Lifting the veil on women's subjugation

Imagine spending five years without ever feeling the warm glow of the sun on your face. Five years in which your only view of the outside world is filtered through a mesh rectangle over your eyes. Five years cocooned, head to toe, in yards of hot, scratchy fabric that makes you look like a walking tent - a faceless, shapeless being, robbed of your individuality and public identity.

Then imagine the unexpected pleasure, two weeks ago, of suddenly being able to take off that imprisoning garment and experience the world as you once did, unencumbered. Your oppressors have fallen from power, and you are free.

No wonder news photos coming out of Kabul in the past two weeks will rank among the most joyous journalistic images of 2001. They show the strong, proud faces of elated Afghan women, no longer under the cruel thumb of the Taliban, emancipated from the often-hated burqas. Last week the women walked freely, savoring their right to leave the house without a male relative, to shop, attend school, even work outside the home again. Before the Taliban rule, women accounted for 70 percent of teachers in Afghanistan and half of all government workers.

The burqa and the laws imposed by Taliban rule represent the most extreme forms of repression against women in modern memory. They also serve as reminders of other ways, large and small, obvious and subtle, in which clothing and other practices have shackled the female form and imprisoned women's spirits.

Burqas can take many symbolic forms, depending on the era and the culture.

Think of the ancient custom of foot-binding in China. Beginning in the 10th century, parents compressed the feet of daughters in tight bandages so their feet would not exceed four inches. Tiny feet suggested that a woman's family was so wealthy that she did not need to work. The painful practice hobbled women. It severely restricted their mobility and ensured their dependence on men. The government made foot-binding illegal in 1911.

Today, women can hobble their own feet by choice, in milder ways. Stiletto heels, first popular in the 1950s, fell from favor with the rise of feminism. This year stilettos are back, thinner and higher than ever. So are narrow, pointed toes.

Another form of fashion-imposed bondage involves the corset. For centuries, women's desire for an hourglass figure kept many tightly bound. As a 19th-century publication called The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine wrote, "If you want a girl to grow up gentle and womanly in her ways and feelings, lace her tight."

Letter writers to the magazine used words such as "suffering," "torture," "pain," "agony," and "discipline" to describe this type of armor.

Today, most women no longer rely on whalebone stays and laces to create a willowy figure. Instead, they count calories and work out at the gym. Taken to an obsessive extreme, the latter solution, encouraged by media images of slimness, can be more punishing and dangerous to a woman's well-being than the former.

One of the most extreme methods of subjugating women is surgical - female genital mutilation. This cultural practice, still common in parts of Africa, is usually performed on girls before puberty - as many as 6,000 a day worldwide, by one estimate. It can cause a host of reproductive problems and even lead to death.

There are many ways to keep women "in their place."

As Afghan women begin rebuilding their lives and educating their daughters, the world will be watching and cheering their transformation. Burqas may disappear. But they remain an important symbol of the ways in which those who care about women must continue to speak out on behalf of their rights and freedoms. The burqa and everything it represents must not happen again somewhere else.

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