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Under the burqua

By Ariane Curdy

"FINISHED FILES ARE THE RESULT OF YEARS OF SCIENTIFIC STUDY COMBINED WITH THE EXPERIENCE OF YEARS".

Read this sentence again, and quickly count the number of F's in it. How many did you count?

Perception is selective. At any one time there are too many stimuli in the environment for us to observe. Therefore, we screen out most of what we see and allow only selected information, which is often culturally determined, into our conscious mind. In the sentence above, most non-native English speakers see all six F's - whereas many native English speakers only see three F's: they do not see the F's in the word 'of' because 'of' is not an important word in understanding the sentence's meaning. We selectively see those words that are important according to our cultural conditioning (in this case, our linguistic conditioning)1.

Dashti Qala town, Afghanistan

Afghanistan is sometimes referred to as the 'crossroad of Central Asia'. In terms of culture it is one of the richest countries I have ever encountered. There are eight 'official' ethnic groups living in Afghanistan speaking more than 30 different idioms. There are also extremes of geographic diversity including lowlands, deserts with sand dunes and majestic mountains.

However, after the liberation of Kabul in early December 2001, it felt like the collective perception of the western media, and consequently the western world, was selectively focused on the burqas that the women of Kabul were wearing. Needless to say the focus was tinged with culturally influenced negative connotations. How many unveiled women would we see walking "liberated and free" in the streets today? For some of the English-speaking women I have worked with in Afghanistan over the past decade, the burqa was indeed, perceived 'as a prison'. But for many others I have talked to, it was experienced as a source of freedom: "Inside, you feel free. A burqa stops others from seeing you, not you from watching them. You don't have impertinent eyes coming in when you want to be left alone..." These were statements I could relate to. I recall a short summer vacation I had spent all by myself in a capital city of Southern Europe: I would probably have enjoyed my stay and the sightseeing much more, if I had found a way of not being watched in the way that I was. I also remember a scene in Kabul City in 1988 (long before Taliban rule): I was sitting with a colleague in a car, waiting for pedestrians to cross the road in front of us. One woman, under her blue burqa kept on turning and looking at the car in a playful way. I watched her for a while, and finally asked my colleague how he felt about it. He laughed, smiled, and admitted to feeling somehow flattered - although a little bit unsure of whom could possibly be under the burqa. "Under the burqa, you can watch - but you are not seen".

I don't mean to promote the burqa! I merely wish to underline the different perceptions one can have on the place and use of this item of clothing depending on one's cultural and social background. Burqas have been worn by Afghan women for ages. As an Afghan friend of mine, who has lived in Afghanistan until recently, told me: "Complete veiling reflects a tradition of our very conservative society. I hope that the western world would advocate a free choice for Afghan women to wear it, or not, depending on how they personally feel about it".

It seems to me that very often, we have our own 'mental burqa' on - looking at a new environment or culture through the 'grid' of our own cultural values and assumptions. We can therefore easily miss realities and are prone to misinterpreting.

In a way one can consider that the burqa fits into a wider cultural tendency to protect and care for women in Afghanistan. I have many experiences of Afghanistan's legendary hospitality. As a guest, I would be welcomed, honoured and protected. More than once did I find myself with a group of Afghans surrounding me tightly, or even covering me, in order to protect me - be it from shootings, or from a tent pole falling on me during a meeting. Hospitality often goes hand in hand with 'divine' food, in Afghanistan. I remember the delight of a beautiful winter's day, sitting in a small house in a Pasthun village, and eating local cheese, tandoor-warm nan and dried fruits. I also remember a majestic meal, with the traditional sheep-head as a special delicacy at the house of a Tajik rugs seller who was probably earning far more than any expatriate in town. But then there was also this Hazara widow, almost living in hiding, who insisted on sharing her only piece of bread (which happened to be hard as a rock) with me. With the exception of the period of Russian occupation I was never rejected or refused access to any household, and the hours I spent sipping tea in this country (black tea with sugar in rich households, green tea without sugar in poor households) are among my richest Afghan memories.

So - if you want to explore Afghanistan's culture fully you may just need to take off your own burqa, and look beyond those of others.

Show footnotes

1Nancy J. Adler, International Dimension of Organisational Behaviour, Third Edition, South Western College Publishing, 1997

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Reference this page

Ariane Curdy (2002). Under the burqua. Field Exchange 15, April 2002. p17. www.ennonline.net/fex/15/under