The Shoe Project


Shoe Story 36: Sealed Envelope
by Sayara Sadri


Sealed Envelope


It is only a loose-fitting, head-to-toe shroud made of translucent fabric, but it disguised a most sublime and oppressed creature of God: an Afghan woman.

To me, my mother’s burqa looked like a prison allowing her to see the sunlight only through a narrow window. Like a prisoner, she could breathe in fresh air only through the space between the threads of the cloth. It was like a decorated, medieval cage. The head part was shaped like a judge’s gavel, and it did the same thing. It strictly enforced conservative laws that deny women their human rights.

The back part was pleated, with each pleat telling a story of hardship, war and violence—a story like my mom’s.  She stood up on behalf of my ailing father and faced my uncles in court to save our family’s property, including the house in which we were living. For my mother, who was a teacher and a mother of eight children, taking on this legal challenge was almost impossible, even though our family was quite well off.

My mother’s struggles began the day she dared to confront  the outside world—a world where girls are still commodities to be bartered to settle family disputes, and a man who kills his wife can expect only a fine.  It seemed futile for my mother to fight such a case in a male-dominated country where women have no right to raise their voices. She risked retaliation at each step because women were rarely seen in any courtroom—unless they had committed a crime. Nevertheless, my mother withstood the harassment from the community.  In the eyes of our neighbours, she was immoral simply because she was a woman who raised her voice to men. To shield herself and our family’s reputation, she decided to put a third layer on top of her clothes.  She wore the burqa by choice. It was not imposed by anyone.

Although sealing herself in this suffocating envelope provided her an image of modesty and saved her in many ways, underneath this garment, she felt worse than if she were being hanged from a noose. Every day in that courtroom in summer, she struggled to tolerate it. Breathing was difficult. In the dead of winter, she could hardly see through the mesh, making her likely to slip on the snow or mud.  She suffered severe, chronic headaches.

Appearing in court in the burqa filled my mother with grief, since she could see the people judging her. As a woman, she had to go through a special investigation to prove her relationship to my father. She had to present her ID card, passport and sufficient documents. To humiliate her, the court required her to uncover her face to make sure she was the right person. However, when it came to my uncles, nobody bothered to even ask their proper names.

But the worst was yet to come. One day my mom came home all in tears, trembling, and wrapping her burqa around herself to avoid facing anyone.  Her second-hand sandals had not been able to take all the trips back and forth, and the straps had given out on her way to the court.  Her feet were burning from the hot pavement, so she wrapped them in plastic bags she had found scattered on the road. Small children were trailing behind and taunting her, shouting, “Crazy woman!”

Miraculously, my mother won the case. That was the good part. But life became much more treacherous and challenging for the whole family, as we had to deal with my uncles’ constant verbal abuse, physical beatings and death threats.  For our safety, we were compelled to leave our country.

Upon my mother’s arrival in Canada, when I was helping her unpack her suitcase, I was surprised to find her burqa. Through tears, she explained that during those days in court, it had actually become her companion, a witness to her harsh life in Afghanistan and a symbol of her defiant struggle.


SAYARA SADRI was born in Afghanistan and lived in neighbouring Tajikistan as a refugee. Since arriving in Canada in 2008 she has worked at Toronto’s Afghan Women's Centre and earned a paralegal license.

More Shoe Stories from Session 4, Toronto

36:  Sealed Envelope

37: Pinky

38: I Missed the Bus and Survived

39: The Scent

40: Time to Grow Up

41: First Winter Boots

42: Ode to the Flip-Flop

43: Garage Sale

44: Being an Immigrant

45: Fill My Shoes…and My Heart

46: Verka the Lame


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