Backstory: A burqa's-eye view
A cellphone camera squeezed between nose and mesh captures a woman's blurry view from behind the veil.
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — As odd as it may sound, I thought that a burqa might be the answer to my problems. Here on a five-week assignment to shoot photos for a humanitarian organization, I was dismayed to realize that I wasn't going to be able to move freely. There was a standing threat against Western women working for aid organizations – prime targets for kidnapping and sale to the Taliban. Understandably enough, the organization restricted my movements, rarely allowing me out on the street unless I was in a car – and never allowing me to go anywhere alone.
My exasperation grew as I discovered that even when I could go out, I couldn't take a step without being the center of attention. It wasn't unfriendly attention; I actually never felt unsafe or threatened. It's just that wherever I went, everyone watched me. Heads swiveled the moment I stepped out of the car. People were curious about the presence of a foreigner, and even more so when I held up my camera. In other words, the pictures I love to make – street scenes and moments of gesture and interaction between people, all taken as if I'd had gone unnoticed – were impossible.
So, I began eyeing those voluminous blue burqas, still ubiquitous in Kabul. I wondered if I could "hide" underneath one and find a way to work comfortably on the street.
The irony didn't escape me – looking for a measure of freedom in a garment that had come to symbolize the brutal repression of women during the Taliban era.
At my request, my driver asked his wife to find a burqa for me. He delivered it early one morning, and I hurried upstairs, threw it over my head, went straight to the bathroom mirror, and made the first of several discoveries. The burqa has an oddly comforting quality at first – reminiscent of the cozy intrigue of a kid hiding in a makeshift tent under the dining room table. But it's also hot and stuffy. It's tricky to walk in because it allows no peripheral vision and catches on things like bushes and doorknobs. And the headpiece is so tight that it's impossible to shoot with a regular camera from inside – there's only an inch or two of space between one's eyes and the mesh screen that hides the face.
So I picked up my cellphone and slipped it up between my nose and the mesh. I began with the most obvious pictures of all – self-portraits in the bathroom mirror.
I'd seen many pictures of women in burqas, but here was a whole new point of view – pictures from inside the burqa.
I was eager to see if my theory of anonymity would work on the streets of Kabul. But I didn't get past the front door. My driver and the organization's security officials objected, arguing that I'd be immediately identifiable as a foreigner – by my shoes and the way I walk – and that the police would suspect that I was trying to hide something.
Thwarted, I still couldn't let the idea go. So I took the burqa with me in a bag everywhere I went, looking for moments when my driver would let me wear it. At the Mughal garden I clumsily threw the burqa over my head – there's a trick to writhing through yards of fabric to find the three-inch-wide spot for your eyes.When I stood up in it from the back of our SUV, my long-suffering driver looked at me and smiled and said, "You look nice."
I nearly fell over – both from the disorienting tiny mesh screen and amazement at what I'd just heard. "But, Abdullah," I countered. "You can't see me. How can you possibly say I look nice?"
He smiled and turned away.
I wore the burqa whenever I could – in the park, the countryside, a bazaar. Stumbling, at first, and coping with the uncomfortable confinement of the cheap polyester, I took pictures of the world around me, through a veil that for many Afghan women is the way the public world is seen every minute of every day.
I took my burqa to Bamiyan, where the Taliban in 2001 dynamited the ancient Buddha statues carved into sandstone cliffs. I walked up a short incline and threw on the burqa, and heard one of the local guides shout up to me, "Can you see?"
I turned around, covered in the robe. "Of course, I can't see anything," I yelled back. "I'm wearing a burqa." Later, I assured the four men who'd accompanied me that if men had to wear burqas, there'd soon be no burqas in Afghanistan.
In the end, I made a series of photos I call "Circle Vision," because of the way the circles in the burqa mesh screen divide up the field of vision. For me, they ultimately came to represent little intersecting boundaries that remind me of the many woven boundaries encircling the lives of Afghan women every day.
It was the briefest of encounters with their world – but an enlightening one. I saw a bit of what they see, and learned, in surprising ways, what it means to be seen inside a burqa.
I was, in fact, stopped by the police – twice. They wanted to know who I was and why I was wearing a burqa; each time, my guides explained I was just interested in seeing the world the way Afghan women do, so that I could share it back home.
The last day I wore my burqa, I'd been out in the neighborhood with one of the security guards, an educated young man who'd told me a lot about his life, including the fact that he had many girlfriends and no plans to marry. When I took the deep-blue burqa off for the last time, I turned to see the young man smiling. "You look good in a burqa," he said, much to my astonishment. "You put that on again, and I just might pop the question."