04/16/2013 02:49 EDT | Updated 06/15/2013 05:12 EDT

Afghan burka faces challenge on 2 fronts: western dress codes, Chinese imports

KABUL - The homespun Afghan burka is under siege from East and West these days — cut-price competition from China, and western influences that are leading many urban women to exchange the full-body cloak for a simple headscarf.

The decline is most noticeable in Kabul, the capital, where women began joining the workforce and adopting western dress soon after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that ousted the puritanical Taliban. Demand for burkas appears strongest in the provinces, where family pressures and the power of conservative warlords continue to enforce a stricter Islamic code.

Alim Nazery, who has traded in burkas in Kabul for 27 years, remembers selling at least 50 burkas a day when the Taliban were in charge. Now he says he sells 20 a day, mostly to women from the provinces.

On one wall of his store in the Old Town market hang Afghan-made burkas costing from 1,000 to 3,000 Afghanis (about $20-$60), and on the other wall Chinese-made robes for 500-800 Afghanis ($10-$15).

"We are selling more Chinese burkas because they are cheaper and people can buy more of them," Nazery said, taking a break from haggling with a burka-clad pregnant woman as her husband waited outside. Another woman emerged from a fitting room screened off by a row of burkas, asking for something with less embroidery.

In the countryside, where kidnapping and rape are a constant threat, a burka gives its wearer the safety of anonymity.

But in Kabul, say clothiers, demand is declining as young women go to school and take office jobs — pursuits that were impossible during the six years that the Taliban ran the country. But women's rights activists caution against reading too much into the burka situation.

They say it's the least of their problems as they continue to battle such issues as domestic violence and forced marriages.

"The current progress and the current achievements for Afghan women are very cosmetic and anything gained can be lost easily," said Selay Ghaffar, executive director of the Humanitarian Assistance for Women and Children of Afghanistan, a non-governmental group. She said she herself wears a burka when travelling in insecure areas.

"Freedom from ... the burka does not mean the real liberalization of women. I should have rights according to the law. I should be equally treated in the main society," she told The Associated Press.

The traditional burka is sewn from cloth produced in Afghanistan, the embroidery stitched by seamstresses and the cap made by hand to render each garment unique — a touch of individuality for women otherwise indistinguishable beneath the robes.

Colours vary by region — light blue in the Kabul area, white up north in Mazar-i-Sharif and brown and green in Kandahar down south.

Haj Hussain, a 75-year-old dyer, says his biggest business nowadays is colouring men's clothes. "We get fewer burkas," he said. The reason is that most women are now going around with bare faces ... it's not in fashion anymore."

He said he dyed 80 burkas a day during Taliban rule and now is down to 30.

There are no official statistics for burka sales.

China's entry into the market in recent years makes a dramatic change. Even Afghan manufacturers are buying material from China or Pakistan, in part because it's easier to pleat. Chinese burkas come pre-embroidered, leaving only the cap and veil in the hands of Afghan seamstresses.

"The Chinese have taken the market and there's much less business for handmade burkas. That means less work for many poor women," said Adila Sultani, a tailor in Mazar-i-Sharif.

Lal Mohammad Hemat, 58, who owns two burka stores in the northern city, said demand is rising there as security deteriorates, and he sells about 1,500 burkas per month. "But Chinese-made burkas have cut into the Afghan-made business by about 60 per cent," he said.

In the southern city of Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, store owners tell the same story: more sales, lower prices.

And if Mariam Ahmadi gets her way, the burka may eventually be in even bigger trouble.

She donned her first burka at 14 under family pressure. Now she can't imagine leaving home without it. But she hopes she never has to buy one for her eight-month-old daughter.

"Now things are getting modern and I don't want my daughter to wear the burka," Ahmadi said. "I want her to go to school and be educated."

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