Some weeks ago TIME magazine published a photo essay featuring the faces of Afghan women. The women had only recently been liberated from the Taliban by the combined efforts of the Northern Alliance and the United States Air Force. Finally they were free to take off their burqas, the long, dark veils that had masked their identity under the guise of true religion. The photographs lifted the veil to uncover faces that were fresh and jubilant, defiantly beautiful.
I have seen burqas before. Occasionally one sees them in Philadelphia-on the street, by the bus stop, at the shopping market. According to the strictest interpretation of Islamic law, or Shari’a, a woman’s burqa is required to cover not only her face, but her whole body from head to toe. The only part of the garment that is open is the thick mesh that permits a woman to breathe and to a certain extent to see, but not to be seen.
I have generally looked at burqas as something of a curiosity. They seemed strange, but essentially harmless—a different way to dress. It had not occurred to me until seeing the photos from Afghanistan how dangerous they are, that in fact they are deeply destructive of human personhood.
The burqa is a sign of the extreme evil of Islamic extremism. For the past five years, women in Kabul and elsewhere have been forbidden to show their faces in public. Imagine going for half a decade without anyone seeing you, and therefore without knowing you in one of the most intimate ways that you can be known: by face. To be prevented from knowing and being known in this way is an assault on human dignity and community.
Perhaps some Muslims would respond by saying that many women choose to wear burqas. I doubt whether this is true. According to one secret survey, as many as ninety-five percent of Afghan women would prefer not to wear a burqa. But even if some women choose to wear them, it makes the situation all the sadder because it means that oppression has penetrated the whole structure of Afghan society.
By attempting to blot out women’s faces, the Taliban has attempted to deny their individuality. For the past five years many women have been under virtual house arrest. Some do not own burqas, and thus have been prevented from leaving their homes. Even worse, the burqa has created a climate in which other, more severe forms of oppression have become common. Afghan women have been denied education. They have virtually no access to health care. And if they violate Islamic law, they are subject to physical punishment in the form of public beatings.
All of this degradation comes from a real hatred against women. Naturally, it has had a profoundly negative effect on the physical, emotional, and spiritual welfare of Afghan women. Now we are also hearing reports of Taliban soldiers routinely engaging in rape and other acts of violence against women. None of this is surprising; it is simply the burqa taken to its logical extreme.
No wonder some women tore off their veils and danced in the streets when the Taliban left Kabul. One can only imagine the joy that they now experience in seeing and being seen face to face. One woman said, “When I heard the Taliban was finished I rejoiced beyond measure… . Now I see the sunlight and it’s so beautiful.”
The burqa is not only an offense against humanity, but also a crime against God, who made women in his image (Gen. 1:27). God’s true intention is for us to honor his image by seeing and knowing one another face to face. This is true in all our relationships. It is true professionally. Anyone who wants to get anywhere in business or politics needs “face time”—personal interaction with people of power and influence.
Face time is especially important in the family. The joy of marriage is having someone to live with face to face, a lover and a friend. This is the same way that parents know their children: face to face. I once read that on average American children spend less than three minutes a day face-to-face with their fathers. Ever since learning that sad fact I have made it a special point not simply to spend time with my children, but also whenever possible to look them in the eye. This is how a father knows his children: by studying the subtle changes in their countenance. And this is how children know their father: by gazing upon his face, where they see the sternness of his rebuke and the tenderness of his love.
To know someone face-to-face is to know that person with true intimacy. That is why it is so amazing that God offers us such knowledge of himself. “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror,” the Scripture says; “then we shall see face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12a).
This is among the most precious of all God’s promises. There is something metaphoric about it, of course, but we should not dismiss its literal dimension. The Bible promises that one day we will see God’s face (see Matt. 5:8; Rev. 22:4). We believe that Jesus rose again, bodily, and that therefore he retains his human nature in physical form. Thus when we get to heaven we will be able to gaze upon his very face. God has promised to give us the light of the knowledge of his glory in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6). Theologians call this the “beatific vision.” If only we knew our heart’s true desire, we would know that his face is the one we have been looking for all these years. And we would know that seeing Jesus, face to face, will satisfy all our deepest longings.
[Information for this Window on the World comes from various articles in TIME, Newsweek, and from the Physicians for Human Rights web page, as gathered by my personal assistant, Patricia Russell.]
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