The Burka: A Taliban Imposed Canvas Prison

Written by Ralph E. Stone. Posted in Culture, Human Interest, Opinion

Published on August 08, 2010 with 10 Comments

Traditional dress for Muslim women.

By Ralph E. Stone

August 8, 2010

On our Iran Air flight from Frankfurt to Tehran, each of the stewardesses wore a “hiyab.” When we entered Iran’s airspace, an announcement over the intercom told the women to put on their hiyab or a head scarf. My wife, as did the other women on the flight, obliged by putting scarves on their heads. My wife wore a scarf covering her hair for our entire Iran visit.

Why do Iran and other Muslim countries require a woman to hide her hair or her entire body?

Because they believe God has made it an obligation for believing women. In the Koran, God tells believing men and women to lower their gaze and to dress modestly. He (God) specifically addresses women when He asks them not to show off their adornments, except that which is apparent, and to draw their veils over their bodies (Koran 24:30-31). Thus, God requires women to dress modestly and to cover up in public or in the presence of men who are not close relatives.

These verses of the Koran are known as the verses of hijab and many Islamic scholars believe they mandate the wearing of hijab. Some countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, do enforce a dress code. Women there are expected to cover their hair and wear some sort of loose fitting, full-length garment over their clothes. However, for the majority of Muslim women around the world, to cover, or not to cover, is a freely made choice. We have noted in our travels to Indonesia, Egypt, and Morocco, that very few women wore such coverings or even a hijab.

Ostensibly, the hijab frees women from being thought of as sexual playthings or from being valued for their looks, or body shape, rather then their minds and intellect. As the argument goes, no longer slaves to consumerism, the hijab liberates women from the need to conform to unrealistic stereotypes and images dictated by the media. Wearing a hijab and dressing modestly and covering the hair, may even minimize sexual harassment in the workplace. Supposedly, the aura of privacy created by a hijab is indicative of the great value Islam places upon women.

Afghanistan Under the Taliban

The Taliban is an Islamic fundamentalist group who emerged from the koranic schools in Pakistan. The majority of the Taliban are ethnic Pashtun.

The “burka” is the mandatory garment of the Pashtun tribes. After the the departure of the Soviets from Afghanistan, the Taliban came to power and made the wearing of the full burka mandatory. Under the Taliban, the burka became a canvas prison, devaluing their women. Under the Taliban, Afghanistan went from a twentieth century country to a medieval society.

Wearing a burka, a woman cannot clearly see more than a few yards away. Those with glasses cannot use them. It guarantees control over a woman’s body as it covers the eyes with a thick veil, preventing the wearer from seeing normally. And because the canvass grid limits peripheral vision, women become dependent on others to effectively move around, especially in open areas. The thick veil of the burka prevents the face and eyes to be visible. The garment extends to the wearer’s feet, making it difficult to walk or run. The burka weights about 14 pounds. Imagine wearing a 14 pound garment every day.

The Taliban prohibits women from singing, dancing, playing musical instruments, engaging in sports, employment, schooling, and even flying kites, an Afghan national pastime. Only male physicians are allowed to practice in hospitals, but they are not allowed to treat or operate on women. Women can only travel in the trunks of taxis.

When a woman is pregnant, Afghans say she is sick. Ninety-serven percent of Afghan women give birth at home because they are forbidden to call male physicians. Forty percent of Afghan women die of childbirth complications. Under the burka, the child cannot see his or her mother’s face or receive skin contact. During breastfeeding, the child cannot see the mother’s face and the mother cannot clearly see her child’s expressions through the burka, thus negating basic bonding between mother and child.

Young guards of the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice once patrolled the streets with whips, sticks, and rifles. If women were seen wearing makeup, exposing their faces or even laughing, they had to take them in without any legal defense. Women have even been beaten because they enlarged the holes in their burkas in order to see better. Some of the penalties for these violations include stoning, amputation, torture, flogging, and public executions.

In stoning, a woman is put into a hole in the ground and covered up to her chest with dirt, then men stone her to death. The stones should not be too big so as to cause immediate death, nor too small as then they are not considered stones.

There are thousands of widows who must beg in the streets or prostitute themselves because under the law they cannot receive their husbands’ inheritance.

Despite the new constitution of 2004, Afghan women can be purchased, sold, or be part of an inheritance. Forced marriages continue where about half involve young girls under sixteen. Many Afghan women leave their homes only twice in their lifetime, when they get married and go to live with their husbands, and when they die. Suicide by fire and domestic violence are widespread.

