Thursday, July 29, 2010

Ladies of Caubul by James Rattray

Ladies of Caubul: A 1842 lithography work by James Rattray showing a Persian (Qizilbash) woman in Afghanistan with a burqa next to her, source: The British Library. This lithograph is taken from plate 24 of 'Afghaunistan' by James Rattray.

A political mission consisting of Doctor Lord and Captain James Rattray was established at Afghanistan’s Bamiyan, the first spot which could be invaded by the Russians. It also had the only road by which the exiled Dost Mohammed could revisit his kingdom.

The region was famed for its Buddhist statues. Some of the tallest rock-cut standing Buddha statues, known as Bamiyan Buddhas, were blasted off with heavy artillery fire by the Taliban during their reign of Afghanistan, disregarding international outcry against destruction of the ancient statues.

The subject of the lithograph, Shakar Lab ('Sugar Lips'), was the favourite wife of a former governor of Bamiyan and niece by marriage to Dost Mohammed. As a great favor, Rattray was introduced to her in Kabul. Describing her as ‘a Qizilbash belle of the first water’, Rattray wrote, "Afghaun ladies exercise more control over their husbands than is usual in Eastern countries."

According to Rattray, though Afghan women of higher classes were strictly under purdah as in some parts of Hindustan, they certainly enjoyed life more than the Hindustanis. He wrote, Afghanistan women were seen making constant pleasure trips into gardens and bazaars, and they threw off their veils and restraint in secluded spots, and he had often come upon them thus and found Afghan women strikingly beautiful.

A burqa (also transliterated as burkha, burka or burqua from Arabic ‘burqu’ or ‘burqa’) is an outer garment plus a head-covering and the face-veil (niqab) worn by women in some Islamic traditions for hiding a female body. The burqa is worn by Muslim women over the usual daily clothing such as a long dress or a salwar kameez, and removed when they return home, out of the view of men who are not their husbands, fathers, uncles, brothers, sons and grandsons.

The face-veil (niqab) is usually a rectangular piece of cloth top side of which is sewn to the head-scarf, and it can be turned up if the woman desires to reveal her face. The niqab is also called purdah, a Persian word meaning ‘curtain’.

The veil and similar type of dress was worn by some Arab and Persian women long before Islam, as historical references show. The Roman African Christian Tertullian (around 200 AD) praises the modesty of those ‘pagan women of Arabia’ who ‘not only cover their head, but their whole face... preferring to enjoy half the light with one eye rather than prostituting their whole face’, in Chapter 17 of ‘The Veiling of Virgins’. Strabo (1st century AD) also writes about covering the face as a practice of some Persian women (Geography 11.13. 9-10).

Before the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan, the Afghan veil, chadri, was not frequently worn in cities, but it was made compulsory for all Afghan women to wear chadri in public under the Taliban rule. Officially it is not compulsory under the present Afghan regime.

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