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Few symbols have been so closely and negatively tied to a country as Afghanistan and the burqa (chaderi in Dari). Afghan women are often seen as downtrodden creatures beneath the billowing folds of powder-blue burqas, faceless and voiceless. But the burqa isn’t synonymous with women’s rights, and shouldn’t be seen as the only barometer of social change. The burqa was once a symbol of urbanised Afghan women. Its impracticality was a sign that the

wearer was free from the toil of the fields. Village women would only don burqas to visit towns, where they would be free from the gaze of unrelated men. In the 1920s, Queen Soraya famously scandalised much of Afghan society by being photographed in a sleeveless dress, and although Kabul of the 1970 and ‘80s was the fulcrum of women’s rights, mini-skirted Afghan women were always a rarity. War marked the big change. In the refugee camps, burqas were adopted as tented life increased the difficulties of keeping the private (female-dominated) and public spheres separate, and was enforced by the rise of the fundamentalist mujaheddin groups. When civil war broke out, the burqa became essential as a guarantee of anonymity and protection against harassment and rape. The Taliban merely formalised its wearing as the most visible symbol of their anti-women policies. Many women in Afghanistan continue to wear the burqa for cultural reasons. Some women

have always worn it and assert that they will continue to do so. The burqa can be seen as a tool to increase mobility and security, a nuance often missed in the outside world’s image of the garment. Assuming that a burqa-clad woman is not empowered and in need of liberation is a naïve construct. The majority of Afghan women are more concerned with access to education and economic opportunities.



Pashtun: 42% Tajik: 27% Hazara: 9% Uzbek: 9% Turkmen: 3% Baluchi: 2% Other: 8%

in the 15th century, when the Shaybanid khanates of modern Uzbekistan emerged to overthrow the decadent Timurid empire. Northern Afghani- stan became a semi-independent network of Uzbek khanates, such as Balkh, Kunduz and Maimana, with the Uzbek population boosted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries following the Tsarist and Soviet upheavals in Central Asia. Primarily farmers, they are also known for their horses and skill at buzkashi. Most original Uzbek tribal affiliations have now been lost. Uzbek men traditionally wear the chapan, a quilted silk coat tied with

a sash, although this tends to be restricted to older generations and for celebrations. Modern Uzbeks are more recognised by their affiliation to their strongman leader, General Abdul Rashid Dostum (see p145 ). In the civil war, Dostum’s Uzbek militias were greatly feared, particularly in Kabul where they were notorious for their looting and pillaging, and dubbed by others as qilimjan (carpet thieves).

Other Peoples

Nomadism still plays an important part in Afghan life. The largest group of nomads are the Kuchi, a Pashtun tribe. Many Kuchi have suffered greatly in recent years, losing much of their livestock to droughts, coupled with the effects of land mines on traditional grazing grounds. The exact number of Kuchi is unknown, but they possibly number up to three million, spread across the whole of the country. They are the only ethnic group to have reserved seats in parliament. Among the Dari speakers, the main nomads are the Aimaq in central and west Afghanistan who are of Turkic-Mongoloid stock. In the far northeast of the Pamirs and Wakhan, the Kyrgyz continue a nomadic lifestyle with their yaks, sheep and camels (see p171 ). Of the settled nationalities, the next largest populations are the Turkmen and Baluchi. The Turkmen are found mainly in the northwest



along the border with Turkmenistan, where they are mostly herders and farmers noted for their carpets and karakol (sheep) skin production. Like the Uzbeks, many Turkmen came to Afghanistan in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Politically they maintain close ties with the Uzbeks. The Baluchi span the southern border region with both Pakistan and Iran, where they are mainly herders and traders. In the eastern provinces of Nuristan and Kunar are the fair-skinned and blue-eyed Nuristanis. Af- ghanistan’s last pagans, they were only converted to Islam in the late 19th century. Their oral history ascribes their European features to descent from the troops of Alexander the Great (see p186 ). In the northwest, the farming Ismaili Wakhis share land and trade with the Kyrgyz. The other Shiite ethnic groups are the Farsiwan (often mistakenly labelled Tajiks) of Herat and the northwest, and the Turkic Qizilbash living in Kabul.




Islam has shared roots with the other great monotheistic faiths of the Middle East but is considerably younger, springing into being in AD 612, when the Prophet Mohammed received his revelations from God (Allah) in Mecca. The revelations incorporated elements of Judaism and Chris- tianity, including a reverence for the same prophets such as Abraham (Ibrahim), Moses (Musa) and Jesus (Isa). While Jews and Christians have traditionally been respected as People of the Book (Ahl al-Kitab), Islam regards itself as the summation of these faiths, with Mohammed being the prophet who received Allah’s final revelations to mankind. (Muslims reject the Christian belief in the divinity of Jesus as a misreading of the Bible – a mistake many Afghans will be happy to point out to you.) Mohammed’s revelations were complied into the Quran, Islam’s holiest book, while his collected sayings (the Hadith) are another important reference for Muslim scholars. In 622, the Prophet Mohammed and his followers were forced to

flee Mecca to Medina due to religious persecution (the Islamic calendar begins with this flight, known as Hejira). He returned in triumph eight years later at the head of an army, capturing the whole of Arabia, and starting one of the greatest political and religious revolutions in history. Within a century, Islam had spread as far west as Spain and east towards central Asia.

The Prophet died soon after retaking Mecca. Disputes over his suc-

cession boiled into violence between those who believed the new caliph should be chosen from Mohammed’s most trusted followers and those who supported his heirs. In 661 the Prophet’s son-in-law Ali was assassi- nated, prompting the split between the Shiite and Sunni sects. The Shiites were Ali’s supporters, beaten by the Sunnis who supported the Prophet’s brother-in-law, the governor of Syria, as caliph. The schism became ir- reconcilable in 680 when Ali’s son Hussain and most of his male relatives were killed at Kerbala in Iraq by Sunni partisans. Sunni Islam emphasises the traditions of the Prophet, while Shiite Islam places greater emphasis on the authorities of imams as a spiritually perfect elite chosen by Allah. Today, almost 90% of Muslims worldwide are Sunni, divided into four schools according to their interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic law. Around 85% of Afghans are Sunni, with Hazaras comprising most of the Shiite, along with the Farsiwans and Ismaili Wakhi community. Afghanistan follows the non-hierarchical Hanafi

Religion 47

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