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China Threatens Afghanistan's Burqa Market

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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.

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Comments (34)

FZ:

I think very country can not get to complete fair marketing, including US. US may have some prejudice to China or other country that will develope rapidly,Because of they also think Us is biggest and will be no.1 in the world for ever.In fact,but very thing will be changable.in past years, US is really bigest and most influence in the world. But from now on, if you will galobal market will be good, very country will be also most important and influne the world market.So the idea that one country influnce mainly global market will be disappeared.

Very one belong to world, no just US affect world.

Please change your prejudice for China.

Burka for Western woman,:

I can not understand the differance between a prostitute woman, who is trying to get clients with their hair, face, body outlook and a normal western woman. At end defact the normal western women trying also with their face, hair, body get attention of men. I don't understand, how can men/women with jeans, rock,.. shows their behind, up, to others, spacialy children.Islam is the only saving grace of civilazation and protect women, children, men from prostitute(devil) and wrong thinking about eachother.

America the Beautiful ?:

When McDonald and Kentucky Fried Chickens open a shop in any third world country, that's a sign of openness, westernization and progress. Remember how western media praise China for opening up McDonald. Why I don't hear western media complaining about the invasion of McDonald's.

Oh, I am sorry, I missed it. God lives in the West. God must be a westerner. Westernization is good, and buying Chinese burqas is simply a bad idea. Only buying the useless Swiss Army knife is a sign of civilization.

America the Beautiful ?:

Hmmm, how terrible that China is threatening Afghanistan's Burqa market! China is threatening everyone, isn't it?

You know, if this trend continues, China may start to bomb the wrong villages and to kill civilians there and everywhere, just like US and NATO are doing now. Very soon, China will be just like US and NATO. How terrible!

Ann:

If the government of Afghanistan had not been so busy trying to control women, maybe they could have paid more attention to their country's economic development and education level of the general population. Now they cannot compete with the world marketplace.

John:

It is weird to see some ingnorant comments from some people above. There is no comparison between what China does for the world than Western countries and America. Chinese people are peace-loving people. Their razer thin profit products have benefited the poor people throughout the world whereas Americans and Eupeans have bombed the muslin countires such as Iraq, afganistana and maybe Iran in the future. Who is the butcher here? China has the best relations with muslin countries and almost all the muslin countries like China. I hope the ingnorant souls will shut and stop smearing China.

Mary-a moslim woman:

Only if Muslim men had brain and common sense and know that, one can not be a Muslim by wearying a Burqa and make a woman wear it, (which is incredibly stupid) we would have not been supporting China's economy.

JRLR:

I always suspected China was responsible for Afghanistan being in deep trouble!

At last, this confirms I was right.

Makes me feel better already.

Thanks, JF. Thanks, PG. Thanks, WP.

wish v. reality:

After what seemed like a serious post, came this:

"As far as the Taliban factor is concerned, Afghans never had Talibans in their four and an half thousands years history. These Talibans are Western created/supported/validated phenomenon; as soon as the Western interests would cease to be in Afghanistan, and there will be no direct or indirect support for them by other governments, there will be no Talibans, just Afghans."

Nonsense. Once the West leaves its creations like for example, the Taliban, they do not simply vanish. Look at post colonial Africa. Local rule has returned, but by and large, the local on local violence deepens every year. Now also in Keyna. Is Somalia ok? Zimbabwe? Congo? Liberia?

Taliban is resilient, entrenched and regional Mr. Afghan, sorry to say. Like a disease, once it is created, removing the carcinogen does not eliminate the cancer.

Afghan:

It of course is a fact that Afghans try to be steadfast Muslims and they want to live their lives according to Islam, but at the same time the fact is that they live their lives according to a pre-Islam code of life and that is called "Pukhto". Pukhtoons (Afghans) have been living their lives according to this code for thousands of years long before the advent of Islam in what is now Afghanistan and burqa is a part of that tradition; it does not have to do anything with Islam.

"Pukhto" has principles:
1. Badal: You have to exact revenge on anyone doing any harm to you or your family or tribe or nation, no matter if it is an individual, a family, a tribe or a foriegn country and no matter if you or your progeny has to wait for hundreds of years (there are numeroud examples of it).

2. Nanawaatey: If somebody asks for your or your tribe's or nation's protection/asylum, you or your tribe or nation will have to protect his/her life and property with your life and property. This point will be valid even if the asylem is asked for by your worst enemy, you will have to treat him as a sacred guest.

