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Opinion: The return of the burqa in Afghanistan

Women wearing a burqa (L) and a Niqab (R) walk along a street in Kabul on May 7, 2022.
AFP via Getty Images
Women wearing a burqa (L) and a Niqab (R) walk along a street in Kabul on May 7, 2022.

I bought a burqa in a marketplace while covering the war in Afghanistan. When I pulled the cowling at the top over my head, to see what a women who wore a burqa might see, it emphasized how that dim blue cloak could be a garment of oppression.

The burqa made women anonymous. It was stuffy, sweltering and confined their view of the world to just inches. It muffled their voices behind a veil.

A few weeks later, we covered the first soccer game in the Kabul stadium after the retreat of the Taliban in 2002. The Taliban had banned sports, but would parade prisoners in the stadium, and execute them for supposed crimes of heresy.

I can't recall the score of that first post-Taliban soccer game. But I remember that every few minutes, a woman would rise from her seat and cast off her burqa. Crowds would cheer and often tear up to see women who had lived through the Taliban now free to stand up and be seen.

But this week, just nine months after the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan and pledged to respect the rights of women, their Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice announced that all women must be covered from head to toe, preferably in a burqa, and always accompanied by a male.

This is not just a fashion edict. The Taliban has also closed schools for girls and women after the 6th grade. They forbid women to travel without being accompanied by a male chaperone. And should a woman try to travel alone, or walk outside on her own, or show her face to the world, a male guardian will be held held responsible.

The burqa obscures the faces of women, and reveals the way they are now officially diminished in Afghanistan.

We reached a woman whose family we know in Kabul, who once told us she had so despaired of the isolation and belittlement of women under Taliban rule that she had tried to end her life. She survived, works as an interpreter now with refugee groups and says there have been a few small protests by women in Kabul in recent days.

"But I know the world moves on," she told us from Qatar. "The international agencies will give aid, to keep people from starving, and will not challenge the Taliban. But they want to make women invisible.

"We have been pushed back two decades, two centuries, really. I am scared to death of what will happen now," she says, of an Afghanistan in which the burqa - and all the Taliban's efforts to scrub women from public life - are no longer relics of the past.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.

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