By Erin Furman, Staff Writer
Imagine wearing a Halloween mask that covers you entire head, including your nose and mouth. There are no slits for eyes, only a section of mesh in the fabric that provides you with a limited field of vision. Your neck, upper body and arms are covered. If the mask slips or starts to fall, you must adjust it from the inside.
But this isn't just a mask you can wear for a few hours one day a year while trick-or-treating then take off. It is a burqa, a garment originally intended as a religious symbol to "protect" the worth of a woman by covering her up and hiding her beauty. In a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, a woman over the marriageable age of 12 cannot walk in her own backyard to hang laundry up to dry without a burqa covering her face.
Outside of the reign of the Taliban, some women choose to wear a burqa for religious reasons. However, slowly but surely, leaders in the industrialized world are beginning to see this suffocating veil for what it is: a silencer.
On Tuesday, Switzerland's justice minister, Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, said it is foreseeable that the country could ban the burqa in the future. This is an idea already proposed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy in July when he called the garment an affront to women's rights.
Sarkozy is right. In my feature and magazine writing class this semester, I had the opportunity to hear Masha Hamilton, an American journalist who traveled to Afghanistan in both 2004 and 2008, speak about the burqa and the realities of being a woman living under the reign of the Taliban. She said that there used to be a lot of optimism among women there, despite their stature as second-class citizens. As of 2008, however, "the optimism [had] drained away."
When the U.S. first entered Afghanistan eight years ago, they brought down the Taliban regime and scattered its followers. In recent years, however, when U.S. military forces shifted gears to focus on the war in Iraq, the Taliban re-grouped and took control of the country once again.
Consequently, many women have been forced to quit school, stay at home and live their lives in fear. Yet some, such as Seeta—a 21 year-old Afghan woman working as a journalist despite death threats and the oppressive environment she lives in—refuse to be silenced.
"This is my calling," Seeta, whose last name I will probably never learn because of security concerns, said of journalism. "I want to show women they can work." She is constantly aware that her life is on the line and as such cannot leave her home without a burqa on. Her only way to defend herself when traveling to report on stories is to change her path.
When Hamilton, who works with Seeta under the Afghan Women's Writing Project, spoke to my class, she brought the burqa she wore in Afghanistan with her. I put it on, walked a few feet in Seeta's shoes, and took it off humbled. I felt invisible, as though I could disappear at any moment if caught in a sea of others wearing similar outfits.
Mona Eltahawy, a female Muslim who lived in Saudi Arabia for six years, described it best in her New York Times editorial on July 2. She wrote in support of the possible French ban on burqas, which according to her, "Should not be welcome anywhere." The danger of the cloth head-cover is that it "erases women from society."