Right now, I am wearing a skirt that my mother unflatteringly describes as a bedsheet.
My mother does not like me wearing bedsheets. She does not wear bedsheets herself. Through childhood, the one constant memory of her clothes comes to me wrapped in chiffon sarees in flowery prints and sleeveless blouses. And stilettos. Turtlenecks in winter.
And then, there is one other memory. Only once have I seen my mother wear a bedsheet.
It was a dark night, perhaps close to midnight, and we were piled into a tonga, from the railway station to the maternal-ancestral house in which I was born, and to which I had not returned since. I was half-asleep, though thrilled to be sitting in a tonga, when, to my surprise, my mother began to unpack a bag.
She pulled out a bedsheet and draped it round her head. By way of explanation, she told me that she did not wish to offend our hosts - the larger extended family.
Once we entered the house, I understood why. Back then, the house was still divided into 'zenana' and 'mardana' sections. Now, this word 'zenana' might conjure up visions of royalty, and a palatial section replete with special, fragrant swimming/bathing pools and jharokhas.
No such extravagance. This 'zenana' was simply that part of the house where 'outside' men were not permitted, and where women could lie about on a charpai, without a veil. When they stepped outside the house, they put on a burqa, or draped a thick, dupatta-like piece of cloth around themselves. A chadar.
My mother does not wear a chadar. But she loves her family, even those of the family who wear the veil and treat her with a mixture of affection and exasperation, for not conforming.
I do not wear a chadar and, to my immense relief, many of the women from the maternal-ancestral household have given it up. Yet, I cover my head in places where it is expected of me - in a dargah or a temple or a gurudwara. I do not do this because I think the demand is justified. I do this as a mark of respect to my hosts of the moment. After all, when you visit somebody else's house, you do not question their rules - if they say 'take off your slippers', you take them off; if they lay food on a dastarkhaan instead of a table, you sit down cross-legged, on the floor.
The trouble arises when people begin to insist that the rules of their house apply to public spaces. If, for instance, the priests began to insist that I cover my head on the streets, I would stop looking upon them as temporary spiritual hosts, and would be very suspicious of them.
On the other hand, how would you feel if you visited somebody's home, and this somebody insisted that you strip down to your underwear, because those are the rules of the house?
That is why this business of the chadar (chador/burqa/burkha/abaya/ hijaab/purdah/ghoonghat) is such a prickly one.
For, you see, I can easily imagine such a situation. After all, we are not allowed to step into swimming pools unless we wear a swimsuit. There could well be beaches (don't know of any, yet) where you are not allowed unless you're in beach-wear. There are clubs and lounges where you are not allowed in, unless you're in formal 'evening wear'. (I clearly recall one instance in Bombay where a journalist was thrown out of a pub for being in a salwar-kameez).
Do you find any of the above situations acceptable? For a society where these rules apply, would you use adjectives such as 'rigid' 'orthodox' 'ultra-conservative' and even 'oppressive'?
Why does the chadar provoke such extreme reactions, then?
To me, this is a very significant question. Partly because, and sadly because, the veil often comes as a package deal. It comes laden with a set of no-nos, with fear and disrespect for women's bodies and ambitions, and with a patriarchy-heavy culture. Not always, but often. Not always in Islamic nations; also in rural India where women are often punished for breaking free of the ghoonghat and stepping into the political-economic limelight.
I find myself recoiling from both ends of the extreme - the injunction to wear the veil, and the insistence on banning it.
On the one hand, I completely agree with the authorities in this sort of scenario, where, in brief -
A primary school teacher - a language teacher, in fact - wears the hijaab, masking the face, except for the eyes. Kids find it hard to understand what she's saying. The school authorities ask her to either give up the burqa or leave her job.
After all, a teacher's job is to teach and teach well. Besides, the burqa serves no purpose in the classroom (if it serves any purpose at all). If your religious beliefs prevent you from working properly, well... too bad. Make a choice.
On the other hand, there is this country that wants to ban all forms of hijaab, including the headscarf, as a move towards outlawing 'sectarian dress'.
This is silly.
Would you also ban hats? What about a fez? What about the cap the pope wears? What about scarves that are worn on the head but tied at the nape of the neck, like a bandana? What about bikinis? What about sarees? Are they sectarian? Are they cultural? Are they are a threat?
Can a woman in a bedsheet/tent be a threat to a nation?
For me, the veil, in any form, is a tricky issue. Not just because it indirectly makes women responsible for the potential crimes against them, not just because it violates my aesthetic sensibilities (though I have to confess, I was forced to reconsider after that photograph doing the forward rounds - the one with a row of women in black burqas, faces covered and legs bared... I can't find it; does anyone have it stored away somewhere?), but primarily because it is incumbent upon women.
I can understand the temptation to call for a ban, because, sometimes it seems as if that is the only way to protect women from a forced tent-ization, to divorce their clothes from their rights and duties.
Yet, I would like to reserve the right to wear a burqa, as and when I choose to.
Because I will NOT do anything you force me to do. I will NOT wear a bedsheet even if that's the only guise in which I am allowed to enter heaven, for I don't believe in a God who cannot bear to see his own creations uncovered. But nor will I NOT wear a bedsheet, just because you don't like it.
And if a woman with her head covered, frightens you, you probably have deep-rooted insecurities and need to see a shrink.