04.16.1311:53 AM ET

Bye-Bye To Burqas?

Sales declining in Afghan cities as urban women show preference for headscarves.

The Taliban’s decline in Kabul was good for almost everyone—other than burqa merchants and dyers. Their sales are down more than 60 percent. After the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, and the Taliban’s subsequent expulsion, women slowly began to enter the work force, dressing in a more “Western” style. The trend marked a shift in the fashion choices of working women, most of whom abandoned the burqa in favor of the head scarf, reports The New York Times. Although the burqa market has taken a serious blow in Kabul, the garments are still popular in the provinces, where women generally do not work, and anonymity is imperative. In the countryside regions of Afghanistan, crime directed at women—namely rape and kidnapping—is rampant. The burqa, with its power to obscure the body, is as much safety precaution as a religious obedience.

Where burqas are still popular, demand for Chinese-made versions has also soared. Traditional burqas, sewn from Afghan-produced cloth, with embroidery stitched by Afghan seamstresses, generally sell between $20 and $60, while the Chinese-made robes sell between $10 and $15. Because sales of Chinese products are so much higher, Afghan seamstresses—often very poor—are being pushed out of jobs.

It would seem that the shift away from burqas in Kabul is an encouraging step for women throughout Afghanistan; however, women’s rights activists are hesitant to rejoice. Selay Gaffar, executive director of the Humanitarian Assistance for Women and Children of Afghanistan (HAWACA), says, “Freedom from ... the burqa does not mean the real liberalization of women. I should have rights according to the law. I should be equally treated in the main society.”