It wasn’t until November that I had my first burqa dream. I am surprised it took so long. In the dream, I was in Berlin, an embarrassingly obvious conflation. I was touring with a group of women, and uncertain of our bearings. The women wore burqas or, alternatively, scarves on their heads and long layered clothing. I was the only one—of course, in a dream it would have to be—defiantly uncovered, in a white blouse and light blue knickers. My bare ankles caused the greatest stir. Repeatedly warned, I tried to cover my hair with my bare arms. But, of course, I failed.
So there it is, a stark symbol of repression, political or Freudian, and the new cornerstone of any discussion of resistance and liberty as well. Serving American political goals during the war in Afghanistan, the burqa was almost immediately a symbol. The “woman of cover” (President Bush’s coinage) and her burqa were the signifiers of a society, literally, veiled in darkness. And, by contrast, the unveiled face of the Afghan woman, while she also often cringed from the camera, had become Liberty. In print, that woman is often beautiful Read John Lee Anderston, writing in The New Yorker in an October dispatch from Afghanistan: “The woman teachers were beautiful, with large brown eyes and fair skin…and most of the women had dark kohl painted around their eyes.” Were they really beautiful? Who knows; that’s an aesthetic decision. His real meaning comes in contrast, when they wrap themselves in white burqas to leave the school: “They had become wraiths, stumbling along on foot or riding donkeys, bobbing away amid a throng of chattering, happy, barefaced girls.” Indeed, there was no greater sign of American “success” in Afghanistan than smiling women in colorful scarves—the November 18 New York Times showed us two women in turquoise wraps, a mother and a daughter, heading off to the zoo—and headlines like this one from the same paper: “In Kabul, DVD and TVs Fill the Shopping Bags; Burqas Sit on the Shelves.” (The proof of our other success is in there too, liberating a country for “shopping.”)
I suspect this identification of freedom with faces framed by scarves and eyes framed by kohl will continue, and will find its way into our writing, our dreams, and even our fashion. It is tempting, this symbolism, but it is also a fetish. While the mainstream press has been restrained in reporting the offenses of the Northern Alliance coalition of warlords for the duration of their proxy-war on our behalf. The Village Voice reported in November that the recently assassinated Ahmen Shah Massood, generally glorified in the papers as “the legendary Northern Alliance fighter,” “partook in campaigns of systematic rape that predated Taliban rule.” One member of the feminist Afghan group RAWA told the Voice: “The only difference between the crimes [the Northern Alliance] committed and the Taliban is that the Taliban officially announced the restrictions on women. . . Northern Alliance committed many, many crimes against women—rapes, forced marriages. Women were afraid of going outside when they were in control.” So much for symbols. It’s not surprising that Margaret Atwood cites her time visiting in Afghanistan, years before the Taliban, as a significant influence on the aesthetic shape of her novel about female repression. The Handmaid’s Tale.
Immediately, of course, we are warned not to condemn what are merely cultural differences; the veil isn’t always a symbol of cultural misogyny. It’s a warning we’ll hear often as debates over the Western reconstruction of Afghanistan intensify. As Orthodox women wear hats or wigs out of modesty, so too must the Muslim woman cover herself head to toe. If a woman wears a burqa by her own choice, who are we to complain? But I cannot entirely buy this logic. Shame can be built into a culture. Race shame, ethnic shame, body shame. Despite feminist gains, gender shame. Is it better that women actively wish to disappear into a shroud while men move freely in the world? Is this a sign of a “different” society? Or is it one in which women have internalized Taliban-style hostility to them? In this context all cultural incarnations of “modesty” have become suspect in my eyes. I have tried to resist this, the slippery slope of feminist resentment. But still I wonder, is the burqa the grandmother of our own ritual humility? Since the attacks, we’ve attended, in unprecedented ways, to the veil. We have new words for it: the burqa, and the chador, the pursuit of purdah or hijab. We have heard, too, of women ‘s taint of “impurity”: How many have died, in childbirth and otherwise, in a country that for six years has forbidden women to be doctors, but also has forbidden male doctors from treating women.
But the veil is not new to this war, nor is women’s shame. We know already the lace-faced bride. And other images spin around: mikvah, anorexia, virgin-and-whore. Is it fanatical and paranoid to connect all these? It is. We are not, of course, all victims of Taliban misogyny. But also, it is not. The veil, after all, isn’t absent from secular American life. On that special day when we walk down the aisle, the day we have spent years anticipating, we put it on as if to say: Now I am a real woman.
Sarah Blustain is Managing Editor of The New Republic