Making the Best of a Bad Job
Hopefully it will never get like this !
© Michelle 2006
Version for “Tales of the Veils” website.
Not for reproduction on other websites or in any other publishing format.
As so often happens, it came as a complete surprise to the rest of the world that a religious based political party led by one of the old commanders of the original Taleban swept to legitimate power in the Afghan elections of 2012.
Even more surprisingly was the fact that despite constant allegations from the US government and from women’s groups worldwide, the election was for that part of the world one of the most honest ever undertaken. Some shots were fired and voters intimidated, but that was usually traced to the other parties taking part. Mohammed Azhul’s Restoration Path party on the other hand campaigned cleanly and fairly on a policy of restoring the good parts of the former Taleban’s rule without the bad bits.
Of course to most people around the world, being forced to veil from head to toe in the all-enveloping burqa would count as a bad bit but despite the fact that many women in the country never registered to vote as many feel it isn’t the done thing for a female to do so, the party is believed to have gained a sizeable proportion of the female votes that were cast. In fact comments from overseas of ‘turkeys voting for Christmas’ probably served to increase rather than decrease the party’s share of the female vote. Coupled with overwhelming support from men in most of the areas of the country not still dominated by feuding warlords on a policy of dealing with those same warlords once and for all and really victory was nothing if not foreseeable.
Mid-way through his first speech to the Afghan parliament came the comment many dreaded. A translation is given below.
“… of course I am not going to attempt to deny the accusations from the West that we are suppressing the rights of women. My party was elected on a policy of complete and utter control of women in our society and in light of the overwhelming support we have received from the electorate we do not intend to change that policy now. Soon we will pass laws dictating in every detail what all Afghan women are expected to do, say and even think.”
This brought gasps from the audience.
“But we are not a cruel party. It will take time to adjust to the new ways. And it is little point passing a law requiring all women to give up work if they have no other means to support themselves. Similarly we cannot expect all women to wear the burqa if they cannot afford one. It is the state’s duty to ensure all of the people are able to obey any laws it may pass. I am therefore announcing today the establishment of a commission for woman’s affairs which will look to implement all the new laws listed in our manifesto within a year in a manner where no-one will be unable to obey those laws. This commission will consist of all one hundred and fifteen female elected representatives here today, all of course from parties other than my own. You will have the task of handling the changes required in a manner as palatable as is possible to the rest of the world. Of course on completion of this daunting and onerous task, your last action will be to pass a law declaring yourselves unable to hold public office and you will all have to resign your positions but I feel this, combined with the incentive of not allowing the male representatives here to vote on any of the laws affecting women for one year should create an urgency to achieve the complete task in the best possible manner within those twelve months.”
And so began the task of changing the country once again.
As well as a wave of objections from around the world, there were of course numerous complaints from inside the country, notably of course from religious leaders who had supported Mohammed’s election campaign, stating that women were incapable of deciding their own affairs and that the female elected representatives should be sacked immediately and their constituents asked to send more suitable candidates to the parliament. But his tactic of reminding them what happened last time the country got a bad press persuaded most if not all to hold their tongues for the year required. However to meet demands from his own party, fifty wives of elected members were to represent the party in the women’s forum.
One of the first concerns of the women’s forum was that their laws would simply be nullified after they had left office but they were satisfied with a change to the country’s constitution which stated that only elected female representatives could vote on a long list of matters to be produced by this group and since there would be no elected female members of the parliament after the year was out, these laws were effectively cast in stone, at least until the possible election of some future government that decided to allow women to be elected again. This satisfied most and they got down to work.
Some of the laws required were quick to create as they had been given in detail in it’s weighty manifesto. This was one political party who could not be considered to have hidden it’s true intentions. Apparently translations into most other languages started appearing on the Internet not long after it’s initial publication.
The issue of prayer times had already been handled by the main parliament. At five set times a day everything stopped and the whole country was declared a mosque. This overcame the problem of travelling distances to the nearest mosque so often. Of course all male citizens were expected to visit their mosque regularly as well but that was not an issue for the women’s forum.
The first of the laws to be implemented was the abolition of women’s names, instead they being required to be known as ‘(if married) First (or Second, Third, Fourth) wife of (their husband’s name), first (or second, third …) daughter of (their father’s name).’ There was little for the forum to debate on this but as promised although the law was published within ten few days of the forum’s creation, it’s status in law is advisory until the full twelve months have passed. After that, to use the previous form of naming, be it by any man, another women or even the woman referring to herself will be punishable by fifty lashes.
