Burqa to the bindi: mind your own business

I was travelling in a Bombay local one summer many years ago along with a chatterbox of a friend who had the tendency to be completely uninhibited even among strangers.We were in the second class ladies’ compartment and soon there was a bevy of Muslim women clad head-to-toe in burqas, children in arms, sitting opposite us. As she chatted me up nineteen-to-the-dozen my friend kept throwing curious stares at those burqa-ed women who were really minding their own business.

But my friend just could not resist. She jumped into it with both hands and feet. During a lull in our conversation, she asked one of those burqa-clad ladies, “Why do you wear the burqa? Don’t you feel hot in all that black?”

Suddenly the indolent atmosphere of that summer afternoon was charged with tension. All the women in the burqas bristled. “What’s it to you?” one of them snapped back. “Do we ask you why you wear the bindi on your forehead? So mind your own business!”

My friend simply did not get it. She persisted. “Well, I wear the bindi today because I am going out to a function. There are days when I don’t bother with it, at all. I just wanted to know: are you forced to wear the burqa or is it out of your choice? If so, why don’t you change the black to some nice happy prints like some women do?”

“Our buzurgs (elders) have decreed that we wear the burqua. Whatever their reasons our buzurgs must be right,” another snapped. “We don’t question them. And you have no right to question us!”

I sensed my friend was still not satisfied and in the mood to argue further, so I dragged her by the arm and pulled her away from that enclosure, afraid that if their buzurgs travelling in the gents compartment were to alight and come to our window, we might have the beginnings of a communal riot on our hands.

To this day she has not forgiven me for stopping her from getting some real answers but as I told her then they had indeed given her the real answer. Even if they had not understood it themselves, they were the custodians of male morality and so they had to cover themselves up to stop the men from getting lascivious.

“That’s ridiculous!” my friend snapped back. “That’s like telling me not to wear a sleeveless blouse to stop someone from molesting me!”

“That’s precisely the argument,” I told her. “Even though both you and I do not see why it should be so.”

It gave my friend some food for thought and she asked how I had come to those premises.

I told her then about the professor of demography at the institute in Paris where I had a pursued a mid-career course in journalism. ” He was always talking about sex, may be because you couldn’t come to demography without that,” I told her. “But when we studied the Muslim population of France, he had some great insights that have stuck in my mind.”

I recalled a Pakistani classmate getting into a charged argument with him when he said Muslim people anywhere outside the Arabic world would always find it difficult to adjust themselves to growth and other societies.

“How?” asked Arif.

“Much of it is because modernisation does not gel well with Islam but it is largely because of their insistence on distinctive clothing.”

“Of course not!” snapped Arif, clad in warm woolen trousers and shirt, just like the rest of us. “How am I different from the others here?”

“Not the men,” said our professor, tranquilly. “It’s the women. Even if they don’t insist on the burqa, they want to wear the headscarves. And that sets them apart. If nothing else, it creates a feeling of difference — between them and the others who dress more according to current fashion norms. There can never be true friendships between those who set themselves apart thus and the others who, even if conservative, dress as they please and not out of compulsion, forced by their community leaders and elders.”

Arif had to nod in acquiescence and let go, as we all saw the truth of what our professor had been saying. Even then France, with its large Muslim population, had been fiercely debating whether to allow Muslims to wear head scarves and Sikh men to wear turbans. I did not have an opinion but when, on one of those rare days, I wore a saree to work and was followed down the Metro and through the streets all the way to my institute, I decided to hastily get into my skirts and trousers and blend in.

It has taken a decade or more since then for France to formally legislate against the head scarf in public places (though they have not banned the head gar completely). When I visited Britain after a long spell early this year, I was surprised to see how many more head scarves bobbed in supermarkets and how many more women wore the burqa, both the black ones as well as some colourful prints. Later, back in India, when I met up with a Muslim religious teacher visiting from the UK and recounted my experience with Muslims in British society to him, he said, “I would much rather live in the UK. I hate France for what it is doing to its Muslims.”

