Tales of the veil

WAYS OF SEEING AND BEING SEEN: The chadori has meant different things at different times.

WAYS OF SEEING AND BEING SEEN: The chadori has meant different things at different times.   | Photo Credit: PHOTOS: AP, P.V. SIVAKUMAR


Five Afghan women make a film on their fluid, intensely personal and often complex relationship to the chadori, revealing the stories hidden behind everyday lives.

IT started off rather ordinarily, when five women employees of a television station decided to work together on a short production. Initially they discussed making an anti-smoking feature, but started talking of other things. And then someone mentioned a chadori tale. Within seconds, the atmosphere in the room changed to electric excitement. Stories poured out, words tripping over words in their haste to be told. Their film, they eventually decided, would explore the relationship they themselves, as Afghan women, have with their chadoris. They called it "Remembering Chadori". "You don't buy a chadori every day. It costs about five to six hundred Afghanis for a piece, and I'm talking about the ordinary ones, not one of your fancy coloured pieces. It lasts for at least four or five years, more if you're careful. Depends on how often you wear it too, of course. Some of us wear them just for certain mehfils (gatherings), or to weddings, or to visit some relatives who are like 'that'. If you're like Sameera- jan you wear it everyday to work and to the market and (in a whisper) you hardly ever wash it! Still, with careful daily wear I'd say a sensible woman who takes care of these things should be able to maintain it for a few years at least."

Deceptive appearance

"I like that their colour is blue, but I don't like the way they make me look broad, and that they are pleated. Abroad they have smarter styles, with more colours available and with better fitting. Those make you look good. During the Taliban years, some women would celebrate Eid or festivals by buying new chadoris rather than new clothes, since that was what you saw first and last of their appearance. So the style of the chadori became pretty important. Even now, the nice ones from Iran or the Gulf cost too much for me to afford, so I'm stuck with the home-grown variety that makes me look fat." As the technology of representation reaches deeper into Kabul's society, interesting trends are emerging. Women who would resist being photographed earlier are ready to talk on camera provided they are in their burqas. The image is hilariously contradictory, since it defeats rather effectively the purpose of the visual medium. But it also indicates the nuanced nature of the relationship between the camera and its veiled subject. Watching their footage, the five women directors fall over themselves giggling. The visual on the monitor shows close shots of a woman glaring at the camera from under her chadori, abusing them violently. You cannot see her expressions, or even hear her clearly, but her anger is palpable in the furious quivering of her veil.

Fear and the chadori

"Once I got on a crowded bus wearing my chadori. It was completely full, and I couldn't get a seat, so I had to travel standing while holding onto the hand strap for balance. Slowly the crowd swelled so much that I was caught in a crush of passengers. Or rather my chadori was caught from both the edges. Slowly I started to feel it being pulled off, ripping from the sides by the weight of the crowd. And all the while I was helplessly hanging onto the hand strap. This was before the Taliban had come to Kabul. After a while the crowd thinned out, and I was left standing with just the topi, the crown of cloth on top of my head. I have never felt so exposed; I realised that there was nothing covering me from the sides. Uff, how I cursed myself for being a be-izzat, be-aabru woman that day!""I never wore a chadori and I don't wear one now. My family is very azaad (liberal) and we didn't do these things, even before the Taliban. When they were in power I chose to stay home rather than go out wearing that thing. Once I fell very ill. My family tried to take me to the doctor's but I kept resisting. I didn't want to go out looking like that. I suffered for a day or two but finally the pain became too much to bear and my determination cracked. So majburan, I wore a chadori much against my will and went to get myself some medicines."One of the questions I often hear asked during discussions on burqas and Muslim women is - do they wear those things because they have to, or because they want to? I think of the women in my family who wore burqas each time they ventured out, as long as they lived. I think of their near-tactile dependence on the folds of their veils while passing through male domains. And of the joyous bursts of colour when they unveiled in a safely zenana area. I think of the women of Kabul who refused to take off their chadoris even after news of the Taliban's defeat reached them, because their clothes were too worn and dirty to be seen And I remember marching in demonstrations protesting the bombings in Afghanistan, accompanied by hundreds of young Muslim women, many of whom adopted the headscarf during those days as a mark of solidarity with their Afghan sisters. Where does choice end and force begin? I think of my grandmother, sneaking off with her friends to forbidden cinema theatres in the blazing heat of summer afternoons, hiding from telltale neighbours and chance-met in-laws under the folds of their burqas. Sometimes prison, sometimes sanctuary, perhaps the answer lies in the shifting roles of the veil for women at different times.

Looking at us looking at them

"We can tell each other apart under the burqa. If I see my friend walking towards me from a distance, and she is wearing a burqa, you think I can't recognise her? First it's the figure, then it's the way of walking, which doesn't change. Even if it does, you can recognise her from her shoes, her clothes that can be seen under the burqa and mostly her hands. It's important to learn how to do this and not ignore people you know and may meet outside just because they are covered.""Men look more at women who are covered from head to foot. Say there is a wedding, and people are going in. We will focus on the reactions of the men standing outside. A woman will walk past, modestly dressed but not in a chadori. They will look at her, but not so much. Then will walk in someone with just her feet showing and they will peer at her feet as if they are the first pair they have seen in their lives. They will push and shove each other to catch a glimpse of her hands, her eyes, imagine the great beauty she must be, hiding behind her veil. Even if she is the most ordinary looking woman in the world, in their imaginations, she will be a queen! Imagine a room where there are only women. Men are not allowed. You can bet there will be a crowd of men outside, trying every trick they can to catch a glimpse of what's going on behind the curtains. It's the same with women behind veils. Mind you, women also look more freely from behind their chadoris. They can be more comfortable since they are in a way invisible and can boldly examine the world, and even the men looking at them."

Then and now

"During the Taliban years my chadori used to hang near the door, it was always ready to go, at a moment's notice. Who could tell when you would need it next? Now it's lying at the back of my almirah, I rarely wear it except for special occasions. But I keep it in good condition because who knows when I may need it again?" "Why are we calling it 'Remembering Chadori'? Because there is a difference between the way we see the burqa then and now. Then was during the Taliban days, when we had to wear them. Now is when we don't have to, but we do. It's the same thing, but it's very very different. It's the same chadori, maybe, but the memory of force makes it different. We remember ourselves wearing those forced chadoris in this film."

Reclaiming images

Burqas are supposed to be particular to a particular religion and a region, but veils are universal. They extend over the stories of women worldwide, regardless of the prevailing dress code. Through this video project, this group of Afghan women revealed at least partially the stories hidden in their everyday lives. By reclaiming their own images, they foregrounded an often overlooked fact - that the relationship of women with their veils is usually fluid, intensely personal and always more complex than it appears. The telling of these chadori tales is an assertion of control over their own images. It is also an argument for a way of being that has the grace to listen to these stories without judgement. In effect, it is a call to remove the manifold veils of the mind and vision that intrude when audiences look at women in chadoris. That, when and if it happens, will be the true unveiling.

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