Next came the complete abolition of female education which was felt to be able to be implemented with immediate effect. Mothers must teach their daughters all they need to know at home but so as to allow the twelve month changeover all girls’ schools still open each day to allow daughters of working mothers to be looked after. However nothing is taught, the girls expected to stand fully veiled in silence except at prayer times.
As allowed in the leader’s first address, the law prohibiting Afghan women from working was phrased so as not to take effect until the twelve months were up, although no woman was allowed to take on a new job with immediate effect.
Except for job related items, women were also prohibited from reading. Magazines and books written by women, or those containing pictures of women, were to be destroyed forthwith. Similarly women were not to use computers for non work related issues, again with immediate effect. However the severe punishments listed for transgressing these three laws would again not be implemented until the twelve months were up by which time it was reasonable to expect all homes to be compliant.
The next change required was a law to make the wearing of the traditional burqa compulsory. Most of the representatives had begrudgingly dug their own ones out of attics or the bottom of wardrobes but the sight of all this rather dirty and unkempt clothing reminded them how bad things had been. Of course there was no option but to adopt the burqa, it having been a central theme of the new leader’s manifesto, and not agreeing to it would simply have meant it would have been imposed after the year was out so they set about coming up with a better plan. And one woman did just that when she came up with the idea of re-equipping the wardrobes of all fourteen million women in the country. A new national dress would be designed and as each woman would need at least three sets of inner garments, and one or two of the outer garments, a huge number would need to be made. They proposed that whilst this would delay the adoption of the wearing of the burqa on the streets by several months, it would allow a total once and for all clear out of non-acceptable clothing kept back in the hope of a return to the old times which was agreed by the new leader.
A call to the wife of the Saudi prince in charge of overseas aid from the rich kingdom was made and she convinced her husband that dressing a whole country would certainly be a unique experience so he provided a free supply of the almost a billion dollars worth of fabric and haberdashery required for this mammoth task, a side effect being to create the biggest single order for such items in the history of the world and a noticeable number of bids from American suppliers. However the order for supplying the fabric was eventually placed with a Bangladeshi company with the garments to be made in Afghanistan itself.
The first thing to agree was the colour, the previous regime having seen a mixture of gold, white, black, green and numerous shades of blue. After lengthy an attractive royal blue was chosen.
Next came the style. The well defined embroidered cap proved to be the most popular option as well as being the most attractive and was adopted. Varying lengths at the front and back were argued about for a long time but eventually all agreed that longer lengths could be lifted up whereas it was impossible to push down a garment that was too short. Many reminded the forum of the beatings and flogging received during the Taleban era by those wearing their burqa properly yet still managing to show an ankle and their insistence on avoiding that situation come what may led to only styles that fully covered the feet being considered. The final design chosen, with the hands not holding it in any way, pooled on the floor in front of the wearer for about a hundred millimetres and then expanded around to the back where nearer two hundred millimetres draped on the ground. This ensured prying eyes never caught sight of an ankle or toe although of course made movement even more restricted than in the days of the Taleban. Any material draped on the ground had an easily removed and washable piece of stiff sacking sewn to the downside to try to reduce the effect of the mud and dirt.
Elaborate embroidery based on a selection of traditional designs covered the front down to the chest whilst a large embroidered emblem taken from the country’s flag below that provided an original touch.
However the issue of having to able to lift the whole of the burqa to allow the hands out versus having a separate front veil which came down to the waist took even longer to debate. The clean looks of the former were of course offset whenever the hands were needed outside, an action which performed in the wrong place before 2001 could have led to a flogging for exposing the ankles and legs. Eventually the introduction of an inner layer to the burqa in a matching material with slits for the hands to protrude through where they could then be used to lift the outer layer without exposing the inner garments of the wearer was deemed the most modest and practical solution.
The back was far simpler to debate and a popular and unanimous choice was quickly chosen. The most heavily pleated design might use a lot more material than simpler designs but the extra material kept the wearer warmer in winter and cooler in summer.
