It is almost exclusively a Western phenomenon and it provides me with a boundless source of amusement: how people work themselves into fervid passions on matters which affect them not in the least, over which they have no control whatsoever and about which they are often wholly ignorant. An example is the hysteria over what Muslim ladies choose to wear on their heads.

Baby, get your gown:
Let’s go downtown
To the Burqa Boogaloo.
Hail a taxi fast
While I get dressed:
Missing it’s the worst thing you can do!
They got the tanning burqas for the sunny days,
They let in ultra-violet so you catch the rays;
On the Afghan beaches it’s the latest craze
At the Burqa Boogaloo!

From headscarves to yashmaks to chadors to burqas and beyond, Muslim female headgear reflects the Koranic injunction to modesty, covering so-called ‘ornaments’ such as hair for women and limbs for both sexes: hence one virtually never sees Muslim men in short-trousers or short-sleeved shirts. It seeks to keep one focused on another’s character and intellect rather than on appearances, serving a purpose similar to school uniforms.

It may be older than Islam but is probably Arab in origin, originally protecting a nomadic tribe’s womenfolk from prying eyes and discouraging young interlopers eager to kidnap a wife. Some anthropologists also say that facial scarification, tattoos, umpteen brass rings around the neck and other decorative oddities around the world sought to make a clan’s womenfolk less attractive to potential abductors. But it often means more, and whether it is a cute designer babushka or a full parachute, it reflects the style, culture, and traditions of the wearer and her community.

Honey, grab the phone:
Get a loan
For the Burqa Boogaloo;
Tell the Bank of Oman
We’ll be overdrawn:
Fashion is a passion for a buck or two!
They got the orange burqas that you wear at night,
So people driving tractors see you on your bike:
But underneath it, Baby, wear whatever you like
At the Burqa Boogaloo!

Here in Afghanistan the burqa, a pleated shroud with a woven grille to peer through, is often a sign of socio-economic arrival. Expensive garments, burqas are unaffordable to the poorest families where women work in the fields alongside of their peasant husbands and children. Wearing one shows that a woman and her family are middle-class, as does moving her out of the fields and into ‘purdah’ (literally, a barrier) where a woman is kept safely behind the walls of the family compound and only ventures out fully covered and usually accompanied by her menfolk. Little Afghan girls play in Mommy’s burqa just as their Western sisters clump about in their own mothers’ high-heeled shoes: especially for young rural Afghan women the burqa is a symbol of adulthood and wearing one for the first time is a rite of passage. Wearing the burqa is not forced by men as much as it is demanded by elder women entrusted to maintain standards of modesty and other proper behaviour within the family, where all outside life depends upon their reputation for responsibility, respectability, and adherence to custom.

“You just don’t get it,” a Muslim, Anglo-Afghan, lady journalist once upbraided me. “You sit in the guest-room on the fancy furniture, sipping tea and waiting for your Afghan host to rejoin you, and you think that you are the centre of the universe but you are not. For Afghans, family is everything and its epicentre is the zenana, the women’s quarters in which the entire family relaxes together and where strangers such as you are never permitted.”

For Western women and men, who often dump their parents into old-folk’s homes and stash their children into day-care centres, the focus of life may be the workplace, and so it may be hard for them to imagine a world in which the family takes such joyous precedence over absolutely everything else for men and women: over income, careers, travel, over commitments to political involvement or civil society, and over socialising (if at all) outside of the extended family unit. The great American anthropologist, the late Louis Dupree, wrote in the 1970s that few Afghans away from big cities had close friends who were not relatives or in-laws and it may still be true.  In America, a woman’s education or career may trump her family life permanently, or be what she tells herself is but a temporary sacrifice, but for Afghans this is unthinkable, bizarre, and, frankly, a little pathetic. Even when Afghans walk about, their hearts stay at home with the people whom they love the most.

You don’t need to do your hair,
Nobody’s gonna stare
At the Burqa Boogaloo.
You can look, for all they know,
Like a buffalo:
Twenty yards of rayon hides a pound or two!
For the full-figured woman they have room to spare,
For the skinny ladies they have room for air,
And if your husband comes home, hide your lover there
At the Burqa Boogaloo!

Over privacy and female headwear there are differences of style and substance across the world’s many Muslim nations or communities. There are differences even within Afghanistan, chiefly between rural majorities and tiny, educated, urban elites with different new expectations about their families and careers. There are shifts in emphasis, where in some rural Afghan areas there is now radical Islamist-inspired pressure on women to cover up in extended-family villages where everyone is a relative of some sort and they never so covered before. There are unexpected democratic counter-pressures such as in Turkey, where no woman intends to give up her right to work or study but where she demands to wear her headscarf into public buildings. In the West, many of the women most heavily shrouded are indigenous converts to Islam, possibly going a bit overboard, and/or Western women married to immigrant Muslims who worry that an unveiled wife will attract opprobrium (or indeed make her look available) to members of their own community.

Many educated Afghans think that rural women and their families merely need more choice and incentives, not some nosey stranger ordering them about (often counter-productively). Afghans dislike being commanded what to do, but they seize an opportunity faster than you can blink.

At my Afghan ministry we approach women’s empowerment in several ways. When architects produced plans for a tiny mosque to be built on our leafy campus, our minister threw it back at them demanding that they add an area where our women employees can pray just as the men do. Our full-time gender specialist is a Pakistani Muslim woman who is bright, fearless, and committed, but culturally-aware enough to know when to push and where to lead gently by example or incentive. Our agriculture teams have abandoned the usual, gender-segregated development strategies to treat an entire farm family as a unit, for even though Afghan women often lack social institutions in parallel to what men enjoy, we know that rural economic (and other key) decisions are normally made by Afghan husbands and wives together. When we help our farmers to form local, market-oriented, agricultural co-operatives (smaller than America’s Land-O-Lakes but on a similar model), we help village women organise to plant their own orchards just as their menfolk do. In a nation where 80 percent of employment is agricultural, we believe that female-led agricultural productivity helps to raise a woman’s economic value to her family and leads to education and greater social freedom. Afghans seem to like this general direction, and nowadays send their sons and daughters to school in near-equal proportions.

So when nosey, Western, gringos and gringas seize upon the issue of Muslim ladies’ headgear as a sweeping metaphor for the supposed liberation of their Afghan sisters – as often as not, mere camouflage for their own feelings of cultural superiority and condescension – we just shrug, figure that these voluble, uninformed nuisances can’t restrain themselves, have another cup of green tea, hire another batch of eager, young, Afghan lady graduates from the university agriculture faculty and send them forth to our rural families and farms.

You can buy a tent
Made by Yves St. Laurent
At the Burqa Boogaloo;
And the number made by Gucci,
On a bold nomadic kutchie,
Maaaaaatches all the sheep walking ‘round with you!
They got burqa windshield-wipers for a bad monsoon,
Sony-Walkman burqas that can play a tune;
And those new Space-Burqas keep you warm on the moon
At the Burqa Booga,
At the Burqa Booga, Baby,
At the Burqa Boogaloo!

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Burqa Boogaloo © S Masty, 1989

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