Peshawar, Pakistan — At least 13 people have been killed in Peshawar, just under 100 miles from the capital city, Islamabad. Armed men disguised themselves in burqas, walked into a university and shot multiple people. Over 35 people were also wounded. Local law enforcement and military personnel responded and reportedly subdued and killed the militants. The section of the university was the Agricultural Training Institute.
I’ve lived and worked in a lot of different environments, from the towns and cities in rural Pakistan to the beaches of Tampa, Florida. The Ozarks of Northwest Arkansas is a lot different from the mountains of Afghanistan. In all of these places, people wear a variety of different things. I will say that people in Tampa are going to have a much more difficult time in concealing weapons than people with large, bulky coats in the more northern parts of the country. No one here is going to be sneaking rifles through with booty shorts and flip-flops.
Islamic culture generally requires its women to dress very conservatively, and this is an advantage many militants are acutely aware of—something I have observed several times in Afghanistan. The burqa is a perfect way to hide weapons. If you’re wearing a large coat, it still generally conforms to the contours of your body, but a burqa specifically drapes over every curve and indicator of the human body, making it very easy to put hide a rifle or a suicide vest underneath, let alone something small like a pistol or a couple of grenades.
There are ways to spot out someone disguised as such, but it can prove difficult unless you’re really paying attention. Men are generally taller than women, and there’s no legitimate reason you would see a man dressed in a burqa in places like Pakistan or Afghanistan, so seeing one is immediately suspect. Having a nearby frame of reference always helps—you can generally tell that someone is unusually tall if they’re standing next to a car, motorcycle or an average height window. This is more difficult if they’re just standing next to a tall wall or simply out in the open. Men are obviously more muscular and have a less feminine walk, but you can’t exactly rely on this as there are plenty of skinny men out there who walk in all sorts of different ways.
It is also uncommon to tailor burqas for normal sized men. While possible for a planned attack such as the recent one in Pakistan, most burqas are grabbed as disguises of opportunity and thereby don’t fit so well. I remember seeing hairy legs popping out below an obviously ill-fitted burqa when a man was trying to escape from a compound and thought we wouldn’t notice.
Now, if you have a woman militant in a burqa, that makes things infinitely more difficult. Without certain tools to discern what she’s carrying underneath, there is always a high level of risk here—risk that you can never entirely mitigate. Women aren’t so commonly trusted to be fighters in Islamic circles, but I’ve seen it before and I would imagine it will become more common in the future.
Featured image courtesy of the Associated Press