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On Wednesday, 20st May 2020, Willem Vogelsang wrote about an unusual type of face veil from nineteenth century Afghanistan:

Some weeks ago I wrote a short blog about a type of face veil that was worn in eastern Afghanistan by a slave woman from the Persian Gulf, around 1880. It was a battulah, the mask-type contraption that is sometimes called a Zorro mask and is still widely worn along both sides of the Gulf. I wrote about it mainly because it is so very different from the almost iconic, all-enveloping burqa type of veiling that by the late nineteenth century had become commonly worn by Afghan women and is still regarded by Muslim fundamentalists in the country as the age-old traditional, Islamically correct form of outside clothing for women.

Yet, the one-piece burqa as we know it today is probably a nineteenth century innovation introduced to the country from India, and, as it often goes, at first worn by the wives of well-to-do Afghans, and later adopted by their less fortunate sisters. During the early nineteenth century, the burqa as a one-piece garment replaced a set of garments, often also called a burqa, that consisted of a head cap, a face veil, and a body covering. This was until the early twentieth century still the normal set of clothing for a woman in Iran when going outside.

 “Cabul - Afghan and Kuzzilbash Ladies.” Coloured lithograph by Charles Haghe, after James Atkinson. Plate XIX in Hart 1843. Original size 25.5 x 38.5 cm.“Cabul - Afghan and Kuzzilbash Ladies.” Coloured lithograph by Charles Haghe, after James Atkinson. Plate XIX in Hart 1843. Original size 25.5 x 38.5 cm.

The burqa set is shown in a beautiful lithograph that was published in 1843 and is based on the work of James Atkinson (1780-1852), a medical doctor, artist, and Orientalist who accompanied the British army to Afghanistan during the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842). The lithograph shows a group of women, with four of them standing in the centre wearing their mainly white coloured, burqa set of clothing, with separate face veils.

Two of the women, standing to the left, wear a face veil, as part of their burqa set, that is dark coloured and apparently of a different material from the white veils worn by the other two women. The accompanying text tells that they were Qizilbash. “The dress of the Kuzzilbash females is, at home, similar to that of the Afghan sisters, but abroad they are distinguished by wearing a veil of black horse hair.”

The Qizilbash belonged to a class of people in Kabul (and beyond) that descended from immigrants that had arrived in the country in the mid-eighteenth century. They originated from northwestern Iran, which is still populated by a mainly Turkic (Azeri) speaking population. The men in that part of the country used to wear a characteristic red cap, hence their name (Qizil-bash, 'red head'). They were Shi'ites, different from the Afghans (Pashtuns), who were mainly Sunnites. In Kabul, most of the Qizilbash lived in a separate, walled quarter of the town, called Chendawol.

Atkinson's illustration shows that the Qizilbash women in Kabul were wearing a face veil that was very different from that worn by the other Afghans. The dark horse hair veils were worn in northwestern Iran in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and especially associated with the ruling (Turkic) classes (the same ethnic groups that formed the origins of the Qizilbash in Afghanistan). In Iran these veils were called pecheh. The same type of horse hair veil, with the same name, was worn in neighbouring Ottoman Turkey, also in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Horse hair veils were still worn in (Turkic) South Central Asia until the advent of the Soviets in the 1920s. The horse hair veils therefore appear to be a distinct Turkic feature. It is unlikely that the Shi’ite Qizilbash would adopt a horse hair veil from the Uzbeks in the north, who are Sunnites. Considering the origins of the Qizilbash, it is far more likely that the forebears of the Qizilbash in northwestern Iran brought the horse hair veil to Afghanistan, where their descendants continued to wear them until at least the mid-nineteenth century.

See also: Vogelsang-Eastwood, Gillian, and Willem Vogelsang, 2007. Covering the Moon. Face-Veils in the Middle East. Louvain: Peeters.

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