In this milieu of despair and depravation, Asne Seierstad’s “The Bookseller of Kabul“ (Virago Press, 2003) comes across as poignant and even nostalgic. Set in the heady days after the fall of the Taliban in 2002, Seierstad disguised herself in a burka and lived with a bookseller’s family for three months to get a unique perspective into the daily lives of Afghans.
Seierstad notices slight changes in the attire and accessories of women of Kabul as the new government led by Hamid Karzai took over. For example, some of the shoes are white, a color that was equivalent to blasphemy, since it resembled the ivory-hued flag of the Taliban. Seierstad also sees shoes with solid heels, which incredulously was banned by the Taliban since “the sound of women walking could distract men”.
Painted toenails are another glimmer of freedom that Afghani women could enjoy. But overall, as the author states, the extent of women’s liberation is “on the whole restricted itself to the shoe and nail-varnish level, and has not yet reached further than the muddy edge of women’s burkas.”
The ubiquitous burka, on the other hand, still rules the limited fashion choices of the women, as evident on the author’s journey to the market where “the billowing burka merges with every other billowing burka” and only a few women have abandoned the traditional garb. But even the author could not have foreseen the reemergence of the Taliban 20 years later.
I bet that if she traveled the same path today, Seierstad wouldn’t notice any white shoes or shoes with solid heels or pink nail polish or red lipstick. Sadly, for the women of Afghanistan, it is deja vu all over again.
Though the burka as a traditional attire has been around for centuries, it was reintroduced in Afghanistan by Habibullah, who ruled from 1901 to 1919. He had decreed the two hundred women in his harem and his princesses wear burkas so that other men may not be seduced by their beauty.
Thus, burkas became a symbol of the upper class, made of “silk with intricate embroidery” and embellished with gold threads. Thus, the main purpose of the burka was to shield the women “from the eyes of the masses.” The adoption of the burkas by the wealthy reached its peak in the 1950s until the Prime Minister at that time, Prince Daoud, created quite a stir by appearing in public with his burka-less wife.
Soon, as trends go, those same upper-class women became the first to cast off their burkas which then was adopted by their maids and servants. Eventually, the use of burkas became a status symbol of the lower classes and spread from the ruling Pashtoons to other ethnic groups.
As astonishing as it may seem, the everyday and professional attire of the working men and women of Kabul in the 1970s was strikingly different from today. Prince Daoud passed a law in 1961 that banned the use of burkas by civil servants. This resulted in men wearing suits and women clothed in skirts and blouses.
Hence the commissioners, secretaries, and teachers of Kabul were mostly in western attire. But even back then, the ugly tentacles of Islamic fundamentalism reared their heads occasionally as “the underdressed women risked being shot in the legs or having acid sprayed in their faces.”
In Seierstad’s view, the burka is a cultural rather than a religious artifact and I gradually came to the same conclusion as well. The reintroduction of the burka in Afghanistan by Habibullah in the early twentieth century was not based on any rigid interpretation of Islamic law or the Koran but on his desire to shield his wives and “their pretty faces when they were outside the palace doors” from the prying eyes of jealous men and illicit would-be suitors.
Enamored by the elaborate burkas of the queens and princesses, other upper-class women also adopted the burka, which became their de rigeur attire. This is an example of a cultural trend, not a religious practice, and akin to modern women following the fashion choices of Princess Diana or Kim Kardashian.
Similarly, when the governing classes and civic servants switched over to western attire, the lower-class women indulged themselves with the discarded burkas of their employers and bosses. This led to a diffusion of “billowing, fluttering, winding” burkas in the less posh and poorer sections of Kabul, again a cultural trend and not a profession of one’s faith.
Since “only a small number of Kabul women renounced the burka during the first spring after the fall of the Taliban,” it is evident that the burka is a cultural artifact that persisted even after the strict religious edicts of the Taliban era disappeared. As the author notes, “For the masses very little has changed. In the families, tradition is all-the men decide.” In the case of Afghanistan, it is tragically true that more things change, the more they remain the same.