SEEMA MUSTAFA | 25 MARCH, 2018
In response to Ramachandra Guha and the response to him
My grandmother (Nani) Anis Kidwai was widowed in her early 30’s. My grandfather was killed in Dehradun while trying to ensure peace in the violence of partition. She was wearing the burkha then, mother to three children. Bereaved and in deep distress, she went to Gandhi for direction, for something to do. She started weeping inconsolably. He told her to think it through and come again. She did. And from there on teamed up with two other greats of the movement, Mridula Sarabhai and Subhadra Joshi to bring succour to riot impacted women from the North East to the hard hit plans of Uttar Pradesh. One of the first things she did was to get rid of the burkha altogether. By the way my Nani was an amazingly secular person, but religious who said her prayers regularly, who kept the fast, and who believed in God. The difference being that she believed in gods of all hues, and respected all religions with the same passion with which she regarded her own. She went on to become a Member of Parliament.
My mother Azadi (Rafia was her real name) Mustafa (her married name) defied convention and conservatism of the Lucknow of the 1930’s-1940’s to graduate from Isabella Thoburn college and then join the handful of women who were doing their post graduation from Lucknow University at the time. A strong intellectual, she cycled to the University, and went on to become a sub editor (albeit briefly as she was soon married to an Army officer, my father) in the National Herald when it opened. She never wore the burkha. And made it clear to my father that she would not like me to be married into a family that observed the purdah. She too was a staunch Muslim, a believer, a person who no one could raise a finger against. Her religion too came wrapped in secularism, a deep belief matched with equal respect for all religions.
These are the two women who have influenced me deeply. And while my mother died while I was still a teenager, I used to discuss the issues of religiosity with her. And went on to discuss the same with my grandmother. And even more interestingly with the widow of Rafi Ahmed Kidwai (my grand uncle), who lived for years after his death in Masauli, our home village. A petite figure Nani Ammi as we called her used to wear the burkha, as and when she ventured out. Why? I remember asking her. Matter of habit, she smiled agreeing that there was no need for a Muslim woman to cover herself from head to toe. Just dress modestly, she would say. And that’s it.
I have to thank Ramchandra Guha for generating a debate, even if he did it with questionable examples. And I have been following the responses of Muslim women to him, that make me a little worried about a certain conformity that we actually believe emanates from freedom of choice. And is not a sign of inequality but of religious identity. Unfortunately as someone who has covered conflict all over India, and indeed West Asia, for me both are embedded in each other and difficult to separate.
As we grew we associated the burkha (hijab is a fashionable successor but of the same genre) with a conservative mindset. Yes of course women wearing the hijab today across the world work, drive, debate, sing but it is also true that the flaunting of religious identity comes from an attitude that seeks to place the religion on a pedestal higher than the others. A classical ‘my religion is better than yours’ statement woven into the physical appearance that seeks to establish the identity of the individual per se. Unlike the Sikh religion where certain physical attributes were made mandatory, and linked to the religion itself, in Islam or for that matter Hinduism there was no such restriction. In fact even less so in Islam, where the married woman had no symbol like the mangalsutra, or the sindhoor, to declare her marital status, let alone her religion.
In more progressive countries in West Asia like Iraq and Syria and Egypt and Turkey (to name some) the beard, the pajamas, the hijab were barely visible under leaders taller than those heading these countries at present. In fact such a dress code was frowned upon, unlike Saudi Arabia that has exported its Wahhabism to other parts of the world with the support of the United States and the West. The full burkha with slits for the eyes also reflected the status of women in this regressive Kingdom with religion being used to justify a lower level of rights. In Baghdad just before the US invasion one met amazing women journalists---one of them running a feisty newspaper---in dresses and jeans; ran into an all women bank with the staff not feeling the need to cover their legs or for that matter their hair.
A physical dress code---be it the saffron dhoti, the tilak, or the burkha, or a beard sold by the Saudis as kosher---does force the individual to look at the world through the prism of his or her religious identity. I know when I walk into Moradabad to cover a communal violence, all that the people around me can see is my gender. But not my religion. All that they know is that I am an Indian. And when I speak with both communities involved in the violence they speak to me as an Indian, and not as a person with a religious identity that I feel so strongly about that I need to flaunt with physical attributes.
I am not trying to say that those who want to wear the burkha, or those strange looking pajamas, should not. Of course they should if they feel good about it, and the state has to ensure them the space to do so. That is our right in a democracy. What I have a problem with---and a major problem actually---is the justification of a dress code as Islamic that it is not as most of the Muslim majority countries do not necessarily follow it; and an in your face insistence that it is progressive, which it is not, as the flaunting of religious identity comes from a regressive and a conservative mindset, never from the progressive. It cannot. Progressive Islamic countries leave the dress to the people, regressive nations like Saudi Arabia insist on shackling their populace behind a facade that has little to do with religion and more to do with power based on religion.
It is of course a fact that insecurity and vulnerability in a community leads to greater religiosity. There is pressure on the women to fall back into accepted patriarchal parameters. In Egypt for instance, not a single hijab could be seen except in the villages where the older women wore the burkha. Same was true as I said earlier of most of the West Asian nations. The US invasion of Iraq, and the war waged by Washington subsequently, paralysed the peoples of this region. And as an Egyptian scholar who was still resisting the hijab told me, “the pressure is huge now as youth on the streets attack you if your head is uncovered.” A colleague of hers who had only recently started wearing the hijab said,” I find life much easier to navigate with this on.” Choices both, but an awareness also that the covering is not a sign of empowerment but a reality forced by the social chaos and hence vulnerability of the peoples of the region. And when there is war and conflict, or in our case communal conflict, the first pressure to conform, to go indoors, to wear the full covering is felt always---repeat always---by the woman.
As in India. Where the Muslims today are under attack, and feeling the pressure of being a minority community in a country they always regarded as their own. The counter to this is also coming from a sense of identity, in which is seen a certain security and an identity. The assertion is seen as empowerment. Whereas actually it is not. It is succumbing to the larger communal discourse, by disempowering the women and shackling them
So sure wear the hijab, stylish or not. Wear the saffron dhoti, cotton or silk. Carry the trishul and wear the mangalsutra. Wear the burkha, and make a fashion statement by moving away from the black to the pastels. Sport a beard, of two different kinds--one Hindu, another Muslim. And to the only identity you were born with--that of gender---add yet another, that of religion. But then do not say that you are harmonising the world. You are not. You are dividing it.
The women's movement across the world has been against such ‘covers’, man made attempts to keep their women under control. Yes perhaps a fashion industry has come around the hijab, but that does not make it kosher. It does not imbue it with logic or a rationale it does not have. It does not make it modern, or progressive. It still makes the difference between man and woman, it hits out at equality, and it questions in itself the very concept of justice.
At the same time I would defend an individual's right to wear what she or he wants, till my last breath. As that for me is integral to the concept of rights and equality and justice.
Part two: here