Years ago, I had a picture taken of me with a fully veiled face. Like many photographers, I am shy when it comes to having my own picture being taken. So, when an overly eager friend kept taking pictures of me, I covered my face. This wasn’t my first encounter with veils, but even now that picture reminds just how strange veils are – functional, decorative, oppressive and liberating all at the same time.
Growing up in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, wearing a headscarf casually tied at the back was a normal part of a domestic attire of any woman in my neighborhood. You needed to have your hair tied when you cooked, cleaned the yard or did laundry, when you went to a funeral or a place of worship. The scarf was convenient to keep long hair out of food, laundry, or to be respectful to God or people. In that world, a veil had a function, like an apron or oven gloves; it was something you wore to keep yourself clean, safe, and appropriate.
I remember the first time I saw a woman in Osh wearing a full black veil. It was mesmerizing. It was something out of Scheherazade and her 1001 night stories. These women looked like queens floating down the dusty streets of my hometown. I wanted to be a queen too.
At that point in my life, I was struggling with the issue of covering. How much is too much to reveal? How much is too much to cover? Seeing these women made me want to cover myself, to be an enigma, something not easily reachable. But to my friends and family the full veil was a sign of oppression – these women had no space other than that defined by the boundaries of their veil. These women did not exist as entities in the public eye. The presence of these women in the public space of my little hometown made me question myself and my attitude to clothing. Is it the clothing that we wear that makes us virtuous or our attitude that makes the clothing virtuous? As a manifestation of that debate, I had some days when I would wear a skirt that would barely pass for a belt and a top that exposed my back. I also had days when I left only my head uncovered.
Eventually I settled on a compromise – I would cover, but not my face or head. That decision came when I expanded the frame of my search, asking what is it appropriate for either men or women to wear if they are to be respected. I settled on jeans and long-sleeved shirts as my dual interpretation of being like mesmerizing queens who chose to keep their bodies private and as men who are respected in the community.
Years later, I had to wear a veil. I had just arrived in Kabul and put a headscarf on. It wasn’t the same tied-behind-your-head scarf; it was a veil that draped from your head, wrapped your shoulders, and concealed your chest. When I put it on, I felt like I was reduced to the paint on the wall. It felt as though that piece of cloth erased me as a person. It wasn’t the act of wearing it; it was the fact that I didn’t really have the choice to not wear it. There was no way of escaping wearing a veil in Kabul.
It took only a couple of years for me to grew used to the feeling of this cloth draping around my shoulders, resting on my head, and snuggling me into a comforting hug. When out of Afghanistan, walking or driving, I often found myself in a state of panic at random points when realizing that my scarf was draped around my shoulders, but not my head. The veil had become a part of me.
The first time I had to cover my face was when I had a trip to Jalalabad, Afghanistan. We drove – it is only about two and a half hours – but the road is not very secure for a Western-looking woman, so I covered my face. At first, just like when I landed in Kabul, I felt that I had been erased from the public eye. I did not exist. I blended with the carts and cattle on the road. I felt as though I was not a human being. And then I found freedom in that. I was no longer a spectacle, something that people stopped to look at. I was a part of the daily routine – who would notice another black blob sitting in a back of a beaten-up white Toyota Corolla?
Since then, I have occasionally worn a full veil cover in Afghanistan. I have done it precisely because it made me a part of the larger gray mass of people. Not that people did not see that I was a foreigner when I covered my face – my eyes were a dead give-away – but I no longer stuck out with my full head of unruly blond hair and fair skin. The veil grounded me. It offered me comfort.
Walking around with my face covered, I didn’t have to face the fact that I am a stranger living in Kabul. People left me alone on the street. The police not once stopped me to ask me for my passport. I never thought I would voluntarily erase myself from the public eye. It almost felt as though I could walk away from being me at least for a bit, that I could pretend I was someone else for a little while. It was like a heavy blanket when you have a fever; it took away my shivers and comforted me. It said, “let the world go by on its own.” Under that veil, I had my own little space to do what I wanted to – take pictures, talk to shopkeepers, walk around and people-watch – and that space would not be desecrated by all the worries of being a foreigner in Kabul.
I sometimes wanted to hang onto this strange comfort. I was afraid that by removing the veil I would prematurely expose myself to the elements; so I kept the full face veil on until I arrived at my hotel in Istanbul or Dubai.
On those occasions, I would bolt the door. I would slowly unwind the veil, take off my abaya, peel off my t-shirt, jeans and underwear and lay on the hotel bed, naked, exposed, alone. I would let the memories of so many veils take over me – a snug soft veil in which to cook a meal, the black veil to go to a friend’s funeral, an oversized veil to wrap yourself against the evening chill, and a thin veil to wrap up your head and face to ward the world off while you wait.
It was only when the memories had stopped flowing, when the tears of confusion, loss, and longing had stopped rolling down my face, when I have re-gained my balance that I would consider to take my stance, to deal with the rush of the daily life, to emerge to the world unveiled.