But this week I have come across some brilliant analyses by well-known writers who hit the nail on the head as my professor in Paris had done all those years ago vis-à-vis Muslim integration (or the lack of it on account of the burqa). I was reminded of his lectures as I read Sadanand Dhume’s brilliant piece (http://bit.ly/d3EFtW ) on France’s decision: our professor, too, had made the point that women who were made to cover up were compelled to do so to safeguard male morality. He had gone further to add that that was also the reason why women were stoned when they were the ones who were raped and more often than not the offending man tried to seek an excuse like, “She provoked me; she had uncovered hair; she was wearing revealing clothes, etc to justify essentially what was his own lack of character.

If my years in France taught me anything , it was this: that Muslims living in France hated the French even more than Indians living in the UK hated Britain (the colonised’s wrath against the coloniser). But even then, I noticed, among friends from the Maghreb (Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco) and other African countries once colonised by France, they would rather live in France than anywhere else in the world, including their own native countries.

My professor’s point that the distinctive style of dressing stands in the way of integration among children at school crucial for them to grow up as equals was again reinforced by James Delingpole (http://bit.ly/14j4ro ) writing in the Daily Telegraph, thus indicating that the debate has still not moved from where it was stuck a decade ago.

But both Dhume and Delingpole are liberal men commenting on what is essentially a female trial/cross to bear. So I was most heartened to come across this 2006 piece in Time magazine (http://bit.ly/8VOQ3Y) by Azadeh Moaveni (which is still relevant to what is happening today) which supported then British Prime MinisterTony Blair’s call to Muslim women to refrain from covering their full faces while in public places. This is how I would have felt if I had been compelled to don a burqa or any other covering that went against my own sense of pride in myself and my self-esteem.

I believe this is how those burqa clad women in the Bombay local might have felt, too. Hence the sharp reaction when my friend needled them about their choice. For, as they themselves admitted, it was not their free choice. They were only toeing the line set for them by their bigoted elders.

That’s why, as Delingpole puts it, the French are SO RIGHT and President Obama just playing into the hands of the Islamists!

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  • Nikhil


    Awesome! this was a good article. Any piece of clothing in India, such as the burkha or the ‘goonghat’, that forces women to cover their faces in public should be questioned. I believe the need to wear such outfits in public is often chained to some anachronistic social norms or practices; not to forget such gear is unpleasant to wear in the heat & humidity of India.



    why you wear clothes then?????



  • Vikram

    Burkha is a crime against women and if some muslims want to oppress their own daughters, sisters and mothers, and our government does not have the balls to go to the rescue of their women citizenry then unfortunately these women will continue to suffer. All this talk about respecting your bigoted buzurgs is just hog wash. these poor ladies are just plain scared. why dont the bearded oldies spend a day in mumbai heat in black burkhas before asking their girls to do so. and with the same logic the purdah should also be banned from the public place. just in case some believer wants to cancel a wrong by pointing to someone elses. I have never seen anyone in purdah so far but lots of women in burkha.

    But more than any other reason, as can be seen through the suicide bombings in all over the muslim world, the suicide bomber many a times literally hides in the burkha to go through security and then blow up innocents. So purely from the perspective of security, burkha should be banned from the public place. If you dont care about the security of the public and want to pursue your medeivel dress code, stay in your own homes and localities. I dont want you anywhere near my neighbourhood.

    btw. It was very brave of the author. now be prepared to be harrangued by an army of believers and the pakistanis and the ’securalists’.


  • Prashant Saxena

    I am friends with several people who are Sikhs and wear turbans. Their headgear has never made me see them as different.
    Some of them got a haircut during the several years I have known them and their change of hairstyle didn’t make us better friends.
    So there goes the theory of your French professor.
    The real difference is in mindset. Indian Sikhs may be very religious but they have a progressive mindset.
    Some Muslims however, are just not able to come to grips with todays realities. Their adherence to a way of life and beliefs that have been redundant for a thousand years is the cause of their own and our misfortune.