3. Milmastiya: You will have to treat each of your guests with equal respect and honor. You will have to feed him in the best possible manner even if you will have to borrow money to do that, or even if you and all your family have to go without a meal. Honoring the guests is as much a collective tribal and family responsibilty as it is individual. A very famous incident could be quoted here when in the nineteenth century, an English traveler was defended with the lives of Afghans during a British attack on an Afghan village.

4.Saritob: The honor and respect that is extended to the other people that you come in contact with. Each of your word and deed will be remembered for hundreds of years by your wellwishers and your opponents and thier progeny. So you are not supposed to say or do things that are without honor.

5. Ghairat: You should never flinch from doing anything allowed by Pukhto for safeguarding the honor and respect of yourself and all your family, tribe and nation. You might even kill and get killed for that purpose. Although, it should be kept in mind that no matter how heated the animosity is you can never hurt women or children or elderly, no matter what. It is considered the worst crime and the ultimate cowardice to hurt women, children and elderly in fights, battles and wars. The second Anglo-Afghan war in the late nineteenth century bears witness to this fact, when each and every British male soldier was killed but not a single women or child was harmed and they were all escorted (unharmed and untouched) to the Afghanistan-British Indian border by the elders and chieftans of Afghanistan themselves.

6. Izzat: You have levels of respects for different people and the prime factor is age. The more aged you are the more you are respected. Someone with grayhair (with age) is called "speen geerey" and they should be respected more than a younger one. It is strange that in the West people think that women are kept out of the decision making process, they do not even bother to ask an Afghan, how do they solve their daily problems. Whenever you face problems you go to your elders and those elders would be the eldest of your family or tribe and if age allows it could be a women.

Islam has given a new dimension to the lives of Pukhtoons but they still live their lives the old ways.

One of the great Pukhtoon leaders Abdulwali Khan of Charsadda in Pakistan was asked by a reporter, "What do you call yourself: a Pakistani, a Muslim or a Pukhtoon (Afghan)". He replied:" I have been a Pukhtoon (Afghan) for four and a half thoudands years (the first evidence of Pukhtoons in history), a Muslim for fourteen hundred years (the advent of Islam in early seventh century) and a Pakistani for forty years (the birth of Pakistan in 1947); what do you think I should call myself".
Now, in the end I would say that when it comes to burqa, it should always be the choice of an individual woman, if she chooses to wear it, no one should question this right of hers. If somebody thinks he is offended by it, I suppose, he should look the other way. If she does not wish to wear it, she should have the right to go to the court if she is made to wear it. No one has the right to impose his/her individual will or ideas upon other people, or ones culture on others. And it goes for the people in the shining capitals of the Western world or the dwellers of the slums of the third world.
In any case, in an Afghanistan which is controlled by the West, there should be no need of making any new burqas let alone importing them in bulk. The truth is that old habbits (especially if they are thousands of years old) die hard.
As far as the Taliban factor is concerned, Afghans never had Talibans in their four and an half thousands years history. These Talibans are Western created/supported/validated phenomenon; as soon as the Western interests would cease to be in Afghanistan, and there will be no direct or indirect support for them by other governments, there will be no Talibans, just Afghans.

Lou:

What's the problem. Folks need burkas, Chinese manufacture and export them. I believe that is similar to American capitalism? I guess its OK for us, but not for China.........

lisa:

Afganistan has the right to complain china.when the chinese self-relient economy was destroyed by British and western textile, they also have the right to complain.
But let's see what achievement the chinese have made.

Adrienne Najjar:

I knew China was on our side. Destroy the Afghan economy!!!!

Guest:

Speaking strictly of economics, how can the Chinese produce a lower cost product even though they have higher wage rates and a more expensive sewing machine (= more expensive capital investment)?

This answer is multi-dimensional, and has little to do with "capitalism" or "free trade". It includes:

--Economies of Scale (the only capitilist ingredient here);
--Government Export Subsidies (Chinese companies get a govt rebate to export);
--Write-offs of Bank Loans (muslims don't borrow so can't buy costly equipment. In other countries business loans cost a min of 10%+/year);

And the biggest two:
--The Chinese Yuan is tied to the US$. As the value of the US$ has crashed, so has the Chinese Yuan, artificially making Chinese products cheaper (when an open market would make it do the opposite);
--Industry collusion (with Chinese govt. support). Several mfgs/exporters (often part-owned by a Chinese provincial govt.) will target an industry all at once. They destroy the local industry and take it over.

Except for the first, these are not exactly considered free or fair trade. U.S. companies would be criticized just for using #1 in the 3rd world (perhaps justly).

