Packing for Kandahar. More at http://instagram.com/eileenguo
When flying from a less conservative to more conservative part of the world, there’s always that tricky question of when to don the culturally appropriate garb. Flying to Kabul isn’t too big of a deal, as the only clothing change is the addition of a headscarf. Since it’s an accessory, western women just pull it out of their purses and cover their heads before getting off the plane.
But what do you do when the attire in question is Afghan chadori, known in the west as the burqa?
You can’t whip it out of your carry-on and just throw it on with the same ease as a headscarf. The burqa requires quite a bit of adjusting for novices to get the small round skullcap to fit just right and the grids (for vision) to sit directly in front of your eyes. Even when it is on correctly, most women walk around holding the garment in place with one hand.
But let’s assume that putting on a burqa is as logistically simple as throwing on a headscarf.
There is still a more subtle cultural issue to consider. Seeing a woman sans chadori – whether niqab, hijab, or burqa – is an intimate sight usually reserved ony for husbands and close male relatives. But what if you first see a woman uncovered, and then you see her covered? Is the act of veiling itself an intimate sight? And if so, how culturally and morally taboo is it to put on a chadori under the very public gaze of passengers on a plane?
These were the questions that I was asking myself on Monday morning, as I stood in the waiting area of Kabul International Airport’s domestic terminal. The flight was delayed, with nary an announcement or explanation of any sort. I was surrounded by security contractors, scattered women – Afghan in head-to-toe black niqab and western in sweaters and headscarves – and a hundred Pashtun men in traditional salwar kameez, turbans and, in some cases, sporting long, thick beards. I was acutely aware of the number of eyes watching me (and each other); some impassively, others curiously, a small number hostilely. As I followed their eyes following me, I couldn’t help but wonder who these people were. What were they doing in Kabul, and in Kandahar? What were their stories? And, perhaps most importantly, what did they think of me?
Under those scrutinizing gazes, I almost wished that I was under the anonymizing cloak of my burqa, gifted from a friend’s wife that had no need of it in Kabul. But I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Kabul-Kandahar is just a one hour flight, with an additional (and inevitable, or so I’m told) two hours sitting on the tarmac. Even so, I did not relish the idea of being imprisoned beneath the blue cloth the entire time.
Besides, I reasoned, though I might have been anonymous, as a woman traveling alone in chadori, I would likely have drawn more attention, not less.
But that still leaves the question of when to go beneath the burqa. Would it be worse to veil myself before the gaze of a hundred Pashtun men on the flight, or to walk, naked without it, into a throng of a hundred more in the airport?
I suppose that the answer depended on who – or what – I thought I was protecting myself against. Insurgents? The Taleban? Taleban sympathizers? The over-curious? Leering men found the world over?
And that, in turn, led to the somewhat improbable and very silly question: do insurgents fly commercial?
I never came up with an answer but, in the end, I veiled as soon as we landed.