March 14, 2017 Noorjahan Akbar 0Comment

Update: The restrictive uniforms suggested by the Ministry of Education for girls have been rejected. The suggested uniforms were impractical and included compulsory headscarves for girls in elementary schools. Because of our advocacy and the advocacy of other orgs and activists this has been halted and President Ashraf Ghani has spoken against it. Thank you all for the support and hard work. Let’s hope from now on the government will focus on real issues, not regulating girls’ bodies.

After months of deliberation and using the country’s funds to pay staff, the Ministry of Education of Afghanistan just released the design for new uniforms for school girls. There are more things wrong with it than we can list, but here is a start. Take a good look first. I think the only outfit that would be worse to impose would be a full-on burqa.

The previous uniform (black dresses and pants and white headscarves) was criticized for not being practical in hot weather, but it seems the new outfits are not practical for any weather. While the new design for elementary school students is knee-length, the dress for middle and high school is floor length. It is perfect for Afghanistan’s muddy, often-flooded, snowy and slippery streets and hills in the winter and even better for full coverage during the hellish summer. In addition, the elementary school outfits do not show if we should be covering our daughters’ legs with pants or not. Should they just come to school in their knee-length dresses sans pants? I am fine with that, but I don’t think that is what the government is going for.

Without admitting it, these outfits will force girls into wearing the Hejab. By doing so, they sexualize girls’ bodies and contribute to stigma and taboo around women’s bodies. These clothes are for school girls. They are children because they are under eighteen. If anyone has problems controlling their sexual urges around school children, their problems will not be solved by adding to the volume and length and coverage of the clothing of our children. Women and girls are perfectly capable of making their own decisions about their own bodies and outfits. In a country where the culture of abusing little boys is prevalent, sexual deviance is clearly not rooted in our clothing so how about instead of forcing Hejab on school girls, we implement laws that protect boys and girls from abuse and sexual violence?

While many sensible Afghans have taken to social media to express outrage at this ridiculous uniform, some have defended the decision by the Ministry by claiming these clothes represent Afghan culture. This is not true. There is no one Afghan culture. Afghanistan has many diverse cultures and none of the clothes designed and worn by Afghan women around the country are represented in this uniform. Women in many parts of the country don’t wear headscarves, but rather they wear colorful handmade hats. Can we add those to the uniforms? The cultural dress among Helmand nomads is different from that among Uzbekis in Faryab. Who gets to decide what is Afghan culture? What group of scholars studies “Afghan culture” and came up with this lifeless, colorless, walking-dead outfit? Equally important, will the boys’ uniform also be “inspired by Afghan culture” like the girls? In the past, while we have had to “protect the culture” by wearing headscarves, boys uniforms, which consist of pants and button-up shirts (super Afghan, clearly) have not even been enforced.

There is one more problem with these uniforms. With soaring unemployment, most Afghans can’t afford to buy new uniforms. Is the government willing to provide these for free? If not, do we have to choose between feeding ourselves and buying the hot new item? And if yes, couldn’t we think of better uses for that money?

The Ministry claims that these outfits are about bringing order to schools, doing away with black dresses, and making the clothes more practical- but these uniforms are nothing but a ploy to control girls’ clothing and shame and marginalize girls who don’t or won’t dress up like a “proper Afghan Muslim girl” as defined by the government. Call me crazy, but I believe a government that can’t secure its citizens life or ensure that children don’t die in the cold has no place defining what proper Muslim girls should look and dress like.

Perhaps the most devastating thing about this whole debacle is that the National Unity Government has used the country’s resources and funds to “work” on the design of this uniform for months while the people of the country are grappling with actual real-life problems. Here are three issues that the Ministry of Education should work on before attempting to enforce Hejabs on school girls:

  • The literacy rate among women in Afghanistan is still 16%. A worthy task for the Ministry of Education would be increasing access to literacy classes in remote areas so that we will no longer be the least educated country in the region.
  • Schools are constantly under attack and closed around the country. Perhaps securing our schools is more important than controlling how school girls’ dress, no?
  • In 2015, we learned that a large number of schools in Afghanistan don’t actually exist despite receiving funding. Eh, Minister, what do you think about looking into that instead of forcing little girls to cover their heads in elementary school?
  • Even with the most extremely liberal estimates, only 40% of students in Afghanistan are girls. Maybe we should get girls into schools before we tell them what to wear?
  • Anyone who has gone to school in Afghanistan, including myself, knows that our books are filled with spelling and grammar errors as well as factual errors. Can we make sure we are teaching girls how to spell before we shame them for not wearing “proper” uniforms?

If you agree that this uniform is unacceptable, join us in signing this petition. 

Noorjahan Akbar

Noorjahan Akbar is the founder of Free Women Writers. She loves reading and writing and like most Afghans, she is addicted to green tea.