You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, and what’s gone is my peripheral vision. My balance and mobility keep threatening to leave too. With all these things on shaky ground, my confidence is disappearing. All of me is.
I’m not drunk. These elements are evaporating because I’m wearing a burqa, the head-to-toe shroud (not to be confused with the headscarf some Muslim women wear) that is the only apparel Afghan women are allowed in public since the Taliban seized power there five years ago and instituted gender apartheid, effectively making the country a sex-based prison camp.
The camp uniform I’m wearing belongs to Matt and Leann Drury, who bought it some time ago out of interest in such an authentic ethnic costume. I want to see what it’s like to maneuver under this handicap and to see how many times, under Taliban law, my normal behavior — even under the veil — would make me a candidate for arrest, stoning, beating or death, all because I’m a girl.
Before I even start, I’m in trouble: I’m doing this for work and Afghan women are not allowed to work. Plus, Matt initially brought the burqa over to my house by himself; since we’re not married or related, I shouldn’t be alone in his company. My socks are important, since I could be brutally beaten for showing an ankle. My sneakers are silent — women’s footsteps aren’t allowed to be heard — but they’re white, and that’s forbidden. The constant small defeats add up until trying seems pointless, and this is just a pretend situation; if I make these mistakes, no one is going to jail, kill or assault me for it. But this is what Afghan women, who used to enjoy much greater freedom, were suddenly saddled with when the Taliban rose up.
The invisible woman
It’s hotter than hell under here, and the heavy cloth hanging over my mouth makes breathing uneasy. The eye holes aren’t even as good as the kind in a cheap Halloween mask; they’re covered with a screen, which offers a hazy, forward-only view. I can hear cars but have to turn to see them and could easily step in front of one. (Sick or injured Afghan women are not allowed to be seen by a male physician, and only a few female doctors are allowed to provide care.) When I try leaving the house, the trailing cloth gets caught in the front door. In minutes I’m verging on an anxiety attack from the claustrophobic frustration of not being able to move, breathe or see in this cloth coffin.
Between Leann and me, we wore the burqa out for about two hours on a muggy day. She said she felt solitary, like “an island,” and noted correctly that when she wore it we talked around her, not to her. When you can’t make eye contact with someone, they become invisible. When I wore it I caught myself talking louder and more than usual in a nervous stream of chatter; in an unconscious reaction to not being seen, I fiercely wanted to be heard (another offense — women are not allowed to sing or talk loudly lest their female voices “corrupt” the men).
I also was nervous about the reactions I’d prompt in this politically charged getup (and again, the restrictions I’ve listed aren’t Muslim law, but are instead Taliban perversions). But I can’t imagine how nervous Afghan women must be in their own country if, say, they show their arms, which I did at the video store when I put a “Sex in the City” tape in the return box. I can’t say for sure, but I have a feeling just knowing about that show could get me publicly executed.
That video store was one of the few places we took the burqa for a spin — women do not have to wear one at home (most women’s windows are painted so no one can see through them anyway), so it seemed logical to wear it out. People there who learned of our experiment asked to try on the outfit, plus we found ourselves attempting to explain it to a bunch of little kids, one of whom touched it like it was a hot burner.
At a jewelry store, a man bowed respectfully. Eyeballing the beautiful jewelry I joked to a store employee that it would be easy to shoplift in this thing, to which she replied, “Yeah, and they’d probably cut off your hand.”
In Target, some people stared; some ignored us; some gasped like we had goosed them. I felt bad for practically giving one woman a coronary in the toy section. I promised myself to go back there and buy boots and a miniskirt, because I can.
The burqa itself isn’t ugly — it’s beautifully flowing and embroidered, and I doubt that one this nice would be permissible there. If women wore it out of choice it would be one thing, but the oppression it represents makes it another.
We’re not kidding ourselves — one afternoon in the outfit couldn’t make us feel the totality of Afghan women’s lives. But it did give us empathy for what they go through just to walk down their streets.
It’s weird how confinement can open up a whole new world. If you think you appreciate your freedom now, you’ll definitely know what you’ve got once you feel like it’s gone.Liz Langley writes for Orlando Weekly. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org