Behind The Veil
The streets are busy. People bustling to and fro, here and there browsing, bargaining, buying, selling. Stalls of sweets, samosas, spices, woven baskets, clothes stores, mechanics, bike repair stores, paan shops, phone stores, barbers and more. All filled with people, but one thing was missing; the women. The streets are for the man. Occasionally a burqa will pass by on a rickshaw with a couple of children of her lap and then she disappears and leaves the men to roam once again.
Bannu is a playground for men, where women remain only visitors on the streets. Situated near the Afghan border and now home to more than one million people seeking refuge there after the Pakistani military began its operation in the mountains nearby to evict the Taliban, this city holds conservative and sometimes fundamentalist religious ideas that are deeply ingrained in the culture.
Driving 6 hours to Bannu from Islamabad just as the trees began to replace the houses, so too were there less and less colourful traditional clothes worn by the women, called shalwar kameez. Instead the women became fewer and fewer and those that were on the streets wore the shuttlecock burqa, named so by the locals due to its resemblance of the shuttlecock used in badminton.
I counted 20-30 women out of the hundreds of men whilst observing the streets for 3 hours behind the tinted glass windows of a van protected by a ‘police’ man carrying an AK-47. I remained always under the watchful eye of my hosts, concerned for my safety in this conservative society.
So after seeing all these women walking around in burqas in the hot climate of Bannu not only was I curious to try it for myself, but also it was a necessary precaution to detract attention from myself as a female foreigner or as a woman in general.
It is 45C outside, and under the thick cloak of the burqa it is 50C. The heavy cloth envelopes you in a hot chamber where only the small gridded holes at the top for your eyes supply the ventilation. The cloth is a similar thickness to that of a curtain and creates a stuffy and suffocating environment inside. Not only is breathing hard, but walking and navigating your steps around the mud, pot holes and people is dangerous.
I had my disguise so now I could properly blend into the surroundings as I walked the streets. Wrong. Heads still turned and eyes still followed as I walked down the street. They seemed to be able to tell that I was an imposture by the way that I walked and held myself even under the burqa. That and as I found out, women just don’t go into the streets. The presence of a woman in the most popular sweets store in town would turn heads regardless of whether she was a foreigner or not.
For the local women, it is what they are used to. The burqa is a reality and a norm that is engrained in their culture. They wear the burqa with elegance that this garment does not deserve. Many women have worn the burqa since puberty and some children of 7 years old I saw dragging their burqas along the dusty ground.
This was a world so different to that of home. So different from my world where you can walk into a grocery store wearing bikinis and a sarong if you need to. Unlike the shalwar kameez that is modest and yet gives women respect, the burqa is just a cloth that removes the identity of the women to strangers in the streets. It makes them appear as the ghosts that they are in this conservative society. But it is something that is so ingrained in the culture and society that if a woman in Bannu does not wear the burqa the blame is placed on her husband or the man who is looking after her, saying they are not looking after the woman properly.
In the presence of men the women all huddle together in a corner of the room and remain silent. Some wear the full burqa and others pull it but still wear a scarf to cover their face, except for their eyes. They only speak when spoken to, and even then their voices are muffled. The eyes, the windows to these women, still remain downcast avoiding attention. But when the men leave the room the women relax and expose their faces showing friendly smiles, fair skin, brilliant complexions with captivating eyes ranging from an incredible light green to deep browns all ethnic mixes of Afghan and Pashtun. They warm up to you straight away embracing you and accepting you as family, radiating incredible energy. That is until the men return back to the room, the burqas are back on and the women shrink into the background once again. Despite common belief the burqa is not related to Islam at all, it has just been adopted by many radical Muslims and some fundamentalists at times force women to wear the burqa. And this is the case in Bannu. Bannu also has a reputation for being the homosexual hub of Pakistan. Some quite reputable men with good jobs talked openly about it as if it was an odd accepted norm in this city, where normally is not in Pakistan. And, well, this does not really surprise me when you hide women from a society. But still these are my observations and opinions. Some women who have been bought up wearing this are more comfortable underneath it. It is something that is so deeply entrenched in this particular culture. Whilst it is so difficult to imagine growing up in a society like this, it is norm for many women where wearing a burqa is just as normal as wearing a hat when you go outside.
Hannah Sutton is a Flint contributor, based in Perth, Australia.