Burqa ban: Where the feminists fail

Last Updated: Sun, Aug 28, 2016 11:05 hrs
Burqa ban

Even as women across the country celebrate the Supreme Court’s verdict permitting the entry of women into the interiors of the Haji Ali dargah, across the world, a movement has begun that sets us all many decades, if not centuries, ago.

I have been trying to understand, for a long time, why women would choose to wear the veil, in all its forms, ranging from the ghoongat to the various kinds of Islamic veils. It troubles me particularly to see young, educated Muslim women embrace the burqa, which is steeped in patriarchal prejudice. What could make feminists reclaim the burqa as an exercise in choice (and this happened even before French policemen made a woman remove her burqa in public for flouting the law)?

It is the belief of many non-Muslim female friends of mine that when a woman is aware of her rights and chooses to wear a burqa of her own volition, she should not be questioned. My Muslim female friends and acquaintances fall into two categories – those who abhor the burqa, and those who wear it. The former are usually culturally Muslim, and have gradually veered towards their versions of individual faith, sometimes even atheism. I do know some who transitioned from wearing the hijab to rejecting it and all its connotations. Men, both Muslim and non-Muslim, are hesitant to vocalise their thoughts, because to voice an opinion as a man on what appears to be women’s business is to flirt with political incorrectness.

It is not my intention to hurt anyone who wears the burqa, but it is my intention to question them – what could make anyone wear a garment that essentially speaks to the ‘modesty’ of a woman, and pins the blame on her for the desire she may incite in men? 

I have never found satisfactory answers to these two questions – (a) What would push someone to make a choice to wear a garment with such a disgusting origin? (b) Why would hijabis, who by making this choice subscribe to certain notions of ‘modesty’-aka-acquiescence-in-assuming-the-blame-for-attracting-men-and-promising-to-stop, wear makeup?

About ten years ago, I had done a story on women who wore the hijab, and a young lady I met spoke to me of how she is making a statement against being objectified – wearing a veil, she feels she is respected for who she is, and not how she looks. The implication is that a woman who allows her hair to flow over her shoulders, who wears clothes that make her feel sexy, is justifying objectification. The implication is that this woman will be judged for how she looks, and not who she is. 

Hair has been vilified in several cultures, dating back to ancient history. Women are taught to tame their hair and confine it with clips and braids and rubber bands, just as they are taught to keep their legs together and eyes down. Across the world, hair is seen as a symbol of sexuality, and most religions demand that their proponents hide theirs behind veils and headgear. Several places of worship insist that their visitors cover their heads.

I decided I would never cover my head or go to a place that required me to do so when I was once shamed at a gurdwara in Delhi, where the breeze blew my dupatta partially off my head, and a gentleman decided to rail against me for not noticing. Why was my hair so offensive to him? And why did being in a place of communion with his god make him incapable of civility? Is hair so evil that it must be shunned by the holy?

The veil has a draconian history. In Europe, it reinforced class at one point in history – noblewomen were allowed to wear it, commoners were not – and subservience to one’s lord and master at another (discarding the veil was a symbol of divorce). In the Abrahamic religions as well as those that are broadly related to Hinduism – Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism – the veil is tied to modesty. Contrast this with male headdresses, which traditionally served a pragmatic purpose – protection from heat and dust, or disguise or identity, for fighters. 

Yet, with opposition to the veil being increasingly viewed as a sign of Islamophobia, the rational and the progressive and the liberal have begun to reclaim it and even view it as a sign of revolution. This is a dangerous trend.

When I bring this up, I’m usually asked whether I think the French police were right to make a woman remove her burqa. My argument is that I would like to ask her why she was wearing it in the first place. Countries make laws, and each law offends some of us, delights others, and leaves some indifferent. Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and a handful of other countries insist that all women, citizens or otherwise, wear some kind of head and body covering. France, some parts of Spain, and a handful of other countries, insist that they don’t. The latter would make me very happy if it were extended to all veils, from those worn by Hasidic Jews to those worn by Catholic nuns.

The ban and humiliating enforcement of the ban have been counterproductive in that they have tied opposition to the veil to Islamophobia.

Now is not a time to take sides. It is a time to introspect before women the world over end up taking pride in a garment that is even more humiliating than the police action.

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Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage.