View through the burka


By Sadia Qasim Shah
Saturday, 16 May, 2009 | 09:27 AM PST |

Many women in Swat have no choice but to hide themselves inside the shuttlecock burka.— Reuters

A WELL-BUILT, middle-aged maid working for a wealthy family in the restive Swat valley was once stopped by the Taliban on her way to work. Objecting to her traditional parhoonay or covering, one of the Taliban asked her, ‘Why are you not wearing a burka?’

He ordered her to wear the all-enveloping garb that has only a latticed ‘opening’, resembling a grill, in front for a woman to see and breathe. This garment is popularly called a shuttlecock burka. Some say it resembles a tent.

The next day the maid was taking some food in a huge pot covered by her burka to some relatives of the family she worked for. Once again she was stopped — this time by the police who assumed she was a security threat.

‘I don’t know what to do. Should I wear a burka or not?’ she wondered. However, observing that the Taliban were harsh in imposing their self-styled Islamic edicts on women she realised she had no choice but to allow the all-enveloping material to cover her.

However, another woman from Swat who now lives in Islamabad said that she and her young nieces had decided that they would not go to Swat if they had to wear the burka. Until just a few years ago, Swat regularly saw local and foreign tourists attired in outfits of their personal choice. 

Unfortunately, in the face of Talibanisation, many women have no choice but to hide themselves inside the shuttlecock burka. The view from behind the ‘grill’ is not very clear. There is hardly any opening for fresh air. The shape of the burka ‘cap’ perhaps symbolises how the Taliban do not want women to grow intellectually.

It is too early to say what the results of the ongoing military operation will be, but until just some days ago, the Taliban had not only been entering and controlling many of our towns, they had also come to affect private lives. Their demand has been for men to sport beards and women to wear the shuttlecock burka.

It is quite clear that the Taliban are averse to a role for women outside their homes — this is their policy or one-point agenda as far as women are concerned. Matters could be worse for working women, especially those who do not have male breadwinners in the family, as the Taliban expect women to be accompanied by a male family member, or mehram, when venturing out of their homes.

‘My 15-year-old son laughed when he told me how the Taliban referred to two of his young cousins wearing burkas as ‘women’ when he accompanied them to their home,’ said a young Swati widow. She is lucky to have a teenaged son to accompany her to the school where she teaches.

Previously, Swati women had donated generously — even their jewellery — for the construction of the Imam Dheri seminary on the banks of the Swat river at the call of Maulana Fazlullah who initially broadcast ‘Dars-ul-Quran’ and Islamic teachings, interpreting these in Pashto, through the FM radio channel. 

Many women, who could not read or write, appreciated this. Little did they know that once the Taliban started to gain power and make inroads into their lives, they would stop women from doing the simplest of things like shopping, and that they would threaten their school-going daughters with beheading if they went out in a chaddar and did not wear a burka. True, the burka has been in use in parts of the NWFP, but it has never been so common as it is now after the rapid Talibanisation of the past few years.

Today, one can see girls as young as eight or nine (it is not easy to make an exact guess as their faces and physiques are hidden from view) walking home from school in a row wearing the shuttlecock burka on the main Bara Road just adjacent to the Peshawar cantonment area. ‘When my niece was studying in class 8, she wore the shuttlecock burka for the first time. She vomited as she felt claustrophobic,’ said a resident of Lower Dir.

If walking in the shuttlecock burka is difficult for young, agile girls, one can only imagine how difficult it is for much older women to handle the attire. ‘My grandmother who was wearing the shuttlecock burka recently fell down and sprained her ankle. When we tried to take her to hospital she cried out angrily that we should forget the hospital and go and tell Maulana Fazlullah what happened,’ said a Swati woman.

A young man from Pabbi town in Nowshera district where women have traditionally worn the white shuttlecock burka said that his grandmother was attired in one as she crossed the road. She was hit by a vehicle. But she never knew exactly what had hit her since women have only a limited view of the outside world from inside the burka. Would it be too much to ask the Taliban, who have such a penchant for the burka, to try out one themselves some time? The same young man from Pabbi certainly did. He once donned his mother’s shuttlecock burka for a college skit. ‘I couldn’t see properly. It was so suffocating,’ he recalled. 

Perhaps one can use the burka experience to draw a parallel between the physical and mental constraints imposed on women who are faced with the menace of Talibanisation. Just as very little is clear inside the burka, the world outside does not hold a bright future for women who must yield to the outrageous demands on their personal space.

The Taliban mindset has come to dominate and the militant ideology has a harsh manifesto that is invading women’s private space. Women are a vulnerable group, especially in areas where protests against restrictions on personal freedoms are uncommon.
On top of that, when their boundaries are defined by extremist groups who forget that women, like themselves, are human, they lose their fundamental and constitutional human rights. They feel suffocation physically — and mentally.


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