The Retroreflective Burqa offers a new, alternative design choice to the traditional Afghan burqa garment – a look that is safe, functional, and fashionable.

The Retroreflective Burqa project aims to empower burqa-wearing women by making carefully selected design changes and low-cost improvements to the traditional Afghan burqa, within the bounds of Sharia law, rendering the garment more versatile, functional, and fashionable.

The burqa is an outer-garment that the majority of Afghan women wear everyday, like a coat or jacket, which should be comfortable to wear, sensitive to the nuances of the everyday landscape and its environment, and culturally appropriate.
full length burqa still
By re-thinking certain elements of the garment, I hope to empower Afghan women through carefully selected design choices and to enable these women to remain true to themselves and to their religious and cultural practices. To empower a person is to provide her the opportunity to make choices and decisions regarding her life. In the case of the Afghan burqa, there is currently only one design available to women — the iconic, monolithic burqa. The Retroreflective Burqa offers an innovative, alternative design choice to today’s burqa, thereby giving Afghan women the right to make a choice, express their preferences, and exercise decision-making about a garment that they wear every day.

I hope that this endeavor will also open a dialogue around the issue of women’s empowerment and design. Helping women to make more informed choices regarding the various aspects of their lives, including selecting alternative clothing designs, may lead them to make more informed choices in other aspects of their lives such as health care, education, housing, nutrition, and economic development.

Retroreflective Burqa from Suzanne Kirkpatrick on Vimeo.

Dull silver color turns bright white at night in direct headlights:
Retroreflective Burqa - back

In Afghanistan, public safety on the roads and highways is very low; there are no traffic lights, no street lamps or overhead lights, no sidewalks or curbs, and very few paved roads. Few people have driver’s licenses, and fines for pedestrian violations are non-existent. Thousands of people die each year from roadside injuries, especially at night. Women wearing burqas are likely targets for roadside accidents because they appear as blueish gray silhouettes in the dark. Furthermore, the women cannot easily see oncoming traffic or obstacles in the road through their face veil, and they have difficulty reacting quickly to and protecting their young children from potential roadside hazards. In Afghanistan, there is also a lot of dust, which compounds the low visibility factor. Pedestrians become even less visible in dust clouds, and the dust further inhibits burqa-wearing women’s view of what is around them.

The Retroreflective Burqa project explores ways to improve this visibility problem in order to protect pedestrian women wearing burqas, so that they can be seen better by motor vehicles in the early morning hours, at dusk, and at night, without drawing unnecessary attention to these women from other pedestrians.

Face mesh is a powdery-silver color in daylight, but when lit by motorists’ headlights, turns white:
Retroreflective Burqa - front

I came up with this idea based on my experience and observations while living in Afghanistan. Read more about my cited references and sources of inspiration in my first blog post.
back diamonds
I’ve been inspired by haute couture designs by Louise Golden, and designer, Lela Ahmadzai. Also, I gained a lot of insights about materials and fabrics through visits to the Material Connexion library in NYC. At ITP, I followed Alex Vessels and Mindy Tchieu’s project “We Flashy”, using retroreflective material on contemporary clothing.

There are several interesting online videos about the Afghan burqa and its cultural significance, including this short video by Brishkay Ahmed which I found particularly interesting.

Some books I’ve particularly been inspired by are the following:

1) Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society by Lila Abu-Lughod.
2) Emma Tarlo’s Visibly Muslim. Chapter 7 discusses Cindy van den Bremen who designed the “Capster”.

Read about the background and inspiration for this project in previous blog posts:

1. Research & Concept Development
2. Materials and Testing
3. Why Blue Color?
4. Sewing Pattern
5. Face Mesh Weaving
6. Fashion Hacking the Afghan Burqa

What’s Next?
Although this burqa design is based on requirements that I collected in interviews with women who wear burqas, it has not yet been “field tested” in Afghanistan. I would like to send this garment to Afghanistan with some of my colleagues so that women and their families can see it, wear it, and provide feedback about the design and wearability of this garment in country.

I’ve always supported the idea of Afghan run businesses and handicraft organizations, such as Turquoise Mountain and Kabul Dolls and various others, that promote products and art for Afghans, made by Afghans. If this retroreflective burqa were to gain enough interest and support in country, I think it would make for an excellent women’s-run business in Afghanistan, with all of the profits going to Afghan women entrepreneurs. It would require research into manufacturing garments in Central Asia and how to source materials in China and nearby economies.

