Life Behind The Burqa In Afghanistan

Photojournalist Paula Bronstein spent 15 years documenting life in Afghanistan, and tells Seeker Stories how women are finding their voice.

Wearing a hijab, niqab or burqa is common for women in many Middle Eastern countries. Some countries in the region, like Saudi Arabia, require women to wear full burqas when in public. Other countries, like Lebanon, are largely okay with women wearing nothing at all to cover their heads outside the home.

Afghanistan is often depicted as a Middle Eastern country that requires women to wear burqas in public, but the real story here is actually much more complicated than that.

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Afghanistan was once seen as a fairly progressive country for women's rights. According to Amnesty International, in the 1970's, Afghan women not only went out in public without covering their heads, they also wore short skirts and high heels. They dressed quite similarly to women in western countries.

Women in Afghanistan were actually given the right to vote in 1919, a year before women in the U.S. achieved the same right. Many Afghan women were educated, even attending college after high school. Amnesty International researcher Horia Mosadiq remembers this as the norm when she was growing up in Afghanistan. "As a girl, I remember my mother wearing miniskirts and taking us to the cinema. My aunt went to university in Kabul," she told Amnesty.

All of this changed when the Taliban took over the country in the 1990's. The Taliban came to power after Afghanistan's civil war in the 80's and early 90's and ruled from 1996 - 2001. Their goal was to make Afghanistan an Islamic state, which meant severely suppressing women's rights.

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Under the Taliban, women could not leave the house without wearing a full body burqa and having a male family member with them at all times. They were banned from receiving any type of education and were not allowed to work, among many other restrictions. Punishment for violating these laws was often brutal and included things like flogging, rape and stoning.

With the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan, the Taliban was driven from power by the end of 2001. Since then, re-establishing women's rights has become a focus for many people in the country, including men.

Yet more than a decade after the Taliban left, many Afghan women still wear a full burqa outside the home. An on-going debate has been ignited around whether women should wear burqas, should not wear burqas, or should be able to decide for themselves.

Some women still wear burqas because they feel pressure to do so from their husbands or other male family members. Javed Haidari, 24, a traffic officer in Kabul feels that women should always wear them outside the home. In reference to protests in the city against wearing burqas, he told The Telegraph, "What's the point of this? All of the women in my family wear burqas. I wouldn't let them go out without one."

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On the other hand, some women still wear burqas in Afghanistan because they prefer it. One woman named Bibi Gul told the Telegraph, "My husband and son tell me I should take my burqa off. But I'm used to it. I've been wearing this for 35 years."

No matter if you're pro or anti-burqa, it's clear that women's rights are not yet part of mainstream culture in Afghanistan. Women are still far from being treated as equals to men, but that won't stop many of them from continuing to fight for their human rights, with no signs of stopping.

-- Molly Fosco