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an article by Rutherford Chang

One night while I was at my friend's house, he asked me to try something that he thought I would find interesting. My friend had an Afghani burqua, the veil traditional worn by women in Afghanistan, and he wanted me to try wearing it.

I have seen photographs and descriptions of burquas a number of times recently in newspaper and magazine articles depicting them as a component of an oppressive society, though I had never actually seen one of these garments before. I was receptive of this possibility for a new experience.

The burqua was a black colored veil made of light fabric that cloaked my entire body from head to toe leaving a small meshed window in front of my eyes to see through. It provided a sense of anonymity that I could only associate with the feeling of wearing a mask or dark sunglasses, but obviously more dramatic. At first it just felt like I was wearing a costume that was a sort of constricting. But considering that this is an actual article of clothing worn by countless women in the world today, it became a remarkable experience. It provided a perspective that I had previously not considered, that of living an entire lifetime from the perspective behind this veil. It forced me to imagine how incredibly different one's lifestyle could be from that of my own or any that I had experienced.

Though merely donning an article of clothing may seem insignificant, through this experience, my friend and I gained a personal perspective into a culture that was largely unfamiliar to us. I've realized that personal shared experience is the only true way to feel empathy towards or truly communicate with other people.


Question(s) related to this article:

What do you gain from experiences with different cultures?, And feel free to add any thoughts on Afghan women and burqas

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Latest reader comment:

Six readers have commented on Rutherford's article. Several different issues were raised; brought up in almost every response was the idea of cultural differences- do we, as Westerners, have the right/capacity to judge another culture? One reader mentioned that "if these women take an action against burqas, Afganistan become[s] another westernized country [and that] western value[s are] not necessarily right and having pride of their tradition and culture is also important."

However, several of the people who wrote in support of cultural awareness also felt, in the specific case of Afgan women and the burqa, that this cultural respect needed to be "taken with a grain of salt and an eye on human rights" because "an important issue here is that women have to have to wear the burqa?[they] have no choice, this is what makes wearing the burqa so oppressive". Another reader mentioned that she supports RAWA, the Revolutionary Association Women in Afganistan, and asked for a link to their website: RAWA.

Another issue surrounding Afgan women and the burqa was raised in the responses: "I think the burqas is such a hot topic in the American media because [,to Westerners,] it is a ["clear"] example of [sexism] and abolishing the burqas[would provide] a clear and visible change[to make us feel like we made a difference], but I think that we are ignoring the underlying societal structures that keeps the oppression of women alive in Afghanistan and in America."

This report was posted on April 29, 2002.