The accumulative effect is Chinese state-run mercantilism is wiping out previously competitive industries across Africa and Asian, often in the countries which have the most people earning less than $1 a day.

It is one of the biggest causes of 3rd World Poverty today.

That guy on that island:

Ni hao...All your burkha belong to us!

That guy in that island:

Ni hao...All your burkha belong to us!

Cordelia:

too funny! i want a burqua from Walmart too. just no synthetic fabrics, please.

Cordelia:

too funny! i want a burqua from Walmart too. just no synthetic fabrics, please.

ann:

The same things happen in China,too. There are a lot of US companys and factories in China. The old traditional Chinese industry is broken down.Things like that happen everywhere in the world.You can never complain about the rival's strong, the only thing you can do is making yourself powerful. And I think it is ridiculous to compare the burkas with opium.

Dr Ward Ciac II:

I would like to see an annual burqa fashion show in New York with runway models and photographers with cameras flashing. Bring in the New York Times fashion editor. Maybe the girls could do little dance routines to show off the flexibility of the burqa. Could have like a Miss America type pageant (call it the Miss Burqa USA pageant) with contestants competing by singing through their mouth patches for prize money. This could be sponsored by the National Organization of Women to show solidarity with Eastern women.

Alfred E. Neuman:

When a poverty stricken country like Afghanistan has to worry about Chinese competition to their traditional hand craft industries,then you know that things are really getting weird and tight.

Guest:

Yes, the blood and sweat of Uyghurs, the discrimminated Islamic people under Han, Chinese rule.
If you are so proud of what China does, then China should donate burqa to participating Olympic athletes from Muslim countries to wear during the opening ceremony.

Don't point at others for Chinese intolerance.
America did not force Chinese discrimmination against the muslims, Chinese did that by themselves.

hero:

I do not agree with you.Market is free.

chisolm:

Does this mean we can purchase our burkas from walmart soon.

mc:

Burqa is part of the male dominated chauvinistic societies that exist in the Muslim world, from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan to Sudan as well as the non-Muslim world. Male chauvinism is a universal problem, but Muslim men misinterpret their scripture to their liking, being chauvinists. But the reality is it is an EXTREME interpretation of the Islamic law commanding decent, modest clothes, for both men and women, which is part of the bigger commandment of being chaste and pure (so that such evils as AIDS, divorce, extramarital affairs, single-parent, broken families can be avoided).

US DEPT OF PROPAGANDA:

The Chinese sell these Muslims affordable goods which they made with blood and sweat, the Americans bomb them with F-16's and Abrams tanks, and fire Tomohawk missiles into their homes, and rob them of their oil in broad daylight. Hmmm...who should they get along with? what a tough choice.

Guest:

It is a shame that a Muslim would buy a clothing made by Chinese who suppress Islam in their own country.
Chinese even have a massge parlor in Islamabad where some working girls were kidnapped.
Real capitalist.
Reminds me of the British that used to sell opium in China while suppressing comsumption as home.

hikeman:

it is a pity for our nation-US

Mike:

Dan, as you may know, the Chinese themselves refer to their party (in English) as the Communist Party of China. (http://english.gov.cn/links/cpc.htm)

Whether communist, fascist, capitalist, or any combination thereof, the regime is literally a murderous one, and it's a shame that disdain for Islam is so strong that some people would prefer Chinese predation to any form of Muslim self-reliance.

Green Tree:
Dan:

Mike, though China may call themselves a "Communist" Nation they are far from it. Capitalism is alive and well in China. Socialist...maybe, but traditional Communists the Chinese are not.

Mike:

Rory, wherever did you get the idea that the Chinese were part of a free market? In any event, burqas may be made by the Chinese, but if any Chinese ever tried wearing one - especially in the East Turkistan region of western China - they'd be asking for a trip in front of a firing squad. Being a detractor of Islam, perhaps you approve of the Communist Chinese approach.

saynotoburqas:

Like everything else. china will take over that too.
it does not matter how bad the quality for Chinese made stuff is. while there is a market they will keep producing.
"it is up to the Muslim men to defend their woman by giving them rights"

pg:

the video did not move more than two snapss??? was that all a foto of a man and then of two women??

PostGlobal is an interactive conversation on global issues moderated by Newsweek International Editor Fareed Zakaria and David Ignatius of The Washington Post. It is produced jointly by Newsweek and washingtonpost.com, as is On Faith, a conversation on religion. Please send us your comments, questions and suggestions.