October 22, 2002 - Knoxville News Sentinel: Afghanistan RPCV Jan Carolyn Hardy says Burka symbolizes faith, modesty and protection

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Afghanistan RPCV Jan Carolyn Hardy says Burka symbolizes faith, modesty and protection

Read and comment on this story from the Knoxville News Sentinel in which Afghanistan RPCV Jan Carolyn Hardy talks about the burka and says that the Burka symbolizes faith, modesty and protection. Burka, burcka, burqa, burqua - there are many spellings of the word. "Nobody in Afghanistan calls it a burka, I assure you," says Khadijah Sidiqi. There, it's known as a chadari or chadris. If the burka is a symbol of anything, it's our own failure to respect people whose values are different than our own, who make choices unlike the ones we'd make. Read the story at:

Burka symbolizes faith, modesty and protection*

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Burka symbolizes faith, modesty and protection

October 22, 2002

The burka blindsided me. At a recent fund-raiser to build schools for girls in Afghanistan, I found it on a table among other silent-auction donations and was stunned.

It was beautiful.

Auction organizer Nathaniel York caused a stir when he'd purchased it in a shop in Sheberghan in northern Afghanistan months ago. He heard women giggling from beneath their burkas, amused at his presence in a shop for women. Now the burka is on the other side of the world, being auctioned to the highest bidder. This winter, the money it raises will return to Sheberghan to help educate the village's girls.

Hydrangea-blue and covered in subtle, embroidered designs, the fabric's softness surprised me. But then there was that hollow, haunting place for the eyes. I wanted to try it on, to sense feeling sequestered in that shapeless fabric. But I didn't feel brave enough.

To those who wear it by choice, the burka is a symbol of faith, modesty and protection. But to the Western mind-set, it symbolizes oppression. For five years under the Taliban, wearing a burka was mandatory in public. Agents from the Department for the Propagation of Virtue and the Suppression of Vice enforced the dress code with beatings or worse.

The burka has taken a beating in Western eyes. Time magazine referred to it as a "body bag for the living." British columnist Polly Toynbee called it "a public tarring and feathering of female sexuality."

If the burka is a symbol of anything, it's our own failure to respect people whose values are different than our own, who make choices unlike the ones we'd make.

Now that the Taliban are gone, many women have flung aside their burkas with tremendous relief. And many have not. The burka may seem a major concern to those of us who don't understand it, but to those living in a bombed-out nation, it undoubtedly takes a back seat to issues like poverty, health care and education.

However you view it, the burka evokes powerful and conflicting emotions among those who live on the other side of its seams. It certainly did for the three Anchorage, Alaska, women who bid on the one from Sheberghan.

Pat Kennedy, a retired lawyer, was among them.

"I was sort of hoping it would disappear from the face of the Earth, and then it would become a historical object," she said of her reason for bidding. Other than that, she wasn't entirely sure why she wanted it.

Tam Agosti-Gisler, another bidder that night, said seeing the burka drove home how difficult it would be for her to live beneath one.

"It's so much clearer once you have it in your hands," she said.

Agosti-Gisler, who teaches at a middle school, wanted the burka to help promote her students' fund-raising efforts for York's project. She also wanted to give them the chance to try it on so they might better appreciate the freedoms they have.

Federal attorney Deborah Smith was the one who took the burka home that night. She was a little nervous about talking about it. "It's not part of my belief system," she said, "but it's part of some people's belief system."

She felt drawn to it, yet a little afraid of it, worried about seeming disrespectful without meaning to.

Smith waited until she took it home that night to slip it over her head.

What was it like? She paused, searching for words to describe the experience. She couldn't find them.

"I don't think we can really understand," she said. "A woman in America can never really know because we have the option of taking it off."

Khadijah Sidiqi, a former Anchorage teacher living outside Philadelphia, is married to a man from Afghanistan and has converted to Islam. The Koran speaks of being modest, she said, but doesn't say anything about women covering their faces. This is, however, how various followers have interpreted it.

In her book "Nine Parts of Desire," American journalist Geraldine Brooks describes the wide variations of Islamic dress, including the nomadic tribes of the Algerian Sahara, known as Tuareg, who "hold to the tradition that it is men who should veil their faces after puberty while women go barefaced. 'We warriors veil our faces so that the enemy may not know what is in our minds, peace or war, but women have nothing to hide' is how one Tuareg man explained this custom."

The term "hijab" refers to the variety of styles Muslim women use to cover up with scarves and other pieces of fabric. The burka, specific to Afghanistan, is one of the most conservative forms of veiling.

Burka, burcka, burqa, burqua - there are many spellings of the word.

"Nobody in Afghanistan calls it a burka, I assure you," Sidiqi said. There, it's known as a chadari or chadris.

The burka has meant different things at different times. In an earlier form, before it became associated with religion, women wore it for status, according to Jan Carolyn Hardy, who lived in Afghanistan for several years as a Peace Corps volunteer in the early '70s.

"It was a symbol of a woman not having to work," she said. "She didn't have to have too much eyesight if she went outside because she really didn't need to. She had people who were tending to her. It was really considered quite an honor."

Iranian women wear a head-to-toe covering called the chador, although faces can be exposed. In the 1930s, the shah banned it in an attempt to modernize the country. Women who ventured outdoors risked having the garment yanked off or cut up with scissors, were forbidden from using public transportation and were sometimes kicked out of stores. Devout women, especially the elderly, felt too exposed and vulnerable without them. So rather than liberating them, the ban made many women prisoners of their homes.

Perhaps we do have our own version of the burka, a psychological one, living in a society where a woman's worth goes up in direct proportion to her physical beauty. A young Canadian convert to Islam, Naheed Mustafa, is among those who've written about this flip side of oppression.

"Wearing the hijab has given me freedom from constant attention to my physical self," she wrote in an essay titled "My Body Is My Own Business."

"True equality will be had only when women don't need to display themselves to get attention and won't need to defend their decision to keep their bodies to themselves."

Maybe this is the real reason I was drawn to that beautiful blue burka from Sheberghan. It's forcing me to think in ways I never have before.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com.)

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