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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.