When the burqa debate was raging across the world, a young Pakistani women's rights activist, who doesn't wear a headscarf as a rule, travelled to Jalalabad in Afghanistan to see for herself what it meant to wear one. This is her story.
Gulali Ismail, a 24-year-old university student in Islamabad, needed to go to Afghanistan in August on an assignment. The consultancy on the evaluation of a gender-based violence project made her fly to Kabul. And then onwards to Jalalabad. For someone who does not wear the burqa, the biotechnology student was curious to know what it was like for Afghan women who are in some regions forced to wear burqas.
“During my stay in Afghanistan, when I was seeing all these women in the blue shuttlecock burqas, the thought that 'how they feel when enclosed' triggered me to live the identity of an Afghan woman. Doing this in Afghanistan seemed the best way out,” she recollects.
Gulali, accompanied by Mudassar Shah, a radio journalist, decided to go to a market. Her first reaction was that it was built for men. She found this strange. “Women should buy for themselves because they know what they want to wear and what they need,” she felt.
Determined, she headed for a shop selling burqas.
“I want to buy a burqa to put myself in the identity of Afghan women. I want to know how they feel when they wear burqa. Do they feel suffocating or they feel liberating? So to feel the experience of Afghan woman, I am here to buy a burqa.”
Gulali Ismail before the purchase.
It was obvious to the shopkeeper that the young woman was a first-time buyer. He showed her one of inferior quality and quoted a high price. Just as Gulali demanded to see more, an American aid worker happened to step into the shop. She wanted to try out one as well.
The conversation went like this:
American aid worker: Oh my God.
Gulali: Can you see anything?
American aid worker: Ya ya ya...
Gulali: Is it your first time to wear burqa?
American aid worker: It is my first time.
Gulali: What do you feel?
American aid worker: I feel very hot. It is very confining. I feel like it is wrong for me to be wearing it.
Soon it was Gulali's turn.
“Oh.. I can't see anything. Oh, my glasses... my eye sight is weak. How I will walk without glasses. Oh my god... there is no air. Now, you cannot see me but I can see everything. I can see you and people cannot see me. Now I can walk and people cannot see me.”
She paid $11 for the burqa and walked out of the shop with her companion.
Gulali Ismail after the purchase.
Gulali kept muttering, “I feel like someone is giving me a punishment. Punishment of being a woman, I cannot see the floor. It is difficult for me to walk. I don’t think I can be habitual with this. I feel like something is wrong with the burqa. It has made my head heavy. I cannot see the floor either I have to see the downward or either I have to see the front. This is a barrier. You know this burqa is limiting me from seeing the world with freedom. I can’t see the things and I am feeling like people are laughing at me. I am in burqa but still they are looking to me. Look, it does not make a difference. They are still looking and staring at me.”
That was all that Gulali needed to head back for the shop which bore the legend: “Burqa once sold can’t be returned, but can only be changed.” She took it off and had it packed. “I will gift it to some Afghan woman back in Pakistan.” Gulali's tryst with the burqa ended there.
That, however, does not mean that the women's rights activist scoffs at those who wear burqas.
“While I am there (in Islamabad) I don't wear a headscarf, because I feel more comfortable that way. But on the other hand, I respect the cultures of other people and other regions. I personally belong to a village called Swabi, which I rarely visit. But whenever I do, I even cover my face with the scarf.”
Gulali, the founder of Aware Girls, a young women-led organisation working for the empowerment of young women and peace building, goes on to assert, “I must say here that I would really like to live in a society which has same standard of 'values' both for men and women. If men don't cover their heads, and they are still respectable, the same should be applicable for women. There shouldn't be double standards.”
Gulali Ismail / Aware Girls
Aware Girls is a young women-led organisation working for women's empowerment, gender equality, and peace in Pakistan
At the age of 16, Gulali along with “my peers, established Aware Girls, with the aim of providing young women a platform which gives them the opportunities to work effectively for social change and women empowerment.“ She elaborates about her work, “We are working on HIV/AIDS, political empowerment of young women, peace, advocacy for women's rights, and safe abortion. We have launched a hotline called Sahailee which gives information to women about safe abortion through misoprostol.”
Gulali's beliefs begin at home. Her father is himself a human rights activist. “My family is very supportive. They are supporting my cause of women empowerment and social change.”
And what about change in Afghanistan? What about memories of the Jalalabad trip? Gulali winds up, “I stayed in Jalalabad for 10 days, and in Kabul for five. I travelled by air. It was a nice flight. I felt like at home while staying in Afghanistan. It is developing, and I have very positive hopes for the future of Afghanistan. I enjoyed the pure Pashto language, the hospitality of the Afghan people. But the violence against women frightens me!”
Gulali's story in brief: She doesn't wear a burqa because she is comfortable that way. She doesn't gun for those who do because she respects cultures of other people.