NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–Born in Afghanistan and raised on Long Island, photographer Shekaiba Wakili used her lens in her adopted country to grasp the meaning of the Taliban’s shuttering away the women in her homeland.
She photographed portraits of five Afghan immigrant women–one from each of the nation’s major ethnic groups–in two poses: veiled and face exposed. The results, on exhibit here at the American Museum of Natural History until Jan. 27, are a dramatic demonstration of the humanity the veil covers and the loss of identity that the act of veiling extracts.
“For assimilation purposes none of these women wear headscarves on a day-to-day basis here in New York,” Wakili says. “In fact the models had not worn a borqa since they’d moved to the United States, and it was difficult to go back, even for the shoot.”
When the women came to her studio and put on the borqas Wakili had for them, it was an emotional experience for all. Under the Taliban rule, women were required to wear a borqa and cover their faces with a veil. Women also could not allow themselves to be photographed, a crime punishable by severe beatings or death.
“When the first woman came out of the dressing room completely covered we were silent,” Wakili says. “The model told me that she had forgotten how restrictive and difficult it was to move in the borqa. We got tears in our eyes as we thought about the women back home who had been forced to wear this for six years.
“I wanted to show the faces of women who had left Afghanistan, and to show how stifling the borqa was to their individuality and selves,” says Wakili, 31.
After Sept. 11 devastated this city and, in some cases, aroused ethnic animosities, Wakili decided she wanted to use her lens to demonstrate the distinctions in appearance and customs among the Afghan people.
“There are subtle differences in skin tone, eye color and hair,” Wakili says. “Only under the borqa you can’t tell. You couldn’t tell that there were beautiful, smart, and ethnically diverse women under there.”
Showing the World Hidden Faces
The portraits show the women from the neck up. In some the look is defiant and some wear a somber gaze into the camera. All are facing the directly into the photographer’s lens, something that would have been forbidden when they lived in Afghanistan. Their faces are wide and open, and with the head-covering of their borqa secured about their shoulders, it is easy to see their individual and distinct looks.
One has dark eyes, and one wide-set and lighter brown ones. Some faces have been worn with age and some are smooth. But they are all individual and distinct, a startling contrast to the photos in which each woman is covered by the borqa. In these photographs the women appear all alike; only the different colors of borqa tells them apart.
Wakili is a Pashtun, the group that now comprises the majority of people living in Afghanistan but is only 38 percent of all Afghans. Twenty-five percent are Tajiks; 19 percent are Hazaras; 6 percent Uzbeks, and a small percentage are Turkman.
Wakili, an advisor for the nonprofit group Women for Afghan Women, says this mix of varied cultures was destroyed during the Soviet occupation, when 2 million Afghans were displaced internally and 6 million fled the country.
“It was the mixing of so many cultures that made us once a modern society,” she says.
Wakili found her subjects through women’s groups and various friends of Afghan friends. The subjects, who remain anonymous, did not quickly agree to become involved in the project. Wakili was faced with a barrage of questions from the subjects and their families about her political beliefs, her family’s history, and what the photographs would be used for. But all the women, Wakili says, were excited about the project.
One subject is a former health aid worker from Kabul, another is a student, and a third is a woman’s rights activist.
Even though the women are here in the United States and pursuing their professional lives, residual fear remains and all insisted their stories be shielded from the public, as well as their names. “The Uzbek model came into my studio they day of the shoot and told me she’d changed her mind about being photographed without the borqa covering,” Wakili says. “This woman doesn’t wear a borqa here, none of the subjects do, but she and her family were concerned about someone seeing the photos.
“Her father decided it wasn’t safe for his daughter. So I photographed her only with her borqa on,” says Wakili, shrugging her shoulders.
Next on Wakili’s plate is an exhibition working with Afghan fashion designers to show the varied styles of each ethnic group’s dress for women and men.
“When women had a choice whether or not to wear the borqa they would develop a sense of style in their color and embroidery on their borqas and shawls. But that changed when it became a law, when they were forced,” she says. Besides different shawls and borqas, she also plans to show westernized Afghan dress styles.
“In Afghanistan now some women are shedding the borqa and looking at the new government’s way of dressing to guide them,” Wakili says. “But the borqa was a woman’s safety net and it isn’t safe, probably, to go just anywhere without it. Many members of the Taliban have simply drifted back into Afghan society, but they are still there.
“It is now probably worn for safety. But women are taking it off.”
Maya Dollarhide is a freelance writer in Brooklyn. She is a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
For more information:
“Ethnic Women of Afghanistan Unveiled”
Women for Afghan Women: