Redesigning the Afghan Burqa – a look that is safe, functional, and fashionable.

I would like to empower burqa-wearing women by making subtle design changes and low-cost improvements to the traditional Afghan burqa to make the garment more versatile, functional, and potentially more emotive. By doing so, I hope to provide an alternative choice to the current design.

burqa on roadside

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.

Having lived one year in Afghanistan and worn a burqa, my initial reactions to the experience were that it is stifling hot underneath the garment, difficult to breathe or see through the mesh eye panel or speak through the nylon fabric, awkward fitting around the crown, and not very utilitarian or ruggedized.

By re-thinking certain elements of the garment, such as: 1) the fabric, to allow for more efficient body cooling and enhanced physical protection, 2) the shape and size of the panels (eyes, nose, and mouth), to allow for better breathing, visibility, and speech audibility, and 3) the form, to allow for better mobility, comfort, and emotive capabilities, 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. I don’t know if the original burqa design was even created by a woman, or group of women. In any case, I would like to make available an adequate alternative design for 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 better health care, education, housing, nutrition, and economic development.

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INITIAL REQUIREMENTS & DESIGN IDEAS

I’ve got some pretty good ideas about requirements for better design, since I own two burqas and have several friends who wear burqas, but I want to do some more current user research and interviews about design requirements over the course of this semester, and incorporate participatory design in my project.

These are my initial thoughts about requirements and design ideas:

Retro-Reflective Patterns
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.

I would like to explore 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. One promising solution is to attach reflective material on the cape of the garment to enhance the visibility of burqa-wearing women against motor vehicles. The 3M company makes 3M Scotchlite reflective material that is stitchable or available in sticky strips. There is also reflective yarn and thread that can be woven into trim, piping, laces, ribbon, cords and fabrics. (Note about yarn: Laundering should be by hand or machine at less than 125 degrees F. Avoid bleach. Iron on lowest heat setting. Composition: 16% Polyester, 59% Glass Beads, 12.5% Phenolic Resin, 12.5% Urethane Adhesive.)

retro-reflective yarn

Based on prior research of construction workers who work on the roadside at night, it is important to sew this reflective material on the lower part of the garment where the intensity of dipped beams is greatest so that she can be seen against oncoming traffic.

I made an initial mock-up showing very thin strips of the reflective material layered onto the burqa’s pleated cape and following the natural contours of the billowing form.

Retroreflective Burqa

Retroreflective Burqa

I would also like to think about printing or embroidering the reflective material in shapes and familiar patterns that mirror traditional Persian art and fashion, creating a more timeless look and feel. I want to look at Persian and Turkmen henna designs for inspiration, as well as mosaic tiles and geometric penrose shapes found in mosques, and also the shapes and tribal patterns found in Afghan women’s traditional dresses (shalwar kameez).

majolica_tile_mosaic

mazar ble mosque

henna_persian_turkmen

In addition to the large designs on the rear of the garment, I may also sew some designs made of reflective material along the front and back edges of the garment, and possibly into the crown, to create a reflective outline of her billowing burqa silhouette. In the daylight, I hope that this reflective material will blend in with the garment and not stand out too much, and then in the night time, it will serve its purpose.

For more background on the road safety issues in Afghanistan, read this NYT article about motor vehicle accidents and pedestrian deaths in Afghanistan, and this article about teaching traffic safety to Afghan children in Kabul. The US State Department says this about Afghanistan’s traffic and road conditions: “Vehicles are poorly maintained, often overloaded, and traffic laws are not enforced. Vehicular traffic is chaotic and must contend with numerous pedestrians, bicyclists, and animals. Many urban streets have large potholes and are not well lit. Rural roads are not paved.”

And for further background on the issue of road transport lighting in developing countries, download the report from the International Commission on Illumination (CIE) Technical Committee 4-37 titled “ROAD TRANSPORT LIGHTING FOR DEVELOPING COUNTRIES”. A consistent message of the report is that it is worth doing something rather than nothing, as long as it is done intelligently and with an understanding of the basic principles involved. I couldn’t agree more with this philosophy.

Body Cooling and Moisture Wicking Robe
The Afghan burqa is made from thin, synthetic material, often nylon, that doesn’t allow the skin to breathe very well. In Afghanistan’s southern provinces, like Kandahar, the average weather temperatures range above 100 F degrees. Hot temperatures increase body heat and flow of sweat underneath the burqa, making the wearer very uncomfortable and unable to cool off. I’d like to explore other lightweight, non-transparent fabrics for the robe portion (jilbab) of the burqa, like the thermo-regulated “cooling” fabric made of fibers that absorb the heat from the body, or “wicking” fabric that sucks the moisture off of the body and dries quickly.

Another solution would be to use a molded polymer mesh that is commonly used as a cooling spacer in work wear. The high density polyethylene mesh is inserted underneath an outer garment, like a work jacket, and the space it creates between the wearer and the outer garment allows for cooling air to flow, thereby reducing moisture and body heat, and drying sweat. This system is also used in ventilated sports shirts with vents in the sides with mesh underneath for cooling. I would like to also experiment with mesh paneling and ventilation areas sewn into the robe, perhaps with flaps, around the head crown and armpit portions of the garment. Here’s an example of a molded polymer mesh that I found on Materials ConneXion:

Molded Polymer Mesh

Thermo-Regulating Face Veil
The traditional garment doesn’t have any breathing holes around the nose or mouth, which causes a build-up of moisture and perspiration inside of the burqa. I would like to address this problem by adding small breathing holes or mesh panel in the central portion of the face covering for the nose and mouth to improve ventilation and keep the face and neck dry. Currently, there is no way for the burqa veil to vent excess heat and moisture from the face or neck region, except by transmitting it through the small mesh panel covering the eyes.

Original burqa with narrow eye panel

Original burqa with narrow eye panel

Women’s speech is also affected by the full mouth cover, making it difficult for other people to hear her words or understand her speech. The mesh panel would be proximate to her nostrils and mouth for ease of breathing and speaking, without saturating her face with breath moisture. This new head system would allow for better breathing and speech audibility, while at the same time maintaining a somewhat hidden view of her lips and mouth and protecting the face from dust inhalation.

I made an initial mock-up based on these concepts, showing an extended mesh panel for the eyes to increase peripheral view and mesh panel for the nose and mouth region.

expanded eye mesh panel

Expanded eye mesh and mouth panels

Expanded Eye Panel
At present, the mesh panel on the face of the veil is only in proximity to the wearer’s eyes, and provides a very narrow field of view. It is difficult for women to see around them, especially limiting their peripheral vision. I would like to experiment with different shapes and sizes for the mesh panel covering the eyes, as well as with new materials for the eye-covering that would allow for greater visibility by the wearer, but still maintain a somewhat hidden view of her eyes.

Hunters use protective face gear to hide their face from view, so I’ve looked at a few pieces of headgear and see-through veils for hunters, like these designs from an Australian company called blackfoot.com.au:
hunting face-veils
When I went to the Scottish Highlands this past summer, our family invested in head nets to protect our skin from the midges, or “no see-ums” that swarm and bite during the warm months. These thin, tightly-woven nets might be a very interesting mesh material to consider for the burqa.
mosquito head net
They are usually black, but I found a blue colored midge head net on midgie.net:
midge_net_blue

Inspired by expert skiiers, like those on this site, who have perfected head gear, eye wear, and clothing systems for extreme conditions, I thought about exploring an eye-covering on the burqa made from material that is fog-resistant with UV protection, like ski goggles or glacier glasses. This could go a long way towards minimizing fogging problems if a mesh fabric was not used. Goggle lenses are made from thermoplastic material, and the shape offers a wide field of view and good peripheral vision, which is badly needed on the burqa. poc-lobes-ski-goggles
Goggle lenses come in a range of colors and opaqueness, here are some examples from raceplace.com which can be purchased for under $20:
ski google colors

I made some initial mock-ups based on these concepts.

burqa_silver hexagon

Thermoplastic reflective eye shield

Thermoplastic eye shield and mouth mesh panel

Thermoplastic eye shield and mouth mesh panel

Interior Pockets
Like a coat or jacket, perhaps the burqa should have one or two utility pockets inside of the robe. These easily accessible pockets could be used to carry a mobile phone, phone cards, money, or keys, or any item that she might reach for frequently. I’d like to add a small design on the front of each pocket, to personalize the garment for its wearer.

Pull-Cord Flaps and Cinchable Form
How can I give more emotive capabilities to the burqa through the use of movements in the clothing in order to enable women to express themselves better from underneath the burqa? I’m considering design changes that will enable expansion or contraction, and opening and closing of certain elements, such as pull-cord flaps, vents, and panels, and cinchable cape and contour lines. For example, if she is feeling quiet and wants to keep a low profile in the outdoor market, she could pull a cord from inside her burqa that would cinch her cape closed and close the vent paneling over her mouth. And vice-versa, if she is among friends and is feeling very sociable, then she could choose to open certain elements of her burqa, such as cape vents, mouth panel, and eye shield.

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SOURCES OF INSPIRATION

I enjoy studying a range of design ideas to get my creative juices flowing, and to discover the ways in which people have tried to push the boundaries. I, myself, am more interested in gently nudging the boundaries because I want my burqa design to be wearable in public, practical, and respectful of Sharia law (not to mention, affordable to the average Afghan woman), but it’s a great source of inspiration to see what’s out there.

A terrific source of inspiration for how to apply reflective materials to everyday wear in urban environments is a project by Alex Vessels and Mindy Tchieu called “We Flashy“, featuring fun retroreflective apparel inspired by classic, sophisticated patterns, as well interesting geometric prints and fun shapes, designed to increase the visibility of cyclists and pedestrians in urban environments. They used reflective fabric and yarn in their casual clothing made in NYC. There is also LFLECT knitwear for the urban cyclist using reflective yarn.

Some haute couture designs push the boundaries of the burqa’s current form and function, like the garments by Louise Golden shown at London’s Fashion Week 2007.
Burqa_FashionShow_London
Designer, Lela Ahmadzai, explores a combination of elements from haute couture and traditional Afghan burqas (pleated chadri, synthetic material) in her project “Burka Meets Haute Couture” where she designed 10 wearable pieces.
haute_couture_burqas
A Norwegian fashion show presents a modern burqa collection made for the Norwegian culture and climate. These designers felt that the Norwegians oftentimes held negative attitudes towards the traditional black burqa due to the terrorvision in the news, and they wanted people in Norway to adopt a more positive view on this clothing.
Burkaberry & Jeans Burka
Norwegian fashion show

And even a bit more brightly-colored and flashy, here are two American patriotic burqas.
Two_Patriotic_Burqas

The “Charming Burka“, by Markus Kison, was showcased at “Seamless: Computational Couture”, hosted by MIT and Boston’s Museum of Science which featured wearable technology created by designers from around the world, including a fashion show and interactive exhibit between the audience and wearables. The Charming Burka allows the wearer to send an image of the wearer’s face (or any other body part) beneath the burka to the audience, via Bluetooth on a mobile phone. The bluetooth marketing solution is called Bluebot developed by Haase & Martin, a mobile marketing company in Dresden/Germany.

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NEXT STEPS

1) Gain a more holistic understanding of fabrics, clothing shapes, and forms, and study the process of wearable tech design. I talked to Despina Papadapoulos, and she provided wonderful advice about how to conceptualize this project. Continue to seek out experts in this field.
2) Research requirements, take a user-centered design approach and interview women who wear burqas about their behaviors, cultural norms and practices in burqa wearing. Iterate on conceptual designs.
3) Collect materials and fabric samples from Mood, Fabric Warehouse, or P&S Fabrics in Chinatown, also browse Materials ConneXion library, and place orders. Look at affordability.
4) Brush up on my sewing skillz!!!

Read more about my progress on this project in future blog posts:

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

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BACKGROUND ON VEILING

A burqa (full-body covering with veil over the eyes) is one of many types of outer-garments worn by Muslim women for religious and cultural reasons. The Afghan burqa, or chadri, is a special type of burqa where the rear cape is pleated. According to Islamic tradition, there is also the hijab (head covering, like scarf or wrap), jilbāb (long, flowing robe covering head to toe), niqāb (face veil where eyes are visible), and chādor (full-body open cloak held closed by hands in front). For more information and illustration of these types of head coverings and veils, see the end of my post.*

The burqa garment has a round embroidered cap on the top and long fabric extending out on all sides, like a long cape. The sides and back of the cape are pleated, allowing a gentle billowing in the wind as well as freedom of movement. The fabric in the front is decorated with embroidery which extends to the thighs, and there is a small mesh panel on the face for the eyes. Burqas used to be made of cotton or silk, but the traditional art of dying and pleating the flowing garments is disappearing as cottons are replaced by imported synthetics that do not lose their color or shape. Today, they are made of synthetic materials that can be manufactured in most every color of the spectrum.

In Arabic, the word “hijab” literally means curtain or cover. Hijab is also a noun, meaning Islamic modest dress. The religious and cultural interpretation of the word encompasses both the Islamic dress code referring to modesty, privacy, and morality, as well as the Quranic verse referring to a spatial curtain that divides and provides privacy between men and women. The customs of veiling and seclusion of women in Islamic societies are viewed as appropriate expressions of Quranic norms and values. For Muslim women who wear the burqa, modesty means covering their heads and necks, bosoms, arms, and legs by wearing a loose robe that is not form fitting to their bodies.

There is a diverse range of views on the wearing of the hijab in general across many countries, and in particular the niqab (face-veil) and burqa. In conservative Afghan families, a girl will start wearing a burqa in her early teens, when she hits puberty or physically looks like a woman. Conservative Afghans believe a woman should not be seen by men outside her family; it is a cultural matter of dignity and honor. Some women who wear the burqa say it gives them freedom from harassment by men on the streets as well as their families. They say they feel naked without it. Some choose the burqa as a form of protest against Western culture and clothes.

