First Person Global

While driving through Kabul in November, I saw two women leaning against a stone wall, chatting with each other. They were both enveloped head to toe in light blue burqas, but that didn't seem to get in the way of their conversation, as they touched each other on the shoulder. One leaned back, it seemed, to laugh. I wasn't expecting to be able to notice so much humanity hidden under so much cloth. But again and again I was surprised by how much character these women could convey despite what seemed like a disguise. Her voice may be muffled, but if you stand close to an Afghan woman as she talks, you can see her eyes through the netting. You can tell whether she is smiling, crying or angry. Once, as I left an interview in Kabul, two teenage girls (I've gotten better at judging age) hovered near my car and giggled nervously as I turned to look at them. I waved. Keeping her hand underneath her blue burqa, one of the girls waved back. The women of Afghanistan have learned to do much under the cover of a burqa, and much more in secret. Showing me into her home, 23-year-old Nozia Arafey took apart a small desk in her bedroom to reveal a hidden stash underneath. Nozia began collecting books when the Taliban took control in 1996, and has hidden them here ever since. She and several neighbors later turned their homes into a secret school for girls. And just as many women are not quite ready to take off their burqas, Nozia is not quite ready to unveil her books. "Osama bin Laden is not dead yet," she said.

Since the Taliban fell, there has not been an overnight lifting of the veil, neither as cloth nor metaphor. "I will take off my chadri [burqa] when the other women do," said 35-year-old Mina, as she walked down a Kabul street on her way home from the hospital. Despite her opinion that the burqa is "not clothing for a woman, or any human being," Mina will wait patiently for her time. For now, women are still wearing their burqas. And girls are still studying in the privacy of their homes.

Join the Discussion