Another thing I’d like to do is make a version in black color fabric with retroreflectivity, using the light-weight material that women use from Saudi Arabia.

10 Responses to “Retroreflective Burqa”  

  1. 1 Bo Emp

    Has this design been shown in Afghanistan or to Afghani women?
    Although you say it’s complying to Sharia has it been approved by Afghan clerics? Shining surfaces, large differently coloured bands to increase the fashionable appeal and larger openings seems contradictory to the very conservative traditions and the purpose of hiding the woman and making her unseen.
    In the Brishkay Ahmed video it says most burqas are now cheap mass produced items from China. Using high-tech, and I assume rather expensive, materials not contradict this?

  2. 2 suzkita

    Thanks for your interest. Our design requirements were based on interviews and user studies with Afghan women and Muslim women who wear burqas on a daily basis. Some of their requests included: cooler, more breathable fabric, larger eye and nose/mouth mesh for easier breathing, and a fashionable look that was also functionable.

    The really good thing about the retroreflective material is that it reflects light at night on high-traffic streets, but it is a dull, silver-grey color barely noticeable when not in direct headlights. This design was chosen because it doesn’t draw attention to women except when they are at risk on the roads in direct headlights. The material looks bright white in headlights, but a dull silver color in normal daylight. I use industrial-grade reflective material made by 3M, which is the same material used by construction workers, police, and firefighters, so when it’s lit by a direct light source, such as headlights or flash, the silver material bounces the light back to its original source, reaching the motorist’s eye. I also chose materials that are affordable, for example the reflective fabric is $35.00 USD for 900 yards (4 cents per yard).

  3. 3 TheBurqaIsDegrading

    The Burqa should done away with, along with an ideology that encourages women to subjugate themselves to the “men” in their lives.

  4. 4 suzkita

    This is a design project that looks at how to improve a functional garment that Afghan women wear every day. Regardless of how one feels about the issue of veiling, the burqa is an aspect of Muslim culture that many Afghans practice today. I decided to approach this project purely through the eyes of a designer, looking for opportunities to improve the experience of burqa wearing, by providing an innovative, alternative design choice to today’s standard burqa.

  5. 5 Lalah

    I cannot praise you enough for your creativity, sensitivity, compassion and sheer talent! You have addressed women’s safety, modesty, comfort and free will; giving them practical and functional options. Just addressing the oppressive heat and breathability issues would be tremendous, but you have gone way beyond that.

    The veiling of women is an evil and oppressive practice, but one which is deeply embedded culturally and politically, and therefore will part of daily life for women for many years to come. In the meantime…your innovations make the daily donning of a burqa a vastly improved experience.

    Have your burqas been made available to Afghan women yet?
    How are these garments marketed and distributed to Afghan women?
    If so, how many have been purchased?

    I wish you all the best in your work. God bless you for improving the lives of Afghan women with your talents.

  6. 6 suzkita

    Thank you for your post, Lalah. I’m currently looking for partners in the Central Asian region who could manufacture a small number of these garments for women to wear and sell them at an affordable price. Since the banking crash, many local women’s clothing designers have closed their businesses due to the difficult economic climate in Afghanistan, but we’re hoping that will change in the coming years. Many people are interested in purchasing this garment and have asked me when they will be able to do so.

  7. 7 Stephen Cooper

    You probably know that on ‘Flickr’ there is a site called ‘Kanch 450’ run by a lady in Peshawar called Nargis Jabeen, Email address . If you are still looking for a manufacturer I recommend her highly; she has produced some lovely things, in beautiful materials, to order and is not wildly expensive. I have no idea whether she has contacts in Afghanistan, but it may well be worth a try.

  8. 8 suzkita

    Thank you for the lead on Nargis Jabeen! I looked at her Flickr photostream, yes she does have many designs and materials to explore. I like her Cloak with Hood design. She looks like a good lead. Appreciate the info, thank you.

  9. 9 Sally Denton

    You should take a look at the work of and her reflective yarn

  10. 10 suzkita

    Nice, thank you for sharing other’s work using reflective materials. I also designed a similar project using reflective iron-on motifs in my proposal called “Retroreflective Garments for Roadside Workers“, recommending affordable, culturally-appropriate garments for women, which are designed to reduce pedestrian roadside injuries and fatalities in low-light urban areas through the use of retroreflective materials. The full entry is viewable here:

Leave a Reply