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Burqa: Its Unrecognized Role In Afghanistan [Comparison with Germany 1945 and Saigon]

[Here is another excerpt from Dr. Kaukab Siddique's forthcoming book RETURN TO PAKISTAN.]

Ahmed Rashid and others in the Pakistani secular elite have given the burqa such a bad name that it has become synonymous with the oppression of women. Progressive circles around the world have accepted the burqa as a symbol of all that is wrong in Afghanistan and, by extension, in Pakistan and the rest of the Muslim world. When a Taliban ambassador visited the U.S. to explain his country's policies, his statements were drowned out by vociferous feminist protests against the evils of the burqa.

What has been the role of the burqa in Afghanistan? Is it even possible look at the role of the burqa dispassionately, with an attempt to understand Afghanistan?

We can begin by pointing out that Afghanistan and Pakistan are dissimilar societies in a variety of essential characteristics. These dissimilarities are so obvious that one can easily miss them, especially if, as in the case of Ahmed Rashid the purpose is to create a certain propaganda effect among Pakistanis.

The most important dissimilarity is that Afghanistan has been a land of war since 1977 while Pakistan during that period of 26 years has been relatively at peace with only sporadic violence coming in as an overflow from Afghanistan.

Under Tanai and then Hafizullah Amin, leaders of the two Communist groupings of Afghanistan, a frontal attack was attempted on the religious and traditional base of Afghanistan. Tanai's Khalq (People') grouping, and Amin's Parcham (Flag') faction conceptualized Afghanistan in limited ideological jargon as a land of feudal lords trying to crush the peasants and the workers. [Hence the macabre joke about the seven million people who left Afghanistan to escape Communist rule when a neophyte Communist said: I did'd know Afghanistan had so many landlords!]

Accordin to reliable sources, the Communists used to make recruits to their Party walk on the Qur'an to ensure that the newcomers had shed their "reactionary legends." Jan Goodwin's book Caught in the Crossfire [1987] contains a photo of Afghan Communist policewomen, wearing skirts, lifting an Afghan woman's burqa to investigate her. [After page 172. The next photo shows five Communist Afghan women who were "responsible for sending Afghan children to the Soviet Union for fifteen years of indoctrination."]
The attack on Islam was frontal and the Afghan answer was also elementary: Jihad in the name of Allah, which sparked the fire of resistance which spread from village to village. Gradually it became a conflagration which ended up burning the Soviets and driving them out of Afghanistan.

However, before the Soviets came in, the Afghan Communists wreaked havoc on the people of Afghanstan. Atrocities were committed and the center of Communist terror was always Kabul. We must remember the centrality of Kabul as the bastion of anti-Islam experimentation by the Communists to understand the nature of the Taliban governance of that city.

The Communists, like the Americans today, believed that the Burqa was the main impedment in the way of progress by Afghan women. However, the more the Communist derided and abused the burqa, the more the Afghans clung to it. Gradually it became the symbol of Afghan honor and pride.

The Khalq and Parcham factions of the Communists were bitter foes. When Hafizullah Amin took over, the Soviet Union sensed that a nationalist brand of Communism had emerged to challenge Moscow's control on Kabul. The Soviets saw a possible defeat for Communism in a country which they aw as theirs alone. Since 1945, the Communists had not retreated anywhere. They captured Kabul in a day and the Afghan hinterland in three weeks. The rest is history.

The Soviets fought the Islamic resistance from village to village for nearly nine years. The Afghans left en masse for Pakistan (4 million), for Iran (one million) or simply from one place to another within Afghanistan (one million). The Americans saw their chance and started sending weaponry to the Mujahideen through General Zia's government in Pakistan. Even the estimated 30% or so of the weaponry and resources which Zia did pass on to the Afghans was enough to keep the resistance alive. The U.S. wanted to fight the USSR 'to the last Afghan.' Never did the U.S. imagine (as is clear from Selig Harrison's assurance his government) that the Afghans could win.

During all this time, the strict moral code of Islam, in its most archaic form of the top-to-toe burqa, saved the family system from disintegration.

The Soviets left and the Afghans started fighting each other. The horrors of civil war continued till 1994 and only ended with the emergence of the Taliban. During the civil war, bandits and thugs took over in localities where the State no longer existed. During these years, a section of the Hazarajat Shias, heavily armed by Iran, tried to storm Kabul and committed numerous atrocities against women.

By 1996, the Taliban had taken over all of Afghanistan and implemented Islamic law, in its most literal sense, on the Communist stronghold of Kabul. The burqa already existed in Afghanistan and still does (after the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001). The difference was that the Taliban imposed it on the Communist women of Kabul who had consistently sided with the anti-Islam forces. The secularized women of Kabul were in two categories: Firstly, the rich westernized women, related to the King and various corrupt offshoots of the King's power structure. The second category was that of Communist-related women who believed that Islam was oppressive and should be reduced to the status of a private religion (as in the USSR).

These Communist women were most responsible for the propaganda picked up by Ahmed Rashid and others of his mentality. A splinter faction among the Communists, a Maoist group known as RAWA, came in handy for American media when the campaign against the Taliban went into high gear. RAWA had put up a horrific web site consisting of clips pulled together of the first days of Taliban rule in Kabul. Overall RAWA used the 'big lie' technique and fell straight into the hands of publications like the Baltimore Sun and, later, the entire U.S. media, coast-to-coast.

KABUL compared to SAIGON and GERMAN cities after World War II.

Kabul was the germinating point of the anti-Islamic forces in Afghanistan. The Taliban took Kabul by force after defeating both Hikmatyar and Masood. However, not even one woman was raped, molested or enslaved by the Taliban. The only punishment imposed on the defeated enemy city was that the women could no longer go out in their finery. They had to cover themselves in the burqa when they went out for necessities. In a few cases, when they did not cover themselves properly, they were beaten with canes. No serious injury was inflicted on any woman.

The great victory of the Taliban which will make future generations grateful to them was that they used the burqa to save the Afghan family system which was under unimaginable stress owing to years of war and civil war. Owing to the burqa, Afghan women have survived even the American onslaught which rained death and destruction across the country on a scale which outdid the Soviets.


During the 1980s I visited Germany. Near the entrance to the U.S. army base near Frankfurt, there was a lineup of automobiles. In front of each car was a German woman holding the door open. My hosts told me that the women giving an open invitation to American troops to go sleep with them. Forty years after the collapse of Germany in 1945, the disintegration of the German family under the impact of war was still visible.

Frankfurt airport was the only international airport I have seen which displayed an invitation to "adult" pornographic entertainment for the visitor (not to be confused with advertising related to the exploitation of women).

Iranians have found that German women are most amenable to muta' (temporary) marriages.

What did war do to the women of Germany? "Christian armies" from USA, Britain, France and the USSR invaded Germany in 1945 and the German family system collapsed. I will leave out the sickening atrocities inflicted by the Russians on German women. More to the point is the behavior of the American, French and British occupation forces.

One eyewitness account noted the fate of German women on October 5, 1945:

"Young girls, unattached, wander about and freely offer themselves, for food or bed . Very simply, they have one thing left to sell, and they sell it. As a way of dying, it may be worse than starvation, but it will put off dying for months - or even years." [Gruesome Harvest. The Allies Postwar War Against the German People by Ralph Keeling, 1947 and 1992.]

Unlike the Russians, American troops did not have to resort to rape. Germany's women were starving in the harsh first winter after the war:

"The American provost marshal, Lieutenant Colonel Gerald F. Beane, said that rape represents no problem to the military police because 'a bit of food, a bar of chocolate, or a bar of soap seems to make rape unnecessary.' Think this over if you want to understand what the situation is in Germany." [Ibid.]

Keeling discusses the spread of venereal disease owing to the plight of German women. The sexual surrender of the female population spread the disease among American troops, German women and finally the few German men who were not in captivity. "Thirty-five per cent of the civilian disease victims are girls under 20. For most of them, it was desperation that turned them to sex indulgence. They needed food, clothing, and shelter." [Ibid., p.63]

IN AFGHANISTAN, owing to the culture of the burqa, the women accepted death by starvation rather than offering themselves to armed men. The silent heroism of the Afghan women needs to be recognized. Instead, Ahmed Rashid and others mock them as victims of Islamic bigots.

Even a FRIENDLY OCCUPATION by foreign troops can erode family values. Such was the presence of U.S. troops in South Vietnam, particularly in SAIGON. The city became a vast brothel for American troops as the ferocious campaign to defeat the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese continued. Numerous 'true-to-life' movies have shown the impact of friendly American troops on the Vietnamese population. Tens of thousands of illegitimate children were born from these "friendly" contacts. After the war, Vietnamese women tried for years, sometimes successfully, to get American soldiers to accept the children they had sired.

BY CONTRAST, Afghanistan has seen two foreign occupations, first by the Soviets and now by the Americans. The very first impact of American victory over the Taliban was to open up Afghan society to cultural imperialism and its associated way of life meant to introduce consumerism into the Muslim way of life. Men's beards were forcibly shaved, Indian movies and videos were distributed, and women were encouraged to get rid of the burqa.

The burqa, in all its ugliness, stands in the way of America's attempts to "open up" Afghan society. [The term "open up" is, perhaps unwittingly, borrowed by the Americans from the language of rape and fornication.]

Ahmed Rashid and his friends in the West misled Pakistanis and Americans about the burqa. Afghanistan's experience of unending war required the discipline of the burqa (with serious punishments for fornication). The future of Afghanistan is linked to Islamic womanhood. Any erosion of discipline would make the little country a dirty backwater of New York, London and Paris.

2003-07-25 Fri 21:05ct