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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