In her upcoming feature documentary Story of Burqa: Case of a Confused Afghan, Afghan-Canadian filmmaker Brishkay Ahmed boldly defends what many would find a startling revelation: the religious text of Islam, the Quran, does not deem the burqa to be the official Islamic veil.
Rather, through skewed translations and coordinated implementation of Sharia Law, the burqa is the product of the Taliban’s political agenda.
The full-body veil that covers a woman from her face down to her hands and knees has a rich and controversial history.
Story of Burqa which premieres May 10 at the DOXA Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver, explores the various origins of the burqa, from its early uses in the palace harems of India to its role as a “psychological warfare tactic” during the Anglo-Afghan Wars. It features commentary from renowned experts and Afghan officials.
“A creative choice I made was selecting intelligent, respected men to make the point that the burqa isn’t an Islamic garment,” Ahmed said in an interview.
“It will make a big difference in Afghanistan with men, women, and boys—particularly the men and the boys, who make the rules for women who are living in the home. I think it will [inspire] some percentage of brothers, fathers, and uncles to not force their women to wear the burqa. They may just turn around and say, ‘Just wear the headscarf.’”
The Taliban Connection
The film draws particular attention to the burqa-Taliban connection during the Taliban’s three-decade presence in Afghanistan.
After an era of civil war and political instability, the militant group ultimately came to power from 1996 to 2001. Under its rule, women were prohibited from working, a policy decision that proved a systemic detriment to the country’s schools and hospitals. Women were also required to wear a burqa outside the home at all times.
The Taliban pushed their moral code as the “proper” Islamic law, but Ahmed suggests otherwise.
One of the experts featured in the film is veteran Afghan journalist, author, and policy analyst Habibullah Rafie.
Ahmed recounted: “Habibullah tells me he once asked the Taliban, ‘Why are you so tough on the girls? Why are you forcing them to wear the burqa and cover their hands and feet?’ The Taliban leader told him, ‘Our men were raised in caves and we’ve been training them in the mountains. They haven’t seen women. If they come down from the mountains and see these girls walking around revealing themselves, we’ll lose our army.’”
But the Quran “tells you clearly how a woman should dress,” said Ahmed.
“We’ve been manipulated and lied to. People just need to stop listening to other people’s versions of Islam.”
The point that Ahmed wants to drive home is that the burqa is not the correct hijab and is being used as a political tool.
“It is the best way to manage a society, because you keep half of it out and in darkness,” she said. “Would the Taliban have been successful if they hadn’t enforced the burqa? Probably not.”
France, Italy, and the Netherlands have banned the burqa, while other European countries are still debating the issue.
Ahmed, who supports a ban, said the negative response French President Nicolas Sarkozy received following his pursuit to prohibit the veil was due to a misinterpretation of his proposal.
“I got angry when people were protesting against Sarkozy because he banned the burqa and the cousin versions of the burqa. What he banned was the face being covered fully. He did not ban the hijab, and that was misinterpreted. “
The difference, explains Ahmed, is that the Quran suggests that woman can wear a headscarf but it is not required to fully cover the face and the hands. “I can see why [Sarkozy] did that as a politician, and in the film, also, you can see. It is being used by suicide bombers inside of Afghanistan. It’s a national threat to Afghanistan, and it could be for his nation too.”
Ahmed, however, has high hopes for Afghanistan’s future.
“I’m excited about it. I think we are moving and evolving a bit. First of all, Afghanistan has about 20 television stations, which is great. You rarely see a burqa on Afghan T.V., that’s a plus. You see women with the traditional Islamic garment, which helps. Media helps,” she said.
“I am hopeful, and that’s why I wanted to make my film. We have a woman candidate who’s running for presidency in 2014. Her name is Fawzia Koofi, and she wears a headscarf, and she dresses modestly. These are all positive signs.”
This hope should be seen in light of plausible sources of further national instability, however. Ahmed worries about Afghanistan’s future in the absence of NATO, and the country’s sustained illiteracy rate. Her upcoming projects entail a continued effort to raise awareness on women’s role in Islam and dispel existing media misconceptions.
Story of Burqa: Case of a Confused Afghan will premiere on May 10th at Empire Granville 7 Cinemas in Vancouver at 7 p.m. It is part of a long line-up of films to be screened at this year’s DOXA Documentary Film Festival.
Julianne Keu is a writer living in Vancouver.