  • Shreya

    Dear Sujata,

    Another brilliant article… It is true that the niqab/burqa does seem repressive to some, as does the ghunghat in some Hindu communities.
    But I have known some women who are actually proud of wearing the burqa as they say it “protects” them from lecherous men. At the same time, I have also come across young girls who, when leaving their respective homes, don the burqa, but as soon as they’re in the local train, they take off the burqa. They look so good in the suits they wear. I don’t know what to make of this!
    As far as the ghunghat is concerned, it is a “mark of respect” towards the elders. Also, the ghunghat is prevalent only in Northern India I think… South-Indians don’t seem to have this system in them, right?


  • mondal

    Your reasoning that people who wear different types of clothes can never be friends is laughable.

    Perhaps, you will teach your children to discriminate and hate people on the basis of clothes that signify an adherence to a different religion. Children learn from their parents, teachers and society. They are not born with a sense of hatred towards any particular group of people.

    Why not accept people as they are?


  • Laxmi

    “……..they were the custodians of male morality and so they had to cover themselves up to stop the men from getting lascivious.”

    A very telling statement, this. Perfectly encapsulates the amout of guilt-conditioning that goes into women who eventually develop this kind of an attitude. A certain kind of perversion in the female mind, besides the male, exists here. Women, for whatever reasons, have taken the responsibility of covering up cracks in male morality……even if it means sacrificing their own interests, genuine likes and preferences at the cost of “humare buzurg ne yeh kaha hai and etc etc etc….” These women have already made a choice and they are taking responsibility for it as quiet victims. As a third party I or anyone else can’t really judge this as a good or a bad choice. Ultimately, it’s one’s answerability to one’s conscience. Are you doing justice to yourself and your individuality? Are you compromising on your existence by convincing yourself that someone else, often a male….and more so, an elderly male from your community, has the right over your code of conduct and sense of propriety? Most importantly, are you willing to give yourself the chance to be gutsy enough to THINK FOR YOURSELF and brave the conventional storm, and be honest with your beliefs? The moment women make the choice of finding answers to such qs and many more pertaining to their individual existence, they could enjoy some meaningful respite.


  • schadha

    Judgmental and simplistic — these well describe the authors premises set out in her article . You cannot judge a persons mind set or their personality by their dress code True most of the women in our society follow the dress code as deemed by their culture — see the ghunghat in rajasthan . There was a news item the other day where a woman has cleared her ias exam but still dons the ghunghat at home in haryana— this is anarchostic but it is only in reponse to the cultural traits prevalent in that society . IAS and veil — this is incomprehensible but social and educational progress cannot in a trice outweigh centuries of traditional culure
    We may find the the burkha an odditty for the simple reason that in our non muslim society our women are not used to it — but for the muslim woman who sees her mother using this everyday this may not be so offensive and is a part of life. Whatever be the reason , muslim mind set , quranic injunction , obdurate religiosity — it is clear that no outsider can legislate on the dress code for any women .It is their responsibility alone and society should accept this . Of course the iranian president has gone on recently in defence of muslim head scarves as saying that womens hair when uncovered have the power to induce earth quakes —this is to be taken in the same way as the other eXtreme view point that a covered head / face is a sign of muslim males inhuman treatment of women — both are an affront to good commonsense .Ihave travelled in many islamic states and can say that even in these countries all women do not wear complete purdahs / burqa — some have a scarf around the head ( like the indian chunni ), some wear the black burqa but with the face uncovered , some are in full purdah with black gloves on the hand also and even dark glasses on their eyes . These differences may be due to the culural and familial traditions as religion wise all are islamic Under the burqas you can see the jeans , the salwars or whatever —the burka is only a statement of centuries of tradition / culture and tradition as we know takes a lot of time , effort and boldness to reform
    Society has always looked askance at anything which deviates from the accepted mores — and mores are set by the group which is in power . In delhi the principals of some colleges attempted to also impose their dress code on students — they wanted to ban jeans / tops etc — this was their idea of morality and they found such socially acceptable dress code ae immoral . THey were also judgemental as the french leaders are today
    This is not to support the veil — it requires in this present world a change but recourse to law as in europe or even sentiments and public opinion of the other communities is not going to change it . Reform has to from within only — and reform has to be a slow process for and by the people who are affected by it
    The shah of iran in his zeal for such hasty and misplaced reform is an example of how culture amd tradition has a overpowering presence in our society The very people who he wanted to take out of the islamic obdurate tradition threw him out
    When i was working in mumbai there was a girl working in our office — a muslim girl , english educated , mother and father non traditional , her dress code was as per the other girls in the office , — her life style was any girl in mumbai as of today . She married a muslim in usa —in the govt service of iraq origin
    I met her a few years afer her marriage and migration to usa — she was wearing the burqa on top of her jeans ( though her face was uncovered )— she told me her husbands family and their common friends from his country all wear this —-she says she had to follow this or she was looking like a outsider in his family
    I realised the presure of family tradition , culture . group norms in our quest for social acceptability


