The seclusion and veiling of women in the Near East apparently long antecedes the emergence of Islam in the seventh century C.E. Islam, however, gives it religious sanction and enforcement. The Qu’ran (Sura XXIV.31) directs women to “be modest, draw their veils over their bosoms, and not reveal their adornments” except to certain specified male relatives, slaves, eunuchs, women, and children. In practice, this has resulted in the system of purdah (literally, “curtain”)—the enforced seclusion of Muslim women and their concealment under special outer garments in any situation where they might encounter non-familial men. These garments have taken different forms in various parts of the Islamic world.
In Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other parts of the Indian subcontinent, they take the form of the burqa (in Afghanistan, called a chadri), a voluminous, tentlike out-ergarment worn by women and girls from earliest puberty on, covering the entire figure from head to foot. Worn whenever a woman leaves her home or may otherwise be in the presence of proscribed males, it makes her totally anonymous and effectively invisible, also concealing and restricting her movements and activities. Its origins are uncertain, but may be pre-Islamic Persian.
The burqa is held in place by a quilted, fitted cap, elaborately embroidered in the same color as the fabric; from this cap flow many yards of fabric, gathered with masses of pleating at the sides and back, creating a hunched look. A small panel of openwork crochet over the eyes permits limited frontal vision. The unpleated front panel is only waist length, allowing the woman to use her hands. In permitted circumstances, this section can be thrown back over her head, exposing her face; otherwise, she holds the long side panels together for complete, stifling concealment. The fabric may be lightweight cotton, rayon, nylon, or silk, in a subdued color—gray, brown, white, pale blue, or green (but unlike the chador in Iran and coverings in many Arab countries, not black); with the goal being anonymity, no bright colors, patterned fabrics, or individualized ornamentation are used.
The burqa is primarily urban, a symbol of nonla-boring status, and may conceal fashionable modern apparel. (Instead of the burqa, village women, whose farm and household work would be hindered, wear long, loose, baggy shirts and trousers and a large head scarf that they pull across the face in the presence of men outside the specified family circle. Some nomad women do not cover their faces.)
Efforts to eliminate or at least modify the rules of purdah, including the wearing of the burqa, have historically had mixed success. In Afghanistan in 1929, a modernizing king attempted to ban the chadri by fiat, triggering his overthrow. Wearing a burqa remained mandatory until 1959, when it was quietly made optional and was rapidly discarded by many urban Afghan women, particularly educated women, who adopted simple head scarves, long sleeves, and below-knee-length skirts to meet the requirement of modesty.
No such organized reform effort occurred in Pakistan or among Indian Muslims, where the burqa remains customary, though some modern educated women have abandon it. The rise of radical political Islamism in the 1980s revived its universal use, voluntarily or under duress, in Islamist-dominated areas, such as Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province and Baluchistan, and Afghanistan under the Taliban regime from 1996 to 2002.
Clifford, Mary Louise. The Land and People of Afghanistan. New York: J. B. Lippincott, 1989. Several black-and-white photos; text on women discusses the chadri.
Klass, Rosanne. Land of the High Flags. New York: Random House, 1964. Black-and-white photos and text regarding the psychology of living under the chadri.
Michaud, Roland, and Sabrina Michaud. Afghanistan: Paradise Lost. London: Thames & Hudson, 1980. Several fine color photographs show details of the burqa and chadri.