In 1973 a young British couple, Veronica Doubleday and her ethnomusicologist husband John Baily, arrived in the city of Herat, western Afghanistan, where Baily planned to spend a year researching the local music tradition. They returned to Herat in 1976 for a further year. In between these two full years of residence, they made a shorter visit to a city whose music, people, and ambience had captivated them.
During her first year in Herat, Doubleday lived as ‘a lone woman in a public world of men’ she recalls in her classic Three Women of Herat. Originally published in 1988, the book has been republished recently in an updated edition.
She sometimes visited male musicians or attended musical events with Baily and at home she helped him work on the transcription and translation of Herati songs, with the help of a local schoolteacher who also gave them lessons in Persian (the Afghan version of Persian, Dari, is spoken in Herat). Doubleday also began studying miniature painting with a Herati master in his studio. But she had limited interactions with women at that time. When she and Baily were invited to houses, she sat and ate with the men, ‘nourished and refreshed by unseen hands. Trays of food were carried in by men and children; the women seated out of sight’. Sometimes she was taken to meet the women in their quarters. ‘In this way I cut through the curtain of purdah, no longer an honorary male visitor. Nevertheless, I found these early encounters with the women exhausting and even humiliating, as I was inevitably bombarded with questions and exposed to a mixture of delight, admiration and ridicule.’
In 1976, before the beginning of her final year in Herat, Doubleday decided to withdraw from public life and to explore the world of Herati women, ‘as by then I had become sufficiently attuned to make some close friendships’. Although men treated her with respect and courtesy, she began to feel self-conscious and out of place in their company. At the same time Doubleday had become increasingly interested in ethnomusicology and she realised she could make an invaluable contribution to Baily’s work if she undertook a complementary study of women’s music, which was completely inaccessible to him as a man. She found learning to perform Herati music enjoyable and challenging. She learned not only the style of singing but also to play the daireh – a frame drum similar to a tambourine, with bells and rings inside the frame, which is used to lay down rhythms for dancing or to accompany singing. ‘Herati voice production is also very different from our own, with a strained nasal quality. The vocal line is free and ornamented and texts are improvised from a bank of well-known quatrains.’
As part of her efforts to enter the women’s realm, Doubleday abandoned her study of miniature painting because it left her isolated at home or in the company of men in her teacher’s studio. Instead, she took up embroidery, a women’s art whose patterns were related to those in miniature painting. She realised that she needed to accept some of the limitations of purdah in order to penetrate the women’s milieu. ‘There was no point in feeling outraged by customs such as veiling, as this would have emphasised our differences rather than brought us closer.’ She refused to go as far as wearing the all-enveloping burqa however. She had once tried on a burqa ‘whose latticework window provided very limited vision and felt stifling’. Instead, she opted for an Iranian-style chador and had a seamstress make one from black Iranian cotton with a tiny flower print. ‘The reaction among Herati women was unanimous: the veil looked beautiful and they were pleased that I had adopted their custom. They had not liked my Western clothes – the fur boots, thick jumpers and jeans that I had worn throughout the freezing winter.’ However, she is ambivalent towards the veil. She writes: ‘adopting the veil was a far bigger step than I ever imagined: it took me right inside Herati psychology and affected me deeply. Ironically this symbol of oppression had liberating aspects for me, since it minimised the differences between me and the Afghan people.’ Wearing a veil in public also initiated an important and subtle change in her, ‘cultivating an aura of modesty and self-containment. It masked my foreignness, enabling me to join many women’s outings where I would otherwise have attracted undue attention, and it brought a welcome privacy. It was also fascinating and salutary to discover that being invisible is addictive.’