Finally the issue of the shuttlecock mesh was debated long and hard. Various options, large and small, rectangular and round, single panel or one for each eye, whether to even have the panel at all or instead expect the wearer to peer out through the grain of the material were debated at length. Eventually a compromise was struck whereby the mesh would be a quite severe eighty millimetres wide to restrict sideways vision, a more reasonable forty millimetres high to ensure objects ahead especially on the floor were always visible and finally quite a wide pitch of mesh was chosen. However to overcome the problem of men being then able to look through the mesh, a second later of fine tulle would be sewn over the inside of the mesh. So close to the wearer’s eyes, the finer material would not restrict vision by anything like the amount it would restrict the view of the wearer’s eyes to others.
The first twenty samples arrived a week later and the members of the women’s forum were the first to try on the new look. A few adjustments were agreed to raise the centre of the bottom of the mesh to cover the nose a little more and also to increase the trailing length to three hundred millimetres to stop it lifting up in any circumstances but soon the design was agreed and the pattern approved to be sent out to the printers. Soon every woman in the country would have the pattern and an adequate supply of material with which she could either make up the burqa herself or pay another to do so. But before being worn, every garment was to be checked by local committees of women to ensure complete compliance with the design.
Having reached a successful conclusion, attention moved to the garments worn under the burqa. Here chaos reigned throughout the country with a huge variety of skirts and leggings worn. But the goal was for a single uniform and so after long debate, a white full length underdress with a fairly tight gait at the ankles, an overdress of similar length though more fully skirted in a red again taken from the country’s flag, a full length khimar in the green of the flag, and a white face veil which the user would still wear indoors at a height appropriate to whether she could be seen through a window from the street or not. This was to be the standard wear inside or out of the house for old and young alike, although of course a husband or father could request the burqa to be worn over this even indoors if he felt it appropriate.
The last remaining item was whether to place the burqa directly on top of this, the sensible option in summer, or to require some form of jilbab or abaya first, the favoured option for the cold of winter. It was considered to allow a change for summer and winter but it was felt the problem of cold spring or warm autumn days would create confusion and so finally a black jilbab like garment was designed to be standard wear under the burqa when outside of the house at all times of the year.
Finally, and despite being banned under the Taleban, white socks were made compulsory so that any sight of a white garment in the street, be it the underdress, face veil or socks, indicated the burqa was being worn incorrectly and the wearer could expect some form of punishment.
The choice of long black gloves and black shoes should have completed the matter of dress until when standing in line to get into the main room of the forum one day, one woman commented on how untidy they still all looked despite being dressed so identically. Asked what she meant by a friend she pointed out the variation in height along the line. As sometimes happens in government, what began as a joke soon escalated into a full blown discussion and eventually a motion was adopted to create a set of standard heights for women, namely a rather short one metre fifty, then a more usual one metre sixty five and one metre eighty and finally for this country at least a gigantic one metre ninety five. Shoes would have extended heels to ensure compliance with these heights although the soles would remain flat to ensure compliance with the edict to walk as silently as possible at all times.
A few weeks later, the members of the forum are the first to try out the complete new look, some gliding in quite normally whilst others struggle to adapt to the quite severe heels imposed on them by being of an unfortunate natural height just over one of the limits. But all agree the room does look tidier with in fact only two heights covering almost all members. The manufacture of patterns and garments also becomes much easier to handle as there are in fact now only four standard length to handle allowing mass manufacture to be considered without the need for custom hemming of garments.
Because they would be growing all the time, younger girls are not expected to have standard heights although they are expected to be dressed identically to their mothers at all times.
And so after six months, the forum has achieved what despite their numerous efforts to do so, even the top British girls’ schools never managed; to enforce a truly identical style on all of it’s pupils. And they have done so on a whole country.
Of course supply and manufacturing issues mean it will take several months for everybody to be fully equipped but already special weekly women-only bonfire parties allow then to enjoy disposing of all their old garments in one glorious action. Bras and knickers, dresses and blouses, skirts and leggings, stockings and socks, veils and old burqas are all consigned to the flames whilst row upon row of absolutely identical blue figures look on, the parties being segregated by height as well.
And so at the present time with six months to go until the deadline, these women must now turn their attention to other issues. Most are manifesto commitments but ones that were left open as to implementation. This has at least encouraged lots of good ideas to be proposed to overcome the problems of last time. Female doctors and nurses from abroad, veiled in the new uniform burqa of course, will be allowed to work and to travel from house to house using a male chauffeur and to take female patients to special centres for more serious medical attention. This should overcome the most serious flaw of the last regime.
