Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Afghan Wimbledon

Since Wimbledon is in full swing, I thought we'd do a little tennis-related post.  I love this picture, taken in 1928, of a group of royal women watching a game of tennis in Paghman, the pleasure gardens built on the edge of Kabul by the young monarch Amanullah.  During the 1920s, Amanullah had tennis courts built, and delighted in this most quintessentially English of all sports.  Exhibition matches would be played between him and his brother, with large crowds gathering to watch.      

Photos from this period are an extremely useful insight into veiling practices and 'the language of dress' in Afghanistan.  It is all too easy to see the blue burqa as somehow the 'traditional' dress of Afghanistan, something it absolutely isn't.

Our knowledge of veiling practices in Afghanistan remains extremely limited: who has worn what, where, and why remain questions almost completely unexplored across the different ethnic groups, socio-economic levels, and urban and rural areas of the country.  There has also been almost no sustained study of women in Afghanistan’s history, with the exception of Nasrine Gross’s history of the first women’s school, Malalai, written in Dari.

The cloche hats and tulle veils in this picture reveal a group of women determined to manipulate dress codes to their advantage: their hats signify an awareness of international fashions, while their diaphanous veils nod to the yashmak, prevalent at the time in Turkey and Egypt.  Beyond this, however, what their clothing is 'saying' is hard to pinpoint: is it a conservative gesture, a sign of emancipation, of their class-status, of their solidarity with each other, of their urbanity, their 'Western-ness', their fashion-consciousness?

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