  • http://none Asif

    Ignorant quoting other ignorants!
    It is gross ignorance to say …”women were stoned when they were the ones who were raped and more often than not the offending man tried to seek an excuse like, “She provoked me; she had uncovered hair; she was wearing revealing clothes, etc to justify essentially what was his own lack of character.” … simply because a rapist is invariably sentenced to death. Any lack of morality on the victim’s side will not attract any severe punishment for her, though she is guilty of small sin.
    You have quoted other ignorants without verifying minimum details from scholars of Islamic Shariah. This is a crime, blatant and intentional. Whether Hindus or Muslims all such irresponsible columnists shall be banned from writing anything about any religion, not only Islam.


    vikram Reply:

    NO they should not be banned. They should be answered by replying a bit more intelligently and informatively than what you did. And people should write more about religion with a open mind. It should be discussed and debated and not banned or worse bombed.

    And please do not pull Hinduism into this banning business. Idiots like MNS, Bajrang Dal and the so called custodians of Hinduism are nothing but lumpen elements who are doing a great disservice to a liberal and open religion by aping a medieval interpretations of other religions.


    Rupa Reply:

    “though she is guilty of small sin”????

    She is guilty of getting raped???

    And you wonder why Islam gets written about!


  • Manisha Kulkarni

    Yes, I agree. Infact, burqa was made mandatory for women in Islam in order to protect them from the roving eyes of men because men have been given license in this religion to marry more than once. Even Prophet Mohammad married as much as nine women beginning with Khadija who was senior to him by many years to his son’s wife whom he saw taking bath and then the nine year old girl. Even in Mughal harems, traditionally eunuchs were appointed as servants and not men. You know why? because eunuchs were harmless, while men were considered dangerous for all the women kept their. So, that tradition has somehow continued. In fact, according to social historians, the practice of long ghunghat found among Hindus had its origin in the medieval times when they felt the need to protect their women from such anti-social nay anti-human elements. Now the times have changed. If women like Tabu and Diya Mirza can roam free in a liberal democratic world, its high time for other muslim women to walk free and resist attempts to tied them down with undemocratic and anti-human practices like burqa wearing and hizab. Manisha


  • Ahmad

    I have heard that Muslims are now going to hold Burka pride in the cities/countries where they are banned.


  • http://mywriterkeeda.wordpress.com Ishmart Alec

    geez…..all this jazz for women trying to cover themselves up with clothes…In the extreme we may get specific set of instructions specifying “acceptable” and “unacceptable” wardrobe.


  • http://- Rajeev

    I think we should not support ban on Burqa. It’s personal choice.

    As far as buqa being a security threat is concerned, let there be additional screening of Buqa clad people at all the sensitive point because we don’t want a terrorist misuse Burqa.


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  • Rajiv

    Point well made! why do hindu women wear bindi, mangal sutra, ghoonghat, etc, its upto them,
    if they think thats the customs have gone beyond their tolerance they will stop doing that.
    Do I think that I have to be their rescuer, which is belittling their ability.
    Burqa or no burqa I don’t care.
    / Rajiv


  • Abdul Naseer

    I am a practicing Muslim living in the US. I believe that in your article you’re generalizing your experience with one particular group of Muslim females to Muslim females all over the world.
    If you ever travel to the US, you’ll come across many Muslim females, who conscientiously decide to wear a Burkha. I am talking about females who are not even from immigrant Muslim families, but, those ‘traditional’ citizens of US who have decided to accept/follow Islam of their own accord while their families are not even Muslim. As a moderate Muslim male, I believe that a full burqa (with face covering) is not necessary as long as a female dresses modestly and covers her hair. Neverthless, I wanted to convey the fact that there are many Muslim females who choose to practice modesty in their social interactions based on their individual understanding of the teachings of Islam and as such they must be completely free to express their convictions.


