Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Bedsheet and bigotry

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.


Anil said...

It is a tricky situation indeed. My take on the issue, which might be prejudiced and/or wrong, is that we humans are essentially social animals. Our interaction with other humans involves processing a lot of facial cues. A person's face tells a lot and when it is covered most of that visual conversation is terminated. So perhaps that is one subconscious reason that covered faces invite such distrust and negative reaction. Please feel free to disagree.

Personally, I'm against women covering faces bcos I believe it is another weapon men use to dominate or suppress women. Why is it that only women need to cover their faces? If it serves a religious function then why shouldn't men also cover their faces? Does God not like women to show their faces?

Anirudh said...

Agree completely.

Mukta said...

I think one arrives at a balance after swinging between two extremities. Perhaps the radical insitence on giving up the veil is the other extreme society will swing to before a middle-path is found.

As with the veil, this scenario exists in other walks of life as well. Many years back, I think in 1991 or 1992, there was an article in the Times magazine - about how it was deemed unpopular and unfashionable to believe in God/ religion/both. While one was allowed, even encouraged, to have a preference in tea or coffee, one wasn't allowed to have a preference in religion. It brought on some sort of a backlash. A very interesting article. Read it if you can (since my comment unfairly presents the moot point in the article as unidimensional.) I wonder if one can have access to the archives of the Times or something...

Anonymous said...

Annie, I think you're right. People should have the freedom to wear the attire of their choice in public, but an organisation's code can and should prohibit a teacher wearing the veil while teaching. But this is taken to an extreme at times. Recently BA sent home an employee who wore a cross.

Vinod Joseph

recreating space said...

But don't you think the reasons behind the origin of the Bhurka or Ghoonghat, "protecting a man's property" or whatever, are reason enough for people to NOT wear it, AND not be allowed to wear it if say if the school is idealogically against it. also even though you may be able to wear a burkha and nobody's forcing you to,if you don't agree with the pupose the burkha is supposed to serve, isn't that reason enough for you not to wear it?, doesnt that itself negate the option of wearing a burkha, even if out of choice?

Chaitan Bandela said...

I think the concern here is limited to public domains. Nobody is outlawing any religious wear, but restricting their use if it is reasonably thought to interfere with social operations. I agree that there could be a middle ground.

A school should be able to mandate a school teacher from wearing a niqab if they deem it as interfering in doing her job.

Tullika said...

So its basically you not wanting to do it.. because someone is asking you to.. and not other reason!

recreating space said...

@tullika- not just because someone is asking me to do it but because someone is asking me to do it becaue they feel women should be 'modest'/not 'invite', 'tempt' men.. because i don't agree with the reasons behind it.
If someone asked me to wear a burkha so that i don't get sunburnt i wouldn't have a problem with it!

Barbarindian said...

Clever post, you shy away from the obvious. I guess whether or not a woman wears a veil becomes the fault of others as usual. I pity the poor women who are forced to wear the veil.

By the way, any private institution has the right to dictate a dress code.

Barbarindian said...

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?

By the way, I can think of only certain establishments that would have such house rules. For instance swinger parties, specialty adult clubs etc. As a matter of fact, even nude beaches allow clothed folks, though I have heard they do not like people that do not shed clothes to go there (for obvious reasons).

unforgiven said...

"And if a woman with her head covered, frightens you, you probably have deep-rooted insecurities and need to see a shrink."

I agree with everything else but this line.
A woman in Hijaab is a symbol. A symbol of the lunacy of religion and the fervour with which it is adopted that totally rejects any common sense, reason or desire for independent thought.

I admit, that scares me.

Though I probably do need to see a shrink anyway, it is not for this reason.

gaddeswarup said...

May be somebody already referred to this. There is an interesting article on this topic by a Muslim journalist Zaiba Malik in the Guardian:

bs said...

Been reading your posts. You're a beautiful person, annie.

the Monk said...

Ideally, the choice should be left to the individual as far as public spaces go. As far as homes and stuff go, I suppose reasonable things can be respected.

nativeindian said...

