White on White

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ImageI love travelling to Afghanistan: friends and colleagues stare at me with puzzled, frightened looks. For Afghanistan is invariably associated with the Taliban, poppy fields, Sharia and women covered in blue chadri (burqa). The azure blue chadri has been displayed as the epitome of women's subordination to men and their lack of rights. In Andrei Konchalovsky's film, the First Teacher (1965), the schoolmaster strips off a black niqab from a young Kirghiz girl, his gesture liberates women from backward traditions and brings them a promising future. Twentieth century Kirghiz girls, twenty-first century Afghan women... same struggle?

The first time I set a foot in Afghanistan, women were not compelled to wear the fully covering chadri. But I saw no bare-headed woman. Wandering around Shahr-e Nau park, striding along the winding streets of Shor Bazaar, feeding doves at the crack of dawn in Mazar-e Sharif, picnicking on Friday afternoon in Babur gardens, I saw Afghan women in all shapes and shades of head covers.

Striking white chadri in Balkh. Dust-faded blue in Kabul. Mustard brown in the Southern provinces. Burqas folded back and worn as capes. Russian-like flowery shawls neatly folded in a triangular shape and tied by a knot under the chin. Colorful embroidered wimples proudly worn by nomads. Simple black scarves hastily wrapped around head and shoulders. My own set of Indian dupattas recycled for the occasion. I wasn’t unsettled by the display of covered heads and faces. I may come from the country that arguably founded contemporary feminism; I don't believe hiding someone’s hair beneath a cloth is necessarily a synonym of subordination. I myself felt more comfortable with my head covered, in public spaces as well as during Afghan private meetings-because I was respecting local practices, but also because I was protecting myself. And I certainly never felt I was less of a woman for doing so. 

However, none of this head-covering exercise prepared me for what I consider to reflect the state of women's rights in Afghanistan. I travelled to the Northern Province of Balkh, district of Shortepa. A predominantly Turkmen area bordering Uzbekistan. So close, in fact, that cell phones only pick up MTS-Uzbekistan. So close, that those Afghan fishermen can wave at ImageUzbek shepherds across the Amu Darya River. So close, that rural Turkmen women wear the same traditional wimple. So close, that North and South of the Friendship Bridge women doctors and nurses look like Babushkas with their tiny scarves tied around their heads. So far away though that Health Care Centers in Afghanistan do not display photo booth pictures of women staff on their organizational charts next to men's. Not a single picture of these same women that wear tight tops under the medical white blouse, long yet fitted colorful skirts, and revealing fishnet socks tucked in open-toe sandals. Women have been hiding away their bodies and faces, but even worse, they are still denied the right to be fully part of Afghanistan's effort to rebuild itself. 

Malevich's Suprematist Composition-White on White raised eyebrows in 1918. Every woman medical doctor, every female nurse, every midwife, is pictured today by a white on white "photo" on organization charts. This should not just raise eyebrows but reminds us that Afghan women still have a quite a distance in attaining equal status to men.

Photos Courtesy of Céline Ferré


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