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  • Anonymous

    … Cont…) During invasion of tribal’s in 1947. Large scale massacres in J&K took place in which people from all communities were killed which include Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs Christians, Buddhists ( in gilgit ballista area) several thousand Muslims were massacred in Jammu in first week of Nov.1947, We know starting at Muzzafarbad on 22nd & 23rd Oct-1947, several thousand Hindus (three times than that of Muslims) were slaughtered at the hands of Pakistani Raiders, its army, their J&K civilian traitors in the border areas of Kashmir when they entered the Valley and then in Jammu Province at Deva vatala, Bhimber, Rajauri, Kotli, Mirpur, Poonch and at Gilgit, Askardu. In first week of Nov-1947 in Jammu several thousand Muslims were taken to forests in kathua & murdered in cold blood there.

    In the event, on October 26, the tribals were still on the rampage in Baramula, killing, burning, looting. Of Baramula’s 14000 inhabitants, only 3,000 were alive the next day. The atrocities committed by these tribals are too well known to every person to need any rebuttal, even Barbarians will be ashamed.

    Author can read in links , I stated above how at Muzzafabad on 22/10/1947 , “Raiders play deception. They asked males among Sikhs to come out, telling them, “We have nothing to do with Sikhs”. The latter felt relieved but as they ran back towards the bridge they found the gate on the other side of the bridge closed. The raiders began firing on them, and killed them mercilessly. Then they began pushing the dead bodies down the railing of the bridge with shoes into Kishenganga river. The bridge was clear again. The raiders then asked ladies to segregate themselves from the main crowd. All the ladies in the age group of 11-45 years were huddled into 30-35 buses, waiting on Kohala side and were taken to Waziristan etc. Small children in the lap of their mothers were thrown on to the road, where they fell victim to starvation or dogs. The children of once rich people were now at the mercy of dogs. Just to tell you Non Muslim women abducted from J&K by Tribal’s were sold on the streets of NWFP for Rs 15.00 & the children for Rs 5.00, I do not know you know this or not ? Members of the minority community had been put in jail in Muzzafarabad, Raiders were all the time looking for young ladies. The father-in-law of a lady had been shot dead when he tried to resist attempts of raiders to abduct his daughter-in-law. She never came back. Outside the jail groups of raiders would rape women in full public view. At times there would be gang-rape. Only few ladies returned to their families after abduction and rape. There were instances where ladies were killed after rape. You will read in link even dead were not buried, even uncivilized people like Huleghu Khan allowed to bury dead, but this was a strange islamic army of tribal looters did not.

    During the tribal raids in Kashmir Andrew Whitehead the BBC journalist. had written sometime back how tribal raiders entered St. Joseph’s Convent and Mission hospital on the Jhelum Valley Road that links Srinagar with Muzaffarbad, and killed people including. a patient, Mrs Motia Devi Kapoor, Lt. Col D.O.T. Dykes and his wife Biddy, who had come to the hospital to give birth her Baby, the husband of the hospital doctor, Mr Baretto & after raping the 29-year-old Spanish nun Sister M. Teresalina Joaquina & a nurse Miss Philomena they killed them in its precincts.

