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KABUL (Reuters) - Nine years after the fall of the Taliban, burqas are still common in Afghanistan. But the head-to-toe veil deplored by feminists also allows some Western women to see another part of the ultra-conservative country.
Keen to reach remote communities while avoiding reprisals by Afghan insurgents, American human rights lawyer Erica Gaston says she dons the Islamist garb for visits to the "extremely unsafe" regions of Kandahar, Wardak and Kunduz. A British charity worker in southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban are bloodily resurgent, also regularly opts for the burqa. Hers is olive-green, rather than the more ubiquitous sky-blue, in what she describes as a nod to local style.
Keeping up the guise is hard. Though burqas are designed to ward off the scrutiny of a heavily patriarchal culture, some things can betray the unaccustomed wearer -- to Afghan women, at least.
The fact that insurgents have occasionally cloaked themselves in burqas to ambush foreign forces suggests the country's security personnel might consider tighter inspections. A dire shortage of female police means women are frequently waved through checkpoints.
"There's a whole bearing that goes along with it, a way of walking, that's hard to learn," says the Briton, who could not be identified by name, of the burqa. >
By her account, the difference is largely in the demure deportment of Afghans kept from girlhood on society's sidelines. Westerners are also less prepared for the annoyance of the elastic lining with which the burqa clings to the head, or for the heat exhaustion that comes from wearing the enveloping nylon or polyester along with wrist-to-ankle clothing underneath.
And try taking notes or drinking chai -- let alone operating a laptop computer -- when your arms are swaddled out of sight. "My bearing, the set of my shoulders, just aren't right for it," the Briton says.
American Gaston similarly complains about difficulty in getting her gait "right" while wearing a burqa. She gives another reason: the eye-slit, with its filigree grill, hurts peripheral vision and depth of focus. "It was extremely difficult to see out of it -- we're talking zero visibility -- though not as difficult to walk as I had imagined," Gaston says.
"But I don't even pretend I could get all the nuances of this, so I try to walk as little as possible when in burqa."
Some Afghan women in burqas try to incorporate a risque streak. In Kabul, the burqa's front hem often ends at waist level, allowing for a modest glimpse of silk pantaloon or elegant, slim sandals. But foreigners have to think twice about showing even that little skin.
"My natural coloring is fairer than the average Afghan, though certainly not an impossible shade given the natural diversity of Afghans. But it's a bit too pink, making it clear I'm caucasian if one looked closely at my feet," Gaston says.
An Afghan colleague's offer to dye her exposed skin with henna was declined. "I did wear different shoes than I normally would, though," Gaston says.
The vast majority of Western women in Afghanistan make do with a headscarf for modesty's sake, and in Kabul the wearing of burqas by locals appears to be slowly on the wane.
Editing by David Fox and Miral Fahmy