When you hear burka, you think Afghanistan, Islam and the blue burka: the body, head and face covering for Muslim women (with a mesh rectangle in front of the eyes). In reality, you can come across a blue burqa-chadari in other parts of the planet, mainly in Pakistan, India, Iran and more occasionally in the Middle-East.

Burkas also exist in different colours… and religions. But here we talk about the Afghan blue burka.

The garment, which mainly aims at protecting a lady’s modesty and privacy, is unpractical – it restricts the vision, impedes the ability to walk and is suffocating under hot climates – hence the burka being fairly unpopular among the Muslim population worldwide.

In the Western world, it stands for a symbol of gender inequality and female repression, and is banned for security reasons in many European countries such as Italy, Switzerland, France or the Netherlands, for it conceals the identity.

To the outside eye, these ‘ghostly’ blue burkas trigger many debates and interrogations. Where does this clothing come from? And… why blue?

Anything Blue Review – the origin of the blue burka
Cover photo credits: Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images
Why the burka?

Before the Talibans took over Afghanistan (1992-1996), there were barely any burka to be seen in the streets of Kabul. The general enforcement of the chadari started 20 years ago, as the Soviet repression disappeared, replaced by a nationalistic and religious fever.

It was time to resuscitate traditions – or forge new ones. The Afghan unity was rekindled over the common religion, Islam (99%), but also over the ‘honour code’ of the leading minority, the Pashtuns, very protective of the women’s reputation: the pre-Islamic Pashtunwali.

As a result, the trend was to exceed the traditional modesty-related expectations: women were required to hide their entire body and face in public places. Rebellious women who would refuse to wear the burka were severely punished, sometimes beaten to death. Precautious women keep wearing burkas in Kabul today, for safety reasons.


Story of the blue burka - Anything Blue

The blue burkas, ‘shuttlecocks’, can be difficult to hold into place while walking – picture from the blog “Afghanistan on my mind” (source below)



Why blue?

Why are these burka blue?

There seems to be not one, but many reasons that can been pushed forward to explain why the burkas are blue.

First of all, not all the burkas are blue. Originally, the colour revealed a geographical origin. Burkas were blue in Kabul area, white in the North of Afghanistan (around Mazar-i-Sharif) and green in the South (around Kandahar).

Then, Afghanistan is under the double influence of the Middle-Eastern and the Asian cultures.

According to blogger Suzanne Kirkpatrick, the choice for the colour blue is mainly linked to Islamic traditions. Pashtuns are Muslims (Sunni), and in the Koran, while green is the divine colour, blue is the colour of protection, used to ward off the evil eye. For this reason, there are many blue mosques in the world – in Egypt, Iran, Malaysia, the most famous being the Blue Mosque of Istanbul in Turkey.

Moreover,  blue and green are not only neighbouring colours on the spectrum, but they are actually considered the same colour in Asia (named by the same word in ancient Chinese or Japanese).


Story of the Blue Burqa  - Anything Blue

Iconic National Geographic cover picture of Sharbat Gula, the green-eyed Pashtun girl (June 1985)



Is blue the second best colour of choice in Islam? Or could it be for another reason, that blue is the favourite colour worldwide?

According to Catherine Cartwright-Jones, a PhD researcher and author of a thesis about the burka, the main reason why Pashtun burkas are blue is… fashion. Her study, ‘The Burqa as Signifier in Context’, argues that wearing a burka is mostly a choice, not a constraint. She also reminds that similar versions of full-face covering garments were worn by Catholic, Hindu, or Jewish women in the past… If so, given that blue is the favourite colour in the world, maybe that’s the reason why so many cotton, silk and synthetic burkas are blue?

Be that as it may, it looks like a burka’s colour has a new meaning today.


Blue vs black: Blue for the past, black for modernity

Is the blue burka about to disappear?

In ‘The difference between black and blue’ published in April 2014, blogger Mahnoor Sherazee explains that the new generation of Afghani and Pakistani women is pushing to adopt black burkas: ‘The difference between many Pakhtun mothers and their daughters today is that of black versus blue’.

Black burkas, with a cut-out for the eyes (also called niqab), are made of different pieces of clothing (a top, a bottom and a head piece, with sometimes an eyes-veil). More practical and more popular than the blue version, they are also more fashionable – an argument that seem to overweight many others today.

So Bye-bye, blue burkas? Maybe, but not on the ground of women’s emancipation. Now that the burka ‘tradition’ is widespread, the new generation of Muslim women is attached to modesty and privacy, their way: with a spice of modernity and fashion.

In other words, in Kabul and Peshawar, black is the new blue.


Story of the Blue Burka  - Anything Blue

In Afghanistan and Pakistan, black is the new blue – picture from dawn.com


Sources: Muslims around the world don’t support the burqa, study finds, Huffington Post, Sept 1st, 2014

The Pashtun Society website

 Suz@itp: ‘Burqa, why blue?’ March 14th, 2011, by Suzanne Kirkpatrick

Dawn.com: ‘The difference between black and blue’, April 2014, by Mahnoor Sherazee

Afghanistan on my mind: ‘The Burqa in Afghanistan’, July 11th, 2011, by Ruth Riv

The Burqa as Signifier in Context, by Catherine Cartwright-Jones