Burqas Made Into Evening Bags

02/04/2009 03:42 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

I was drawn to the evening bags the moment I entered the Zardozi booth at the New York International Gift Fair last week.

The booth was filled with lovely textiles --cushion covers, clothing -- but it was the purses that I just had to pick up and touch. They were delicate and graceful, a shiny fabric pleated into stiff pleats. A few were a hobo style, a slouchy crescent shape, and a couple were rectangular shape, with straps made of braided blue, pink, burgundy and white organza. Both styles are available in a certain shade of pale blue --and that's because they're made from re-purposed burqas. (Image of the bags and the burqas they come from here.)

Zardozi's full name is "Markets for Afghan Artisans", and its a nonprofit that that provides employment to 1,500 Afghani women, some working at home, some in refugee camps. Zardozi locates international markets for embroidered products provides women with materials, and pays them on completion of their work.

Last year, Zardozi attended the Market Readiness Program, a five day training program provided by Hartford-based nonprofit Aid to Artisans during the Gift Fair each year. Aid to Artisans aims to help turn low-income artisans in developing countries into successful entrepreneurs; the Market Readiness Program includes coaching with consultants on how how to transform an area's particular artistic tradition into a salable product either domestically, or abroad, focusing on the latest trends, color and style, the need to use green/sustainable products and so on. This year, Zardozi had its own booth at the fair for the first time. And it launched its line of burqa bags.

"We wanted to use more indigenous materials," Marilyn Garson, director of Zardozi, told me, when I asked how these bags came about. In Afghanistan, burqas are widely available, as fabric, unassembled or assembled.

Beyond the visual appeal of the evening bags, the whole notion of re-purposing an Afghani burqa as a evening wear accessory strikes me as delightfully cheeky. After all, the burqa is far more than just an item in the wardrobe, it's not worn not only as a matter of practicality, but as a symbol of religious belief: The burqa is interpreted by many Islamic scholars as a necessity to preserve a woman's modesty.

Women in Islamic countries cover to greater or lesser degrees, but the Afghani burqa seems the most...diligent? in protecting the wearers modesty, as even the Iranian chador leaves an opening for the eyes, while the Afghani burqa leaves nothing on the face exposed, the eyes are covered by netting or a grill.

It's the total covering of the face that I think bothers the American eye so much, since in our culture, this bespeaks of criminality, or of an executioner's hood --why cover a face if not to obscure identification or to blot out the view of a victim's face?

The Afghani burqa became a highly symbolic icon after 9/11, as images of Taliban controlled Afghanistan, with its streets dotted with pale blue burqa'd ghosts, anonymous, faceless women, imprisoned in a lack of individual identity, overlapped with the collapsing World Trade Center. The blue burqa was an important part of the visual argument for attacking Afghanistan and the war on terror that followed.

Re-purposing the burqa into the most frivolous of accessories, the evening bag, asks us take a step back from the symbolism, and to take to just take the burqa on its own for a moment. It is a lovely periwinkle blue, embroidered intricately at the cap and then again down the front. It is pleated at the back, and those crisp angles, joined witha soft rounded front, are not only an appealing a mix of textures, but also clearly a work of complicated craftsmanship.

I asked Marilyn whether people were drawn to the purses more because of their provenance as a burqa. She said that some were, and some asked "what's a Burqa?" She also said that earlier someone had looked at their sign that said "Markets for Afghan Artisans" and say, oh, you're in Africa."

She also said that in the US, several bridal shops have bought handbags to sell their customers. They're probably not making much of their burqa past. (Although, please note the irony that a wedding is the one time in US culture that women are veiled, and besides, I don't think that most women in their bride bubble would care much anyway. I'll never forget going with a friend to the enormous RK Bridal near Port Authority in New York City, which sells among every thing you can think of for a wedding, including cake tops. This was just when news about Abu Ghraib was breaking, and one of the caketops featured a groom on all fours in supplicant position, with his bride holding a leash connected to a chain around his neck. When I pointed out that it was an Abu Ghraib caketop to a group of ladies looking at the cake tops, I received totally blank stares, because nothing pierces the wedding fog. Nothing.)

While I was checking out the bags at the Zardozi booth, I mentioned that I didn't realize that that the burqas had quite so much pleating. Marilyn brought out a miniature burqa to show me how they're made. What I didn't realize until I got home and looked through Zardozi's catalog was that these miniature burqas are actually available for sale to: "cover your golf clubs, wine bottles, etc. with a detailed, hand embroidered miniature, available in blue, black, gold, green and white."

Burqas re-purposed as wine bottle covers? Talk about cheeky.