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City streets devoid of women but full of hijab posters

By Alma Begum*  

Every day as I pass an educational center for young boys and girls, I can’t help but notice the slogan boldly written on the top of its entrance gate: “Observing hijab is respecting the divine sanctity.” I wondered about its origin and the intended audience for a sign promoting hijab. After all, no women frequent that place anymore and the Taliban have effectively erased women from public lives and spaces. As men are exempt from the requirement to observe hijab, I wondered if I was the intended target of this message. I adjusted my hijab as I walked away.  

One day I went to a government office on a rainy day in order to do a favour for a friend who resides abroad. I felt anxious as I approached one of the soldiers to inquire if I was allowed to enter. He directed me to the women’s entrance gate, which was unfamiliar to me. There I found numerous women wearing black hijabs, soaked from head to toe in the rain. All their patience had run out after hours waiting by a closed door. Its black gate had the phrase “Hijab is modesty” inscribed in bold white script. Looking at my own hijab, as well as the hijabs of the other women, I couldn’t help but question why the gate was closed. A woman informed me that it had been closed since morning, and no one bothered to open it. I turned around and headed home.  

On another occasion, I endured an hour-long ride in crowded minivans to visit a relative’s house. The minivan was worn out. One time, it stopped next to a wall, on which was a bold black inscription that caught my attention: “Not wearing hijab/unveiling is a sign of ignorance and the gateway to further sedition.” I averted my gaze and adjusted my hijab. I couldn’t help but think about the men who had written those words – they probably enjoyed comfortable lives after delivering their message.  

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While visiting a friend in another part of the city, we came across a billboard advertisement. “Hijab is dignity, not captivity,” it read. My friend remarked, “We were lacking such commercials, and now they are abundant.” I pondered if greedy businessmen put the advertisements in bustling parts of the city in an effort to appease the ruling group. Together, we contemplated the thoughts and beliefs of the business owners. “They have all conspired to deprive women of peace in every corner of this city,” my friend said.   

A few months later, as I passed through the eastern part of Kabul, I realized I’d grown accustomed to ignoring wall writings. However, one bold display caught my attention with its contemptuous words: “Hijab is a sign of modesty, chastity, honour, and dignity.” Unlike other slogans, its intended audience seemed to be men rather than women. Perhaps they sought to encourage men to uphold their honour and ensure that their female relations also observe modesty, chastity, and honour. I contemplated the impact of such messages on men, especially teenage boys or young men, who could become inflamed by such slogans and impose restrictions on the lives and choices of their mothers and sisters.  

As I delved into these ideas, I felt compelled to read another prominent slogan written in Pashto that had caught my eye: “Unveiling is disobedience to Allah and His Messenger.” I wondered why it focused solely on the hijab and did not address other forms of disobedience.  

The promotion of female virtue through wearing the hijab is not limited to Kabul. A few months ago, I visited the northeastern part of the country. In a district, we encountered a newly built wall. Beautiful Nastaliq calligraphy adorned the clean cement surface:  “The best women are the ones who ask for the least dowry.” This one left me perplexed. The women in that district all wore blue chadors, and most were unable to read and thus comprehend the message. Even if they were able to read it, what difference would it make in their current circumstances? If a young girl were to read this message and share it with her family, they would likely respond, “Are you trying to find a husband and no longer control your temptations?” Just talking about it could subject her to criticism. If a mother with a marriageable daughter were to read the inscription and convey it to her husband, he would likely react angrily, exclaiming, “What are your plans now? Are you and our daughter on a mission?” This message seemed like it would only fuel household disputes and add to the suffering of women.  

During my journey home, I noticed yet another contemptuous slogan while passing through the gate from one province to another; “My sister, I have entrusted the colour of my blood to the color of your veil.” Accompanying the inscription was a picture depicting a soldier holding a gun and a woman wearing a blue chador.Perhaps it was aimed at the men who had fought in the war with the objective of imposing the veil on women, and now that the war was won, women were expected to safeguard the honour of victorious men.  

* Alma Begum is the pseudonym of an educated woman in Afghanistan 

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