqa during Taliban regime and I wouldn’t do it for my other daughters now. This is my daughter and I decide for her. If you have any objections, you may have it for your own daughters.” And that was the end to the burqa discussions and burqa poems.
Thank God that all my family members are very obedient of my father’s rules and decisions. Still, every time I remember that night, tears cover my eyes—tears of joy and happiness that I have a great hero at my house.
By refusing to wear the burqa, I began to realize a most important lesson. We are the ones who empower ourselves. If we consider ourselves weak, others will consider us weaker.