Good writing. However, the Quranic dictate is " Ask your women to cover thier heads ". The purposes for the dictate have not been propounded or hinted at. Historically speaking, the Arab men also covered thier heads. They also wore bedsheets (Dasha's). The climatic conditions were such that suited such wear. Sands in sweat drenched hair can be nothing but distressing. Men also covered thier faces at least while outdoors, probably to prevent the sands reaching thier nostrils. Dignified dressing was made incumbent upon men also while it was made so for women. Covering of the entire face probably came into vogue in India where the Ghungat was already in existance. That society has over time attached certain purposes to the Chadar/veil and probably used it for these purposes is a mishap of societies own creation.

annie said...

anil: i agree to the extent that bringing god into the veiled picture is stupid. if it is right for women, it is right for men. but as far as distrust is concerned, i don't know... would people react to a masked ball the same way as they do to a chador? what about a medieval knight in armour? what is the difference between these categories of covered faces?

anirudh: that's good to hear

mukta: perhaps you are right. but a backlash is just that - a backlash. it isn't any more right or fair that its opposite extreme, is it?

vinod: BA's action, in my opinion, was unnecessary. but i suppose an organisation is entitled to make its own rules as long as all employees are forewarned about the same.

recreating space: yes, a school has the right to prohibit a burkha. a school also has the right to put a ban on turbans and crosses and whatever it likes. esp, a private school. but no, I don't think that the idea itself negates the option of wearing a burkha. because this is about women exercising the right to their bodies. to cover up is as much as a right as to show off. to deny either option is to deny a woman the right to her own body. if you make a ban applicable in public spaces, then, in effect, you are denying a woman the right to these public spaces. as far as i am concerned, i think the burkha serves zero purpose, except to make one feel hot and look shapeless. but i think swimsuits serve little purpose either.

chaitan: ditto.

tullika: yes, essentially. and also the fact that it is probably uncomfortable and (in my opinion) unattractive. but 'recreating space' is right - i often cover my head when it is sunny. and i would take strong exception to someone telling me that it was against the law to cover my head.

barbarin: yes, private institutes have the right to a dress code. i concede as much. if you read my post carefully, you will notice that i have only objected to a general public ban on the veil.

unforgiven: you might be partially right. but when it comes to women's bodies and religion, lunacy is a given. across religons and nations, women end up bearing the brunt of 'honour' and 'culture' and 'attraction'. if they're not asking you to wear a burkha, they're stripping you naked and parading you before the panchayat. also, please remember that the burkha as we know it is an Indian concept. The blue chador is an Afghani concept. The hijaab is an Arabic/Iraqi concept. The headscarf is an Iranian concept. The Mongolian/Ukranian women do not wear bedsheets. The African muslim women wore turbans. To each their own, I say. As long as it is each woman making her own decision.

gaddeswarup: yes, the Hindu carried that article today.

bs: thank you

the monk: you're right.

nativeindian: am familiar with that argument (though i have issues with it, but now is not the time to bring up the subject). it is wierd how society always manages to twist just about everything to its own evil purposes.

Anil said...

Annie, but a masked ball is not an everyday occurence. It is a specialized social event. As for medeival knights, I seriously doubt that they went around in full armor when not in battle although I could be wrong on that. But again medeival knights were a small specialized group. However, a veil is something women have to wear day in, day out whenever they are outside their homes. So in essence my argument still holds, as social animals we need to see the other person's face to communicate effectively. In my opinion the veil blocks this kind of 'open' visual communication. And yes, Zaiba Malik's article makes a worthy read in this context.

Monica said...

Married marwari women wear beautiful red chadars with bandhni or mirrorwork for "shagun". I remember being entranced by them, when younger - aspiring to them along with many friends. They were the only path we then knew to happiness and love in life in future.

Anonymous said...

Annie, the underlying issue in this and similar situations, in my opinion, is this : cultural and religios dogmas came about for conforming.

Now you have individualism and the need to bring reason as bulwark against dogma. Faith in any form abhors a challenge.

Answers? I dont have any, except my belief that faith must accept a concept of reasonableness, as in the armed forces where you can refuse to obey a command if it is unreasonable.

Cheers / mahendra

jerry said...

(not related) this is my blog. just met ya at the launch. hope to see ya soon. cheers....

Anonymous said...

I wonder what your view are on Shivam Vij posting naked pictures of a dead woman on his bog under the scoopalicious title "photographs from kherlanji".

Anirudh said...

Blog meet. Do come: http://riversblueelephants.blogspot.com/2006/10/blog-meet-on-5th.html

scannerD said...

It is a vexing question. To veil or not to veil. Personally I feel the veil is a way of curtailing women in a patriarchal set up and am opposed to it on that count. But then again, if some woman wants to do it who am I to object.

annie said...

anil: in the same context, another interesting article is up at http://marginalien.blogspot.com - makes you think of make-up and breast implants as veils.
mahendra: answers are difficult indeed.
jerry: :) will drop by
anonymous: i feel sickened at the incident. the photograph is merely sad. if i was the dead victim, i'd have preferred my tragedy to be represented as it is, not cloaked by somebody else's fake sense of dignity.
anirudh: couldn't make it. work etc.
scannerd: precisely, who is to stop whom?

Chinmayi said...

Lovely, as always. Have you read Martha Nussbaum's article? http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/11/veiled-threats/

Tweets by @anniezaidi