Another problem was the definition of what constituted unacceptable noise from a woman in the street. As all will be issued with identical shoes, there will be a standard sound to footsteps so the main issue is one of speech and other vocal noises. Here the appointed members of the forum are seeking a complete ban backed up by the compulsory wearing of gags in the street, a measure deemed somewhat extreme by most others. In all probability it will be decided that the female voice is awrah and that no vocal sound must ever be made in the street but that it is up to the woman, or more likely her husband or father, whether this needs to be backed up with a gag or not.
Under the Taleban large numbers of women were attacked or raped by gangs of armed psychotic lunatics. The new government has established a uniformed police force responsible for all civil and religious policing matters with further improvements in policing promised. This significantly reduces the risk and resultant problem of what to do with an unmarried girl who falls pregnant by a rapist.
A suggestion on how to address the problems of widows looks set to be accepted into law as well. All women will be issued with a new form of standard marriage contract which those already married must give to their husbands. This standard contract overrides all previous or existing ones and specifically places obligations on both males and females. One such obligation on the male is if any woman presents him, silently of course, with her contract, he either has to accept her as a wife, or if he already has four wives or feels he cannot afford to support her and any children she may have for the long term, it is his duty to find her another suitable husband. This move is expected to remove the problem of widows begging for help on the streets, a problem perhaps caused by the Taleban but one successive governments have totally failed to address.
Another issue which caused problems before was that of wives being unable to leave the home whilst their husbands were at work as they had no male relative to accompany them. Of course some husbands took them to neighbours on their way to work but there was never any way for husbands to know what was going on in their own homes. Many of the members of the forum want this restriction on their movements lifted, but accept this is something it is unlikely the male parliament would agree to. Indeed a suggestion from some of the appointed delegates, presumably on prompting from their husbands, is that wives and daughters should accompany either their husband to work or their sons to school where a room will be set aside for all the women to stand silently and still in until the end of the working or school day with their face veils under their burqas lifted over their eyes to truly remove all sense of their surroundings. As you can imagine this suggestion is not so popular but could yet have to be adopted if another solution isn’t found.
Finally there is the issue of punishment for wrongdoings. The manifesto was adamant that all misdemeanours in the country whether by males or females were to be punished in the strictest manner so as to discourage wrongdoing in the first place. Of course those judging right or wrong will all be men, and without being allowed to speak in public herself, all women will have to rely on their husbands or fathers to defend them. However one area which the forum is totally agreed on is that all punishments are to be administered in the court building by specially appointed women. No arbitrary punishments in the street by men, appointed or otherwise, will be permitted. Of course the forum would like to pass a law punishing any man who dares to do this but their remit doesn’t extend that far so the best they can do is make a recommendation and hope the male parliament accepts it. But their best hope of doing this lies with being seen to be making sensible proposals elsewhere and so they are creating a list of standard punishments for most offences with tariffs ranging from fifty to a thousand lashes, amputation of the left hand and finally being stoned to death, all of these to be administered by other women of course.
Of course there is still a lot to do in the remaining months before the final female law banning them all from working can be passed, but the ones passed so far have been enacted and reluctantly accepted by the female populace without major dissent or complaint.
The following day four identically clad women make their way into the office of the Mohammed Azhul. As silently as possible, they kneel on the ground in front of his desk, put their hands on their knees facing upwards and lower their covered faces into these. There they remain for several hours until he speaks.
“I thank you for coming here my wives. I trust your work on the commission for women’s affairs is not too tiring for you. I am very pleased with the progress so far and it would appear we may even be able to abolish this abhorrence to our womankind early to allow you all back to your true place. But I have just created this list of suggestions I would ask you to take to your sisters and ask for their acceptance. Obviously these are new laws which weren’t originally considered for our manifesto but I trust they will not prove to be controversial.
It is declared that all Afghan women are not allowed to answer the telephone or own a mobile phone in case their voices may be heard by non-mahren men.
It is declared that all Afghan women must remain dressed with the utmost modesty at all times, even in tasks such as batheing or in duties pertaining to the marital bed.
It is declared that all Afghan women should remember at all times that their duty in the marital bed is to give their husbands pleasure, not the other way round.
It is declared that all Afghan women unfortunately required to work the fields in rural areas must still obey the strict laws of purdah expected of their sisters living in the towns no matter what the difficulties of doing so are.