Julie Billaud


This paper seeks to characterize new meanings attached to women’s veiling in an Islamic public space, drawing from observations, interviews and field notes collected among various women’s groups in Afghanistan. It is argued that while the chadari – or burqa, as the Western press miscalled it, using the Urdu denomination – has become the ultimate symbol of women’s oppression for Western audiences, it is necessary to take a closer look at its multiple and often contradictory uses and to contextualise the reasons for its maintenance, despite the downfall of the Taliban regime. Ethnographic research demonstrates that women who are attempting to access public spaces have developed creative strategies of dissimulation to get public recognition. They have become visible under the veil and have sometimes been able to challenge gender hierarchies behind the appearance of compliance and conformity. These findings challenge liberal ideas according to which women’s visibility in public spaces is a necessary guarantee for their emancipation and their agency. In the context of foreign military occupation and increased insecurity, control by the state of women’s appearance in public settings is to be understood as a means to assert sovereignty and to preserve a sense of national autonomy. As in earlier colonial encounters, an area of cultural resistance has developed around women’s bodies that constrain the modalities of women’s re-entry in the public sphere. As a result, women have been left with no other choice but to adapt and find alternative ways to make their voice heard. This means, in practice, that veiling and bodywork in general are to be read as feminine performances destined to manage others’ impressions and not as mere acts of obedience to religious prescriptions.

Author Biography

Julie Billaud is an ESRC-funded DPhil candidate in Social Anthropology from the University of Sussex (UK). Her research is looking at women’s public visibility in ‘post war/reconstruction’ Afghanistan in an attempt to capture the re-ordering of gendered dynamics in the new Islamic Republic. Her work more generally engages with issues of Islam, veiling, nationalism, gender, agency, rights and the public sphere.