The bright blue veil of the burqa is one of the most iconic and widely worn pieces of women’s clothing in Afghanistan. Since the fall of the Taliban, fewer women wear the burqa in Kabul, but elsewhere, in the provinces, the burqa is as ubiquitous as ever.
While they evoke a reaction of horror and disdain from many Western women, the burqa in Afghanistan is a complex cultural signifier. Young married women wear light blue burqas; older women and widows wear a darker blue. White burqas signify new brides, or women from the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif. The particular pattern of flowers around the cap and face cover showcase the work of different designers, allowing women to be told apart.
The Zamarai family, shown in the video, have been tailors and burqa-makers for three generations. But recently there’s a new player in the Kabul burqa market: China, which mass-produces a style of burqa that many women here find more fashionable than the Zamarais’ traditional hand-assembled garments.
The Chinese-made burqas’ tightly-crimped folds and machine-produced embroidery have become something of a fashion craze in the last few months in Kabul. As one burqa seller named Hassan explained to me in a crowded Kabul market, “Women love the new, modern style of the Chinese burqas.”
Hassan said he was selling more burqas than ever in recent years, as the trickle down of reconstruction money from foreign aid organizations empowers women to buy several veils, in different styles. “More and more women are choosing to veil,” said Hassan. Of course, he clearly has a vested interest in projecting a good image for burqas. To my mind, the slowly escalating war and the resurrection of the Taliban probably have more to do with increased burqa consumption.
But although it’s a good time to be a burqa retailer – or a Chinese burqa manufacturer – the Afghan tailors who produce the veils are facing a tighter market. As you will see in this video, burqa production is very much a cottage industry in Afghanistan. Whole families are dedicated to stitching flowers on caps, or crimping the folds in the long flowing cloak, for which they are paid only a few dollars per piece. The Zamarai family, featured in this video, sews together the various different parts of the burqa. The finished piece sells in Hassan’s market for US$20, of which the Zamarais make about 20 cents.
Winter is traditionally a difficult time for manual workers in Afghanistan: little gets done, meaning that workers have to borrow heavily from those who control the markets. Relatively few burqas are sold in Kabul, as women from the outlying district find it difficult to travel into the snow-bound city. Ali Ahmad, the 48-year-old Zamarai patriarch, has already had to borrow 25,000 Afghanis from Hassan, the burqa seller. That’s $500 dollars, or almost half of what he can expect to make during the summer season, when the family will produce 50 burqas a day for a daily profit of about US$10.
Heavily debt-laden, the family recently had to move out of their house in a nice Kabul suburb to rent in a cheap neighborhood. Ali Ahmad, a skilled tailor who had to give up his shop because of poor eyesight, will probably have to take day laboring jobs to pay the rent.
Since China’s entrance into the burqa market, Ali Ahmad speculates that 300 families have lost their jobs. “The Chinese have special machines that produce the entire burqa in a few minutes,” said Ali Ahmad, “We can’t compete with that.” The sewing machines his family uses are all hand-operated, although they’re cheap to buy at $100 dollars per machine. The Chinese sewing machines cost $4000. “No one can afford to buy that sort of machine in Afghanistan,” said Ali Ahmad. “Soon all our burqas will be made in China,” he says.