    I know many of people will not know this. Col. Habibur Rahman Khan who had fought with Subhash Chander Bose in INA became the murderer of Non Muslims at Bhimber along with tribal lashkars. He died in pain. Listen about brutal burning of Rajouri where 25000 people were burnt to death during Diwali of 1947 & I do not know you know it or not Hindus in rajouri today do not celebrate Diwali even today in memory of those massacred in 1947. Col. Rahamtullah Khan was one time in army of Hari Singh, his son Aslambeg Khan are called Rajouri butchers, & were instrumental in all this loot. they were arrested later by Indian army. Maharaja got them released as they were his old servants. what happened to them is another story. Mahraja thought that they will help him in getting his accounts in Lahore banks unfrozen. But nothing happened. Rahamtullah died of cancer and his son was killed by dacoits. I hope you have heard about the Alibeg Gurudwara in Mirpur, which was turned into a concentration camp for non-Muslims & scores of men were slaughtered, women raped & children sold. And for this those persons of Muslim conference that rule in POK now were responsible, and some of them claim to be now the Mujahid-i-awwal, but the fact is they should be tried for war crimes.

    In the words of Pakistan they have made POK , Azad Kashmir which they say is free, but if we analyze it today as a citizen of J&K a complete exchange of Non-Muslim population has taken place from that so-called Azad Kashmir to Indian Part of Kashmir as a result of that bloodshed. If there were non-Muslim remnants in So-called Azad Kashmir, there that has been converted, it is 100% Muslim today. Does it indicate some thing? I hope you meet some day the persons who have settled in Jammu from Mirpur, from Muzzafarabad, from Poonch, Rajouri, & and listen to them how their and near ones were butchered in these areas and by whom and who connived with whom in this massacre? You will be more objective later. ARE WE TO ALSO SUPPORT THIS AZADI TODAY THEN?

    Having said so but if we analyze the population ratio on both sides of LOC more ethnic diversity on Indian side & none on POK side, why? Did Indian soldiers kill all Muslims or All non-Muslims were killed or converted on POK side & by whom, by GOVT there along with army, else how can it happen that not a single soul of Non Muslims live there. The result was that POK is now 100% Muslim with not even a soul of Non-Muslims that in itself is an indicator. I have been asking this many writers from valley this question but they do not have any answer to it. I repeat once again not even a single soul of Non-Muslims that also after 1947, what happened to all of them? We know the answer but writers from valley do not like yet to answer it.

    That is why I said Bigger Question are you going to make J&K on Indian side a state on 100% on religious basis or what, and more bigger question is how can a person with gun saying that politically he is 100% right and the person who is un-armed and raising political voice against it how can he be politically in-correct on whose behest ethnic cleansing has been done in valley & parts of Jammu.


  • Shazzam

    From where do you hire writers HT, that they dont know even how to write Phelps’ ???
    Just like the municipal corporation’s gardener who doubled up as a dhobi too ?

    Secondly, why cant you systematically compare the cost of setting up a Table tennis/tennis/boxing/shooting facility Vs Cost and time taken for the Noida park..? A media house wont be sued by the politician who gets footwear via jet plane. Nor did u cared to get the gurgaon’s pregnant lady road accident death any coverage in the 90 days. Bakwaas chapwa lo.. eh ?
    Or are you too sissy like the gen Indian public to do anything good..?


  • http://twitter.com/amithak50 Stuart little

    guys from villages beat phelps easily ..there are tons of excellent swimmers in indian villages ..but this country is all about silly bollywood,silly cricket


  • http://twitter.com/SerenaAnsari Serena Ansari

    We can blame the government for being corrupt and not allowing our country to move forward, oh wait I have a better idea why don’t we use the excuse that we are a third world country don’t have enough money. Oh wait can we say that because of too much population, space and personal training is hard. Oh wait I have a better idea lets blame our society for being to involved by the glitz and glamour of bollywood and the crazy fanatic love for cricket. Is that going to help the situation? We spend too much time coming up with excuses, blaming and demotivating ourselves that we begin exactly where we started. If you want to see a change in India’s performance don’t leave it to our corrupt government, or stop blaming and looking for excuses. Instead begin at home, motivate talent in your family, neighbor, community. Look for the talent yourself, support NGO’s that scout athletes in slums. Support them, because more than half of our talent is hiding in our poor. Find a solution, and once you find it take action on it. Its easy to compare, demotivate and mock the situation, but it takes courage to accept the situation and turn the situation around!