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The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress
presents the Benjamin Botkin Folklife Lecture Series

Afghan Women's Stories:
The Problematics of Cover

Presented by Margaret Mills

2007 Botkin Lecture Flyer for Margaret Mills

Afghan women in burkas have become iconic representations of women’s oppression in western media. The relentless use of titles for books, articles and media representations, alluding somehow to veiling and “lifting the veil” from this or that, with respect to Middle Eastern cultures in general, should be ripe for parody by now, were it not so earnest a manifestation of our deep-seated orientalist preoccupation with gaze. Westerners have their own preoccupations with visual access and its meanings, reflective of our ideas about bodily privacy and self-determination. The right or opportunity to appear in public as an object of aesthetic admiration (and also of sexual desire) is implicitly and explicitly construed in much of the West as a form of social freedom, of power and worth in western consumer culture, most overtly so in fashion and public artistic performance.

Standards for and constraints on women’s dress (“modest dress”) and public appearance vary in degree and kind across Muslim societies, but are generally construed as protective of women’s personal dignity and worth, and of their safety from sexual exploitation, whether from unwanted gaze, commodification, or physical assault. Adherence to modest dress standards, however they are understood and/or contested locally, is also viewed as a woman’s personal statement of moral responsibility and/or religious piety.

The “liberation” of Afghan women from veiling and what westerners perceived as its damaging effects was one loudly voiced, early rationale for the post-9/11 American invasion of Afghanistan. This is not to discount the all-too real, draconian, socially and psychologically disastrous impact of Taliban interpretation of “Muslim” and “Afghan” constraints on women’s public life, including women’s removal from public workplaces (and from access to income), education and access to health facilities. But a representation of this abuse that focuses on veiling is critiqued in various ways by many Afghan women. The most common observation by Afghan women activists is that we westerners should “get over it”, that the burka, hot, uncomfortable and inconvenient as it is, is certainly not their most pressing problem. Physical and economic security, access to health resources, and education are the needs they cite first, conjoined with self-determination against such practices as forced and child marriage. And all these rights, they point out, can be made accessible with or without a burka or other locally accepted form of modest dress. The full-body veil itself has even proved useful at times as an enabling device to preserve women’s mobility and anonymity under circumstances of surveillance or constraint.

This talk, illustrated with Afghan women’s folktales and some of their personal reminiscences about the use and misuse of cover, both imaginary and actual, will explore how Afghan women understand and strategize around constraints on their public presence and social authority. We will use these observations to reflect on certain recent mismanaged representations of Afghan women and families in global media and their repercussions for the women so represented. Two recent documentary accounts that take western readers “behind the veil” of family and professional Afghan women’s lives, Asne Seierstad’s The Bookseller of Kabul and Deborah Rodriguez’s Kabul Beauty School, illustrate how accounts of Afghan women’s experience, geared for western audiences and received with enthusiasm in the global media and international readership, can have unanticipated destructive consequences for the Afghan women whose experiences and initiatives they undertake to publicize and support. Our discussion will then turn to the problematics of achieving socially constructive, progressive international representation of oppressed groups.

Margaret Mills was raised in Seattle and educated at Harvard, where she developed her lifelong interest in Persian-language oral narrative under the tutelage of Albert Lord and Annemarie Schimmel. She has taught ethnographic field research methodology in the U.S., Bangladesh, India and Tajikistan, has done research on schooling and foodways in Pakistan, on everyday ethical speech in Tajikistan, and continues her work on Afghan oral narrative, both fiction and oral history. Her previous publications include Rhetorics and Politics in Afghan Traditional Storytelling (1991) and she coedited South Asian Folklore: An Encyclopedia (2003) with Peter Claus and Sarah Diamond. She has a book project underway, presenting the oral history of an Afg han family as well as a monograph on tricksters and gender in Persian-language oral tradition. Dr. Mills recently completed a term of service as the Chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at Ohio State University.

AFC logoThe American Folklife Center was created by Congress in 1976 and placed at the Library of Congress to “preserve and present American Folklife” through programs of research, documentation, archival preservation, reference service, live performance, exhibition, public programs, and training. The Center includes the American Folklife Center Archive of Folk Culture, which was established in 1928 and is now one of the largest collections of ethnographic material from the United States and around the world. Please Visit our web site at

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  October 2, 2008
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