Monday, November 19, 2012

Get rid of that damn purdah

Here’s a question I have long wanted to ask of our security providers. I understand the need to scan bags and jackets. But how do you explain those monstrous curtained cubicles created especially for women?

Police, security agencies, mall owners, government, someone, explain! What do you think is being accomplished? Women fliers or cinema patrons are checked by other women. Purses or backpacks have already been searched outside, or put through scanners operated by men. Then, we walk into a makeshift cubicle with black fabric walls, or else, horrid rubber strips for curtains (which are probably never washed and make me worry about dust and infection), so that we may have hand-held metal detectors passed down the length of our bodies. And we step out again.

What part of the process needs to be ‘private’? We are not being strip-searched, after all. So, why do we need to go behind a curtain?

I feel upset because there seems to be an assumption that anything to do with a woman’s body must be concealed. It is almost as if the very idea of women having women’s bodies must be embarrassing and that, if we must be touched by anybody – even if it is a female cop – it must be concealed. As if a woman being touched for any reason at all is a horrible thing. But that doesn’t stop the security checks. It just puts us into a temporary purdah, so nobody can see what’s being done to us.


Do cops or mall-owners seriously think that women want to curl up and die at the thought of being brushed down with a metal detector? I very seriously doubt if shoppers or fliers are ashamed of being made to undergo a mandatory security check. Does being felt up make us conscious? Perhaps. But it would make anyone conscious, men too. Why do you assume that men’s embarrassments are meaningless?

And if security staff needs a private area to conduct an intimate search of our shopping selves, then there ought to be one for men. If it is not appropriate to examine women’s bodies in full public view, it is also not appropriate to conduct such examinations of men’s bodies in front of women, right?

This has bothered me for years now, but most of us don’t see fit to make a noise about it because it isn’t a big enough issue. But actually, I do believe that it is symptomatic of a larger problem – that of shaming women and, at the same time, making them constantly conscious of their physical selves. It is like a message is being sent out – keep those bodies under wraps, even as someone pokes and scans and metal-detects the life out of your bones. Under no circumstances must anybody notice your body.

There is something very absurd and very frightening about a society that cannot accept one simple fact: women have bodies almost the same as men, and that a body – or having things done to these bodies – is not something to be ashamed of.

I personally am a firm opponent of purdah in any form for this reason. The assumption that women’s bodies – even just the hair, or the face, or the legs – lead to violence is a false one. It is an unjust, cruel assumption and if we want a truly equal, peaceful world, then this idea must be ripped out of all minds. And I don’t know if we can change all purdah-loving cultures immediately, but we can throw out those meaningless, bizarre curtained cubicles out of all public areas. And we should. This very night.

First published here


Ahn said...

Very interesting piece. Its quite telling of society how we fail to "see" subtle and not so subtle discrimination, in our day to day lives.
Although the problem is that a lot of people of either gender have genuinely bought into the idea that "a woman's body is an object of shame." I am not seeking to justify it, in the least. However social conditioning is a very powerful tool and even the most rational people find it difficult to think differently from the "herd". It is therefore most important and necessary that people should speak out more and more. I notice that, unlike you, very few people are willing to take a stance. But change has to start from somewhere.
On the issue of a universal rejection of "purda", I think there is some conflict with free expression there. As long as people choose to express themselves out of free choice, without imposing and forcing their ideas on others, as opposed to subtle and not so subtle pressure from outside, I don't think we can tell them to conform to either a "liberal" or an "orthodox" way of life.
So it maybe that some of the most liberal women in France may choose to wear the hijab, not because they believe in Purdah but because they believe in free choice, which means that the State can not tell them either which way. Surprisingly the purdah itself maybe a symbol of "resistance"

shshshsh said...

I dont know what harm is there if someone wants to get inspected inside a purdah....moreover I dont think any police officer wud find it offensive if u told him u wanted to get scanned in public....for d resr of d guys who harm in havin a purdah....

Dr Mandeep Khanuja said...

i had never thought of this aspect unless at manila airport i was security searched in public,with my hands and feet stretched and being touched everywhere for the pleasure of all the bored people in the waiting area. open searching of females was the sole and seemingly most interesting pastimes for many a boarders. then i thought why dont they have the damn cubicles !

Pareshaan said...

I wear a kada that I can't take off any more - like Dr. Khanuja I was patted down at every airport I ever passed through. Legs parted, arms at shoulder height, waistband turned out. While not exactly embarrassed I did not appreciate being out in the open either. Women suspects were patted down in a cubicle. I am trying to think whether a cubicle would make it better. I don't know. Maybe if it was clean and airy I'd appreciate it.
Also, I had not realized that women did not appreciate the cubicle.

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