Every Afghan woman has a story of her years beneath the burqa.

A spirited tomboy who thought she was too young for one was beaten for going without. A mother of five nearly walked in front of a bus because of the mesh obscuring her vision. A grandmother's heart sank as she donned the all-enveloping garment that she recalled her own grandmother wearing decades earlier.

Burqa-wearing, by its nature, was a deeply isolating experience. A woman might pass a dear friend on the street and not know her. Catching a glimpse of one's reflection in a storefront window or a car windshield inevitably produced a shock of non-recognition, wearers said.

A breezy day -- when the burqa, however carefully clasped from within, might blow open -- brought the risk of a humiliating public beating. Any attempt to make one's appearance distinctive -- by wearing high-heeled shoes or nail polish -- also carried the threat of harsh punishment.

Here are some recollections of burqa-wearing by a young student, a middle-aged woman tailor and an elderly Kabul woman.


In the early days of Taliban rule, Spoghmai was slowly becoming accustomed to the sight of women hurrying about the capital in their long, shroudlike burqas, mandated by the new rulers.

But she was only 14, skinny and small. Everyone in the family still thought of her as a baby. She didn't think anything of leaving the house that winter day clad in a long, loose smock and a tightly knotted headscarf.

Walking alone in a neighborhood where she had an errand to run, she suddenly heard angry shouts. She had been spotted by a pickup truck full of turbaned young men who leaped out and ran toward her.

"The Taliban surrounded me and began beating me with cables," she recounted softly. "No one had ever hit me in my life. I cried, and turned this way and that, trying to get away from them, but they kept hitting me and hitting me."

She finally broke away and ran to the home of a family friend who sent word to one of her brothers. He came with a burqa for her, and they walked home together, her breath still ragged with sobs.

"I could see that nothing in my life was going to be the same," said Spoghmai, now 19.

With the Taliban gone, she is trying to catch up from years of missed schoolwork and reacquainting herself with friends she went years without seeing because women were confined to their homes.

She still wears the burqa in public, though she hopes to soon feel safe enough to abandon it.

"Our principal says we will have school uniforms, and that we can wear those," she said. "I am very much looking forward to that."


Bibi Amina, a 45-year-old tailor, has always been clever with her hands. Bustling about her small house to make tea for a visitor, her movements are deft and graceful.

The burqa, though, transformed her into someone clumsy and unsure.

"The first time I wore it, I was dizzy from not being able to see well -- I got a terrible headache," she said. "I would trip all the time, and nearly fall."

The worst day, she said, was when she stepped into the path of an oncoming bus, her peripheral vision obscured by the close-knit mesh covering her face.

She never even saw the bus until it was almost on top of her, only hearing the cries of passers-by and the shriek of brakes, sickeningly close.

"I thought of my five children and what would have happened to them if it hit me," she said. "And I thought, 'What a stupid reason that would have been to die.' "

Shopping trips became time-consuming because she could only carry a small parcel or two at a time. If she carried more, she said, she was afraid of not being able to hold her burqa closed.

Once, she thought she saw a childhood friend coming out of a relative's house a short distance away.

But she did not greet her friend, whom she recognized only by her movements. She was afraid to call out -- women were not to raise their voices -- and she was afraid of attracting attention by rushing after her.

"I felt very sad, that we were there in the street together, and I could not even ask her how she had been," Bibi Amina said. "I felt that we had all become very lonely, so locked inside ourselves."


Torpikai, a 65-year-old widow with snowy hair and striking green eyes, remembers a scene from her girlhood: her grandmother putting on a burqa to go out.

It was the 1960s, and burqa-wearing was dying out, especially among educated women in the capital.

"I remember it seeming to me to be this very old-fashioned thing, and I was glad I had been born after it was no longer necessary," she said.

Five years ago, when the Taliban took over, she found herself wearing a burqa for the first time.

"I felt that time was going backward," she said.

She felt bad for herself, she said, but worse for her granddaughters, who had been brought up to believe they would go to the university and have jobs.

She found herself keeping more and more to home. When she ventured out on a sultry summer's day, she felt faint from lack of air inside the burqa.

"Everything seemed very dark, and all the days felt the same," she said.

When the Taliban fled Kabul in mid-November, Torpikai waited only a day or two before she went out into the street with her burqa raised and folded back, exposing her face to the winter sun.

"I am an old woman," she said. "I didn't want to wait for someone to give me my freedom back. I took it."