This morning I wake up late and have to rush to class. I dodge clumps of chatty women and veer wide to avoid a spreading amoeba of prospective students – teenage girls and boys in sleeveless tank tops, shorts and flip-flops, paying varying degrees of attention to their guide. I dance, left-right-left, with one of the disengaged-looking fathers before I stop, meet his eyes, and say, “You lead.” He smiles and steps aside to give me right-of-way.
Ahead I recognize the woman holding open the heavy metal gate for me, and I scoot through onto the public street. Her clothes are summer colorful. Our arms are free to hug each other, to wave goodbye.
My day is filled with this freedom of movement and unhindered choices: if I want to speak up in class, eat lunch outside with the sun on my face.
After dinner I hurry to the auditorium in search of our guest speaker, Masha. She and I find a private hallway where she holds a five-foot square of milky blue cloth. She gathers it in her hands toward the center – shaped like a pill-box hat and sized to fit over a small woman’s head – and holds it up for me.
Islamic women of hot, arid Afghanistan wear such a garment over their clothing. I expect it to be light, made from cotton or linen. I expect material that breathes, but the burqa is thick, for modesty, and slippery as chiffon.
Masha snugs the soft, fitted cloth to my head and lets the gathers fall below my knees. There is a net, the same milky blue, to look through. It is barely the width of my eyes.
I’ve lost my peripheral vision. I barely have any vision at all.
She says, “Did you know Afghan burqas are one-size-fits-all? All of them are this color.”
I feel as if she has said this from far away as I struggle to grasp the enormity of this information: All women. One size. One color.
I move my head and the burqa shifts. I tug the eye mask back into place so I can see out the hole; regardless, my entire world of vision has become a blind spot.
Masha asks, “Are you okay?”
She leaves me to begin her speech.
I strain to see through the lace grill, focusing on the door into the auditorium. I can’t see to walk. I tilt forward to peer at the floor, but the flowy sheet billows out and obscures my sight from that angle.
I look straight down inside the cage and realize this is my only unobstructed view. I see my feet, clad in flat, black shoes, my bright red toenail polish hidden like a dirty secret.
I step – peer up – focus through the mask – check down – step forward. Instead of two quick strides I’m reduced to barely a shuffle for fear of bumping into a wall, of tripping and falling. I reach for the door handle, but the fabric slides off my hand, and I can’t grab through it. I finger pinch the material into a handful, peer out, and try again. I’m successful, but I have to stop and tug the eye-way back into place.
Masha is speaking to the audience – hundreds of women and men, in their personally selected attire of scarves and dresses, shirts and slacks, in prints as varied as their personalities – listening to her read the poetry of Afghan women.
I picture the looks on their faces – perhaps annoyed at the rudeness of a latecomer arriving in the middle of our guest’s talk. Perhaps they shift in their seats when they see a person in the foreign garb of a milky blue drape that covers her like the sheet of a ghost.
I stand for a moment to gain my bearings. I’m cautious because I recall stairs ahead, but I can’t see them. I piece together a visual puzzle before each move.
In this halting, awkward fashion I reach an empty seat between two women, friends of mine who don’t know who I am.
© 2012 Jane Harkins. All rights reserved.