By Irena Akbar
March 24, 2018
Who’s afraid of the Burqa? Everyone. The right-wing hardliner, who pretends to be the saviour of the “oppressed Burqa-clad woman” even as he maligns Muslims at large. The left-wing “liberal”, who scoffs at overt religiosity and derides the Burqa as “being out of place in modern society”. The Muslim herself, who knows all too well that if anything unites the liberals and the hardliners, it is the “despicable” Burqa.
“Liberal” historian Ramachandra Guha made clear his disdain for the Burqa, likening it to a Trishul and endorsing its absence from political rallies, in the article ‘Liberals, Sadly’ Guha wrote the article in response to Harsh Mander’s piece ‘Sonia, Sadly’ (IE, March 17) which focussed on the political ostracism of Muslims — how political parties see them as a “liability” that could drive away Hindu voters; and how Muslims are censoring their religious identities in public. To drive home his point, Mander quoted an unnamed Dalit leader telling Muslims attending political meetings, “By all means come in large numbers to our rallies. But don’t come with your skullcaps and Burqa.” However, in a classic case of missing the wood for the trees, Guha nit-picked on the Burqa. He wrote, “The spirit of the (Dalit leader’s) advice was forward-looking. To object to its (Burqa’s) display in public is a mark not of intolerance, but of liberalism and emancipation.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. The Dalit leader’s advice was not driven by lofty agendas of “liberalism and emancipation”, but by the political need to to keep away Muslim symbols from his rally. Far from “emancipation”, such an advice disempowers Muslims to choose what they want to wear at a public meeting and prohibits an entire section among them to attend it. “Emancipation” cannot be forced upon people with calls for invisibility. Liberalism implies respecting the right of everyone, including a nude Jain monk or a Burqa-clad Muslim woman, to attend a public rally.
In order to balance his contempt for the Burqa, Guha likened it to the Trishul. He wrote, “While a Burqa may not be a weapon, in a symbolic sense it is akin to a Trishul. It represents the most reactionary, antediluvian aspects of the faith.” Yes, the Burqa is not a Trishul. Like a phone is not a fridge. An object is best defined by its use. A Burqa is to be worn; its appearance might cause contempt, or even fear, among some but it doesn’t kill. A Trishul, like all weapons, is designed to kill, to intimidate the enemy, and was used by Hindu deities to defeat evil forces. In times of hyper-Hindutva, the Trishul is used by grass roots BJP workers to exert Hindu dominance over the Muslim enemy. Which is why there is frequent news of motorcycle-borne youth with Tilaks on their foreheads and saffron flags in their hands brandishing Trishuls in Muslim-majority areas of small towns of the country.
Guha’s comparison of the Burqa, a symbol of a besieged minority, with the Trishul, a symbol of aggressive majoritarianism is, thus, callous and insensitive.
That the Burqa is “reactionary and antediluvian” is a simplistic view. I invite Guha to meet my friends, among them a law student, an entrepreneur, an MBA, all of whom wear stylish Abayas that they buy from across the world. They go to work, drive cars and bikes (some give me a ride as this Burqa-less writer can’t drive) and counsel me to stay strong when I feel low. A condescending view of the Burqa is typical of most liberal elites, who have their own definitions of a “good Muslim”. While the hardliner’s “good Muslim” eats only vegetables, chants “Bharat Mata ki Jai”, is seen nowhere near a cow, and speaks chaste Hindi, the elite left-liberal’s “good Muslim” eats Biryani, kebabs, recites Urdu poetry, and organises Ghazal evenings. That is only how far the “good Muslim” should express his/her identity. When he/she begins to defend the Burqa or the Topi, let alone wear one, he/she becomes “too Muslim” for comfort.
Guha also questions Mander citing the election of Sadiq Khan as London’s mayor as an example of Muslim contribution to political life. He writes, “Sadiq Khan does not wear a skull cap, and his wife does not wear a Burqa either… they have identified themselves as being in favour of gender equality as well as cultural diversity.” With due respect, has Guha asked the Khans about their view on the Burqa and the skullcap? Who knows, London would have still elected him if he wore a skullcap? Hashim Amla, with his unapologetically long beard, played in the South African cricket team not long after apartheid was abolished in that country. Ibtihaj Muhammad, a Black athlete who wears the headscarf, is the first American Hijabi Olympian. In her honour, Barbie recently launched a Hijabi black doll. This, in Trump’s America.
I concur with Guha on the lack of visionary Muslim leadership, but I wish he could see beyond the political realm. In my hometown, Lucknow, ordinary Muslims have taken on leadership roles in the education sector. Integral University, for example, is a large private institution run by Gulf-returned Muslims. Unity group of institutions, which includes colleges and hospitals, is run by Shia Muslims. In 2010, for The Indian Express, I did a story on how madrasas in Mewat, Haryana, are modernising themselves, including running co-educational centres that teach regular subjects alongside scripture, without government intervention. There would be thousands of such unglamorous local non-political Muslim leaders across the country who are doing commendable work but don’t make it to the headlines.
Guha counts “three Muslim leaders” since Independence “who had the potential to take their community out of a medievalist ghetto into a full engagement with the modern world”. Does one even need to recount stories after stories of Muslims being denied housing in mixed neighbourhoods? Actor Emraan Hashmi — hardly the stereotypical Muslim — was denied a flat in Mumbai because he is Muslim. Muslims don’t choose to live in ghettos, which are “medievalist” because the authorities deny them proper civic amenities.
Guha wishes for ghettoised Muslims a “full engagement with the modern world”. I lived in a “ghetto” in Jamia Nagar, Delhi, many years ago. And each day, I would go to work in “mainstream” parts of the city. I would eat out with friends at fancy restaurants, watch BBC at home, and travel to foreign lands. How else does one “fully engage with the modern world”? Surely, I won’t shed my Muslim-ness to appease anybody.
Finally, Guha calls on liberals to fight both Hindu and Muslim communalists and promote the interests of the individual over the community. I wish to remind him that a community is made up of individuals, and when you endorse a politician’s advice to a community to keep away its religious symbols, you mock the rights of individuals too. This is not the liberal position. It is as illiberal as it can get.
Akbar an art curator, entrepreneur and writer, was formerly with ‘The Indian Express’