In Pakistan’s tribal areas, women throw off the Hijab
PESHAWAR, Pakistan – Zuhra Nafees drinks in the sights and sounds of Peshawar’s riotous marketplace with newfound enthusiasm. A year ago the grate of a burqa separated her from the outside world.
Now the late twenty something is clad only in the traditional Muslim chador, the long cloth that covers her body from head to toe but leaves her face completely unobscured.
“As our men are no longer stressing that we wear the burqa, so we have now abandoned it,” said Zuhra, who belongs to the Mohmand tribe and lives in the semi-lawless tribal areas in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province.
Women in her family used to wear the so-called shuttlecock burqa, named for its resemblance to the cone of feathers used in badminton, “but now many wear the chador for covering their bodies in public places,” she said.
Burqa-wearing was common for centuries in the ultraconservative ethnic Pashtun heartland that straddles the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
It gained international notoriety when the fundamentalist Islamic Taleban came to power in Kabul in neghbouring Afghanistan. The Taleban punished women for not wearing the burqa and it became a symbol of religious intolerance and sexual oppression.
When the regime was toppled in late 2001 it was partly billed as a victory for Afghan women, who could finally cast off the restrictive garments and show their faces to the world.
Now with the spread of education and exposure to the media, observers have also detected a sharp decline in the numbers of Pakistanis choosing to wear it in the last few years.
“This area is experiencing great change in many Pashtun traditions and abandoning the traditional burqa is no exception,” said Shahida Parveen, a female journalist.
Young, educated women are at the forefront of the revolution, she said, backed by the relaxing of attitudes among male Pashtuns regarding purdah, or wearing the veil.
It reflects the gradual increase in professional and personal freedoms that women are winning in Pakistan’s tribal regions.
Saleswomen can now be seen in some large stores, while females have taken posts in banking, IT and businesses like carpets and gems.
A cultural change!
In politics, a number of local government seats are reserved for women and a majority of those come from an alliance of strict Islamic parties. The provincial president of the largest Pashtun political party is also a woman.
The area is not giving up its strongly held social and Islamic traditions without a fight. Older women in particular still remain hidden from view beneath hijab of many colours.
The practice has always been largely confined to the middle classes in Pashtun society, who consider it a mark of social status, according to Slama Shaheen, director of the Pashtun Academy at the University of Peshawar.
“Pashtuns were very simple and women in rural areas often worked alongside their men in fields so it was very difficult for them to wear the burqa,” she said.
Despite this, hijab are now more popular in the countryside than in towns and cities, as rural regions are less exposed to westernizing influences, says Shaheen.
“Due to education and the role of the media, a cultural change has been witnessed even among the conservative sections of Pashtuns,” she adds.
Few have seen the effect as much as the people who make and sell the all-enshrouding garments.
“The young girls do not wear the burqa anymore. They all prefer the chador,” says Salim Shah, who has sold the headgear for the last 15 years at the Kochi Bazaar in Peshawar.
He said Afghan refugees were his major customers, as they remained more faithful to the old ways compared to people in Pakistan’s northwest.
Ironically the hijab’s last bastion is rapidly becoming Afghanistan, where it has lost some of its stigma as an instrument of Taleban repression.
It has regained currency “as a traditional rather than a religious form of veil,” said Yaqoob Sharafat, director of the Afghan Islamic Press news agency, which is based in Peshawar.
“In the past, women in the elite and religious families wore hijab as they were considered as a sign of pride and dignity.”