A woman puts on her burqa before leaving home and wears it whenever she is in public places. She sometimes pulls the front of the burqa back over her head, to reveal her face so she can see and breathe more freely, but if she passes a man, she will quickly pull the burqa down again to conceal her face.

The burqa has become the subject of lively contemporary debate, especially due to the fact that in some sectors of Muslim society the dress code has been strictly enforced by governmental and non-governmental morality police.

The Taliban regime, which came into power in 1996 and fell five years ago, required Afghan women to wear the burqa and to be accompanied by a male relative in public, however many Afghan women are still wearing the full-body garments today in Afghanistan, especially those who live in more conservative regions outside of the capital city of Kabul.

The burqa also remains ubiquitous in conservative regions inhabited by Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, and across the border in northwestern Pakistan. Afghan elders and academics say the burqa is believed to have come from northern Afghanistan or India, and spread across the country in the late 1800s. In the 20th century, King Amanullah Khan and Prime Minister Mohammad Daud both tried unsuccessfully at separate times to get rid of the burqa, but it has never gone away in the provinces and outside central Kabul. (Information courtesy of The Press Enterprise.com)

Cited Resources and Further Reading:
Behind The Veil, New York Times
What Not To Wear, Fashion Rules Begin to Change, New York Times
What The Headscarf Means When Everyone Wears One, New York Times

My husband and I own a great book on the subject of veiling, called Veiled Sentiments, by anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod. Chapter 4 discusses veiling in Bedouin society as a conscious act of modesty that is done both voluntarily and situationally. Another book to read about veiling is The Storyteller’s Daughter, by Saira Shah who made the documentary film “Beneath the Veil”.

Various Kinds of Islamic Head Coverings
hijab
al-amira_shayla
khimar_chador
niqab_burqa
Images and Information courtesy www.bbc.co.uk

I also found this educational poster about the different types of veils worn by Muslim women.


7 Responses to “Redesigning the Afghan Burqa”  

  1. 1 Chris Myers

    Wonderful work. I’m impressed with the integrity of this project as well as the artwork and history. Well done!

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  3. 3 Elizabeth Liechti

    Have you considered attempting to shape the headpiece of the burqa in some way that could accomodate eyeglasses?
    I wear burqa myself, and this is an issue for me. For me, contacts are not an option. Thankfully I can function without my glasses, so I just take them off, but sometimes having them on would be a big help (like reading labels in the grocery store!) I make my own burqa because it’s the only way I can get them made in cotton fabric for a reasonable price. I really appreciate the thoughtfullness and love you are investing in this project. It is such a welcome change from the usual reaction to the burqa.

  4. 4 suzkita

    Designing a way to accommodate glasses is a great suggestion. I hadn’t thought of that as of yet in the current design but you are right, it’s an important feature and it’s an interesting situation to consider looking through glass and fabric mesh at the same time. In my original prototyping, I had designed a headpiece using the retroreflective eye shield from ski goggles, like built-in sunglasses, sort of like a “sport” version of the headpiece, to protect women’s eyes against the UV light and bright sun. Thanks for your thoughts.

  5. 5 niewaznejak

    A very valuable contribution, thank you!

  6. 6 Elizabeth Liechti

    You might want to add small mesh panels in the ear area as well to improve hearing. This would depend on what I call the”rustle factor”. In my experiance some types of fabric, especially synthetics, can create quite a bit of noise when I’m walking or otherwise moving my head. This can be a problem when there’s already a lot of background noise, like a busy street or a crowded store. I should note that I have a bit of hearing loss in one ear, so background noise can be a bit more of a problem for me then it might be for others. I personally find that my own-made burqas made of a cotton-polyster blend don’t cause this problem, but this type of fabric might not be always available or appropriate.
    May I also suggest an alternative way of making the viewing panel: I have a store bought burqa that, instead of a woven mesh, simply has a pattern of holes punched right in the fabric. The edges of the holes are secured against fraying with a product called “Fray Block”. I suppose the holes could be secured with hand or machine stiching as well, though I personally don’t wish to spend time doing that! I find that this type of panel is comfortable and reasonably easy to see through. It also gets rid of the problem of eyelashes getting caught. (Which can happen with a woven eyecover.)
    And one more sewing tip: fusible gathering tape is a good and simpler way to pleat wide pieces of fabric.

  7. 7 Sick Of It All

    The only solution to the burqa problem is to burn all burqas. I can’t believe you’re a woman. Burqas are disgusting – they are oppressive and hateful and keep women in second-class citizenship. This site should be fighting the very existence of the burqa, not trying to find some practical way to improve it. There is no practical way to improve oppression!

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