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An Afghan woman holds her newborn baby wrapped in her burqa as she waits to get in line to try on a new burqa in a shop in Kabul.

Afghan burqa under siege

Western mores, Chinese imports testing tradition

Associated Press photos
An Afghan woman peers through the eye slit of her burqa in the old section of Kabul. The demand for burqas is declining as more young women go to school and take office jobs.

– The homespun Afghan burqa is under pressure from East and West these days – cut-price competition from China, and Western influences that are leading many urban women to exchange the full-body cloak for a simple headscarf.

The decline is most noticeable in Kabul, the capital, where women began joining the workforce and adopting Western dress soon after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that ousted the puritanical Taliban. Demand for burqas appears strongest in the provinces, where family pressures and the power of conservative warlords continue to enforce a stricter Islamic code.

Alim Nazery, who has traded in burqas in Kabul for 27 years, remembers selling at least 50 burqas a day when the Taliban were in charge. Now he says he sells 20 a day, mostly to women from the provinces.

On one wall of his store in the Old Town market hang Afghan-made burqas costing from 1,000 to 3,000 Afghanis ($20 to $60), and on the other wall Chinese-made robes for 500-800 Afghanis ($10 to $15).

“We are selling more Chinese burqas because they are cheaper and people can buy more of them,” Nazery said, taking a break from haggling with a burqa-clad pregnant woman as her husband waited outside. Another woman emerged from a fitting room, asking for something with less embroidery.

In the countryside, where abduction and rape are a constant threat, a burqa gives its wearer the safety of anonymity. But in Kabul, say clothiers, demand is declining as young women go to school and take office jobs – pursuits that were impossible during the five years that the Taliban ran the country.

But women’s rights activists caution against reading too much into the situation. They say it’s the least of their problems as they continue to battle such issues as domestic violence and forced marriages.

“The current progress and the current achievements for Afghan women are very cosmetic, and anything gained can be lost easily,” said Selay Ghaffar of the Humanitarian Assistance for Women and Children of Afghanistan. She said she herself wears a burqa when traveling in insecure areas.

“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.”