Since the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan by the United States, not much has changed for Afghan women, despite the promises of the international community, not only in areas controlled by the Taliban, but also in areas controlled by the international coalition. President Hamid Karzai was once seen as a champion of women’s causes and a welcome change to Taliban rule until he failed to deliver on promises to appoint women to cabinet posts. In 2009, he angered international allies by signing onto the so-called “rape” law, containing clauses making it illegal for woman to refuse to have sex with their husbands, and women can only seek work, education or visit the doctor with the permission of their husband. It was dropped under international pressure.

Imagine, how much worse it will be for Afghan women when the coalition forces leave. However, the plight of Afghan women deserve more than to be just pawns in the debate over our eventual departure from Afghanistan.

When the niece of Aishah Bint Abu Bakr (the Prophet’s wife), Aisha bint Talha was asked by her husband Musab to veil her face, she answered, “Since the Almighty hath put on me the stamp of beauty, it is my wish that the public should view the beauty and thereby recognize His grace unto them. On no account, therefore, will I veil myself.”

I recommend the film Kandahar and Kabuli Kid. I also recommend the following books: The Bookseller of Kabul by Åsne Seierstad; The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. I am sure there are many other films and books on Afghanistan.

Source: Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). RAWA has much information about the plight of women in Afghanistan.

Editor’s Note: Views expressed by columnists are not necessarily the views or beliefs of FCJ supports free speech in all its varied forms and provides a public forum for a complete spectrum of viewpoints.

Ralph E. Stone

I was born in Massachusetts; graduated from Middlebury College and Suffolk Law School; served as an officer in the Vietnam war; retired from the Federal Trade Commission (consumer and antitrust law); travel extensively with my wife Judi; and since retirement involved in domestic violence prevention and consumer issues.

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Comments for The Burka: A Taliban Imposed Canvas Prison are now closed.

  1. No matter how wrong we think it is we must also keep in mind that that is their religion and culture and we will get no where if we offend them.

    • More importantly, if we are there, we must also keep in mind that they kill people who disagree with them.

  2. Lolz I didnt read the whole article yet I found this Narration unauthentic.. Kindly put forth right and authentic narrations by giving references otherwise keep quiet.

    “When the niece of Aishah Bint Abu Bakr (the Prophet’s wife), Aisha bint Talha was asked by her husband Musab to veil her face, she answered, “Since the Almighty hath put on me the stamp of beauty, it is my wish that the public should view the beauty and thereby recognize His grace unto them. On no account, therefore, will I veil myself.”


  3. very informative sir.. 

  4. PS:

    “Those who play the decision-making role—the editors of the leading newspapers and magazines, the executives, producers and anchormen of the major television networks—are well aware of the nature of the war in Afghanistan….In their deliberate suppression of the brutality of the American war, they play an important role in enabling the crimes of imperialism.” Source:

  5. I am not sure whether Mr. Solomon is advocating an isolationist or non-intervention policy, especially since much of the world’s problems were caused by U.S. foreign policies. And we have over 700 military bases in 40 countries. Be that as it may. The U.S. war in Afghanistan is unwinable. When the coalition forces finally leave, the Taliban will either regain control of the country or at least exert considerable influence over the country’s affairs ensuring that Afghan women will continue a miserable existence. Will the plight of Afghan women have any influence over our exit? Probably not.

  6. Whether you like it or not globalism is a reality and so we can no longer stand by and ignore the suffering of others, and whatever the culture homophobia and misogyny cannot be acceptable.
    The world does not stop at the boarders of the US.

  7. Sexist oppression must be challenged, no matter where, or to whom, it is happening.

    We all need to stand up against the West’s oppression of Arab and Muslim peoples. The U.S. needs to get the hell out of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran immediately.

    But a fundamental line must be drawn against the oppression of women represented by the Burka and other forced female body and face veils.

    It should be clear to anyone who spends a moment to think about it, that these garments are a message from men to women that says “Instead of controlling my own sexuality, You will control it for me by completely covering up your body and your face, becoming a nonperson in public.”

    This archaic nonsense must be tossed into the dustbin of history, just as was foot-binding; a similarly oppressive device used to crush the freedom of women.

  8. Perhaps your attention has been successfully been directed away from deteriorating conditions at home and onto the aspects of other cultures which clash with our values because those in power maintain their franchise and get rich off of meddling in the business of others who wish to be left alone while they run our own domestic situation into the ground?


  9. Here’s another link, Mr. Stone:

    Stories like this analysis of the burka at this particular time smack of playing into the hands of propaganda. Like a laser, we focus on what suits us now– why hadn’t we before when Obama told us he would get back to us when he found out the reasons why we are fighting in Afghanistan?

    I know less about Islam than Christianity, but as a Christian I find wisdom in the question: “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”