European friends send me news photographs of women in Afghanistan voting for the first time, emphasizing they are wearing traditional blue burkas. And these photos supposedly prove that Afghanistan's women at the polls are hardly 'liberated,' as one put it, but remain living the same backward lives as they did under the Taliban. Somehow, the election turnout of women in burkas is supposed to be proof of America's failure to improve anything in Afghanistan through elections. And in their conclusion, the election would change nothing, too.
But looking much more closely at the photos, I see many of signs of change. My first impression is the gorgeousness of the womens' dress. I look at the sleeve—work. The ornate embroidery. The high quality of the fabrics. The perfect folding and draping and fitting, the delicacy of the caps. A few years ago, these women were wearing rags. Now, instead of looking like mountain hillbillies, they look rather regal in medieval finery.
Not all of the women in this line look rich and elegant, but quite a few do. It's a hint of some wealth appearing in this dirt—poor war—ravaged country. Womens' lives are improving and with it women are feeling freer to express themselves a bit, even if their masks remain. In those burkas, I see intriguing evidence of cross—border trading — in the influence diaphanous Indian and Pakistani textiles with scalloped edges, and in Persian floral motif embroideries and pleatings in different individual costumes. Being pretty, after all, is universally desired, but it is also a luxury.
I decided to consult an expert. Dr. Isobel Coleman of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, whose work studying the lives of Afghani women impressed me.
'There's a certain prosperity all over, compared to a few years ago,' Dr. Coleman said. Afghanistan's economy has grown about 20% for the past three years, and this is not the underground economy based on opium and contraband smuggling, which is still around, but the true legal economy, she said. The CIA World Factbook shows 2003 GDP at 29% growth from a very low base, and per capita income up to about $700 since the Taliban was thrown out in 2001.
This has brought some fascinating changes, Dr. Coleman said. There are growing trading routes with neighbors Pakistan and Iran, which would explain changes in dress — the color black is appearing in some women's clothes, for example.
'One thing you might want to look at is the women's shoes,' she added. 'You see high heel shoes on women when they go out in public. White high heels, strappy high—heeled sandals. Worn on dirt roads the impracticality is obvious. They are expressing themselves as they can safely express themselves in public.'
Still, adorned or not, the fact remains that women do not dare to show their faces in public. But to say it's proof of backwardness is superficial, she said. Women wear the veils for complex and different reasons, often related to regional custom, she said. Abroad, many do not wear burkas at all. Dr. Coleman said it was significant to her the number of Afghani women in the electoral process whose face did show, something that would not have been seen in the Taliban days.
For women who wore the veils, Dr. Coleman saw one universal denominator: Burkas were a sensible response to the threat of murder Afghani women faced for participating in the election at all. 'Waiting in line to vote is a precarious endeavor,' she said 'It's understandable for women (to wear burkas) because they feel safer. A lot had been said about how women (supposedly) didn't want to vote.' But they did vote — in long visible lines — and many wearing their finest clothes.
It was a deeply felt moment for them to be transformed into citizens with the right to vote. Although their burkas would not stop bullets, it would make the prospect of own deaths more bearable, she said.
Afghanistan is a harsh society, ravaged by war for decades. The most horrible disgrace for Afghani women in their society is not death, but dying in the street, and being left there like roadkill. 'It's not dying, but the shame of being dead in a public place,' she said. And yet, in this election, that prospect was real. If one died in the street wearing a burka, there would be fragile and tattered dignity in the anonymity of the veil
In other words, they were preemptive death shrouds.
And yet, though their faces are covered, to look again at an Afghani woman's hands, inserting their votes into the ballot box are not. The blue dress is where they are. The ballot box is where they are going. And when they believe they have gotten their well—earned freedom after voting, they will take off their burkas.