The burka. It is such an emotionally charged, unique piece of clothing. For me, focusing on a thing rather than the real issues of sexism and women’s oppression doesn’t make sense, and foreign obsession fn the burka often stinks of exoticism and othering. So I’ve never commented on it nor have I spent much attention on it … until my last night in Kabul.
Nouria, Zabi’s dear aunt and my new friend, slept over the guest house the night before I was to leave Kabul. We stayed up together, sitting by the fire and talking – well, she did most of the talking I did what I could to try and keep up with her.
At one point she started talking about how hard things were when the Taliban was in power – especially for women. She then asked if I wanted to see her burka. Though he doesn’t have to wear it, she still does. She didn’t call it a burka, she calls it her chador which is a general term for a long, draped covering.
But when she walked back into the room with the signature sky blue fabric with its perfect accordion pleats and gorgeous embroidery, there was no question of what she was referring to.
She put it on and wanted me to take her photo in it.
As I took a couple of photos, something came over Nouria. A spirited laugh started up and she began to direct a sort of photo shoot of myself and herself in the burka.
She had me take her photo as she was sitting down, standing up, cycling on the exercise bike!
She dressed me in it.
She called in Nassim, she made him pose with me.
Then she moved me into the kitchen where she shot a series of me doing household chores!
Throughout the shoot she was laughing hysterically and getting more and more bold. we were both rolling with tears of laughter. It was a funny, wonderful play session and clearly there was something therapeutic for Nouria. Being able to be the center of attention and to be in charge is something that women don’t often get to do in the public sphere. Calling the shots – when, where and how – is limited. So here she was directing me the foreigner and even Nassim. She was using one of the symbols of women’s oppression as the frame for her to be able to take control. An item which helps her disappear, fade away, is now part of her emergence, part of her experiment in telling others what to do.
I was happy to follow her lead and let her find her own way. If she needed the burka in order to figure things out, then I was fine with that. It made me think of development efforts and cross-cultural solidarity efforts. It’s more important to support people as they figure things out for themselves than it is to make yourself comfortable and draw the map and the key and all possible roads.
People know how to work towards liberation – even if it sometimes it means holding on to the thing that represents their oppression. If only we all can trust in and build relationships based on the notion that all people are good, smart, and capable. How much stronger would all our efforts to end injustice be?
I look forward to being home again and writing my report on my training.
I’ve learned so many important lessons and I look forward to putting them down. For now, I’ll be enjoying the holidays (and my birthday) back home in NYC. More later. ….