Sunday, January 12, 2014

Looking Back: On Clothing in an Islamic Country

What do you wear in Afghanistan? Isn't it awful to be so oppressed?

Another question that is often asked and my answer often not believed. Let me start by giving you a brief overview of my basic daily wardrobe:

I've mentioned the 95% rule, which is the percentage of my body I generally kept covered. My hands and face showed, as could the tops of my feet when I wore sandals. Year round, I wore long sleeves, a shirt down to mid-thigh or knees, and pants. Some ladies wore long skirts instead, or pants under a knee length skirt, or a long robe (chapan) that went from neck to toes. 

Then there was the headscarf. I wore a chadar, which is the simplest form of headscarf. It's much like a scarf from home, just a long strip of fabric. Afghan girls wear a variety of styles when it comes to their headscarf, but I generally wrapped mine around my head and then my neck and left the ends hanging down my back. Definitely no fashionista, but it was comfortable.

It'd be silly to pretend that I loved wearing this ensemble every day, because there were certainly moments when I would have happily traded it all for a T-shirt and shorts. Summer is the worst, for obvious reasons, but when I first arrived, it only took me a few weeks to get used to it. 

This was the common refrain among the Afghan girls I knew. My host sisters would come home from work at the same time as me, and while I ripped my headscarf off immediately and changed into more comfortable clothes, they didn't seem to notice that they were sitting around with their heads still covered. When I asked, they had genuinely forgotten they were still wearing it. They laughed at my disbelief and assured me I'd soon grow accustomed as well. To my surprise, I did, and I spent more than one evening wearing the scarf I never got around to taking off.

To be honest, the dress code had its advantages as well. There was a part of me that enjoyed not seeing girls' midrifs, or dealing with guys staring at my butt or breasts. I used my chadar to cover my mouth when I coughed, or when smoke or cold or dust were bothering my asthma. I used it to cover my mouth when I was smiling or laughing or crying at a time when it wasn't appropriate, and I used it to keep my head covered in the rain. I never had a bad hair day, and since I was never blow-drying or curling or treating my hair, it was in wonderful shape. My chadar was an easy way to add color to my outfit, and by the end of the year, I had quite a collection. A friend and I once brainstormed fifty uses for the chadar, from dust rag to table runner to self defense.

I was also quite fascinated to talk to Afghan ladies and find out their attitudes about their dress. Some were as anti-headscarf as I would have predicted; they were the girls who let their scarves slip further and further back on their heads, or even wore them covering only their buns instead of the whole top of their head.

But most girls I know don't have a problem with it, and many prefer to dress that way even when they don't have to. It's partially the religious aspect, and the more I heard about it, the more endearing I found it. I'm no authority, but to the best of my understanding, the laws they follow come from Sharia Law, which translates to something akin to "path." Modest dress is only one of the ways that you can better follow the religious path. Which, when you think about it, is an ideal shared all over the world -- that covering up parts of ourselves is a way of showing respect to ourselves, our societies/the people around us, and God. When I started to look at it that way, I found it easier to adjust to the clothing.

In addition to the religious aspect, the girls I spoke to also mentioned the protection of a scarf, and the comfort. When you go without a scarf, you get stared at. You feel exposed. Men say things, and women talk behind your back. When you wear a scarf, or to an even greater extent, a hijab or a burqa, you can blend in, which gives you a sense of safety. Not a terribly pretty reality, but a reality nonetheless. It is simpler, safer, to just wear the scarf.

A lot of the ladies also mentioned how frustrated they get by those who call it oppression. They insist that they have a choice, and even when they travel to non-Muslim countries, they exercise that choice and keep their scarves on. Considering the societal pressure to wear a scarf, I'm not sure how much choice there really is at home, but on an individual level, most girls I knew were comfortable with it, regardless.

The clothing in Afghanistan has its ups and downs, but I can honestly say it's not what I'd expected. It was such a huge concern for me before I first went, but now, I have no trouble feeling comfortable with Islamic dress. So, no, it wasn't awful. And I'm certainly not oppressed!

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