For a little over a week, the media has been chasing down A R Rahman and his daughter Khatija for their responses to writer Taslima Nasreen’s tweet about Khatija choosing to wear a burkha.
Both their reactions and the adjectives the media has been using—referring to Nasreen’s tweet as “vicious” and the Rahmans’ retorts as “befitting”, for instance—raise troubling questions that one is often nervous to address.
The controversy began when Nasreen posted a picture of Khatija and said she felt suffocated to see her in the robe. She added: “It is really depressing to learn that even educated women in a cultural family can get brainwashed very easily.”
Khatija reacted with a sarcastic post on Instagram, asking Nasreen to “get some air” if she felt suffocated. She indicated that she saw it as “feminist” to make any choice—even wearing a burkha.
Nasreen did err in putting out a personal photograph without permission. She also used a strong term, “brainwashed”. That has been interpreted as putting the onus on Rahman himself, and people have reacted to Nasreen purportedly alleging that he is guilty of “brainwashing” his daughter.
It is typical of the world to blame conservatism on parents, and particularly the fathers, just as it is typical of the world to hold women responsible for raising their children “right”. Men, for their part, are charged with making their children, particularly their daughters, feel secure and independent.
But it is interesting to note Nasreen’s take on the burkha issue, in the context of all that the writer has been through for her work.
The burkha is not simply a style statement. It is not a religious garment, since the Quran does not mention anywhere that a woman must wear a burkha – or, for that matter, that a man should not wear one.
Clothes do make statements about one’s personality, even if they do not necessarily do so about one’s life choices. A miniskirt or a figure-hugging dress could indicate that a woman has confidence in herself, or is trying to find it; it could indicate that she does not feel she must hide her body to protect herself. Perhaps it is that confidence that some people find provocative and react by shaming the women and accusing them of “asking for it”.
Everyone who wears the burkha must be aware that the garment makes its own statement—it is acceptance of the idea that the onus is on women not to tempt men; that the onus is on women to protect themselves by hiding their faces and bodies.
In her Instagram post, which was also shared by A R Rahman, Khatija said, “There’s so much happening in this country and all people are concerned about is the piece of attire a woman wants to wear.”
It is not simply “a piece of attire” and it has much significance in the context of what is happening in the country at this moment.
The fact that Khatija said she felt “empowered” by the burkha is troubling.
The Shaheen Bagh protests have made the burkha a symbol of woman power.
The women at Shaheen Bagh may be Muslim, but the burkha should not signify Islam or Muslim women, and certainly not their empowerment. There are Muslim women across the world, who do identify as theists but do not wear the burkha. There are women across the world who are forced to wear the burkha by law or by family.
What I find even more troubling is A R Rahman’s interview from a few days ago, in which he said his daughter “finds her freedom” in wearing a burkha. He added that it is, in his view, not so much “a religious thing” as “a psychological thing”.
He said the “Ahimsa” song going viral had turned an “introverted” girl into an overnight sensation, receiving “good and bad” messages from everyone, which had prompted her to “shut off”.
This is very different from Khatija’s own perspective, which has been focused on women’s choices and the fact that a woman does not need her face or body “validated” by a man.
But not wearing a burkha does not amount to asking for validation.
Rahman’s response to the burkha issue has highlighted the lack of privacy to which celebrities and their children are subject. He joked that he would wear a burkha too if he could because it would be easy to shop and “find steady life” with the anonymity it affords.
This suggests that the burkha, rather than “empowering” someone, allows them to hide, and the fact that someone has been inundated with so much attention she would want to hide behind her clothes is something the media and the public need to address.
As for women making choices that would please the conservatives, yes, they do have the freedom to make their choices. But they must also take responsibility for the message they are sending out, both to other women and to men.
More Columns by Nandini Krishnan:
Nobel for economist, tailspin for economy
Why the Diaspora has so much love to give
Hindi debate: We are all obsessed with homogeneity
We are choking the earth
When Kamal Haasan endorsed harassment
The Dalai Lama and the death of humour
The delusionary Indian intellectual
India's culture of worship has to end
Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com