By Irena Akbar
Jun 25, 2009
New Delhi: Maria Khan, a 26-year-old research scholar at Jamia Hamdard, Delhi, designs her own burqas. She sketches on a paper an “A-line” burqa, a “coat-style” one or a burqa with a side-collar that ends at the knees. When she wears her jeans, she puts on a grey-chequered burqa. And with salwar suit, she matches it with a floral burqa. “The colour black has nothing to do with the burqa,” she says.
Maria started wearing burqa three years ago when she completed her Bachelors of Pharmacy. The decision, she says, had nothing to do with religion. “I wanted to experiment with it,” she says. “I always wanted to be on a par with men. I’d seen in my college and elsewhere that women were either favoured or discriminated against because they are perceived to be the weaker sex. I wanted my male peers to treat me as equal. I thought, a burqa might help,” she says.
She bought one and wore it, against the advice of her family who were afraid it would single her out in a crowd. Her Muslim friends too advised her not to wear it when she appeared for interviews for two MNCs. “They thought I wouldn’t get the job. But in my college, I was the only one who got selected,” she says. The interviewees did ask her whether her burqa would impede her interaction with colleagues. “I explained to them that the burqa is an empowerment tool for me. It helps me to be treated on a par by my male colleagues. By not giving me a clear-cut feminine form, it does not let people look at my sexuality,” she says. She didn’t join either company as she enrolled for her Masters.
Now, in her department in which she’s the only woman, male colleagues chat, gossip, crack light jokes and enjoy a cup of coffee with her. “It’s all the same as it was before I wore the burqa. Except that they fear me. They have drawn their lines because they know that a burqa-clad woman is the no-nonsense type. And that makes me feel powerful.”
Surely, Maria doesn’t fit into French President Nicholas Sarkozy’s description of burqa-clad women as “prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity” — a remark he made earlier this week.
Shaista Masood, a 26-year-old homemaker from Jammu who now lives in Nainital, doesn’t fit into Sarkozy’s perception either. Shaista decided to wear the full burqa and hijab that would expose only her eyes, at the age of 14. At that time, she was studying in Mumbai and would often see burqa-clad girls riding scooters. “They were my inspiration. I thought wow, these girls have some guts. And since then, I decided to fully cover myself up.”
When she shifted back to Jammu, Shaista freelanced as a reporter for AIR. “I would do face-to-face interviews with people in that region, which is populated mostly by non-Muslims. Nobody raised an eyebrow. And I walked freely in my flowing burqa, without any discomfort,” she says. Later, when she was studying Masters in Human Rights at Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi, she attended seminars at five-star hotels and did social volunteer work in villages, as part of her curriculum. “The hijab didn’t come in way of my work or public image. Everybody treated me as anyone else.”
She says it makes her look more beautiful than non-hijabi women. “A lot of guys in college would compliment me on how feminine and graceful I look in my hijab,” she says.
Andleeb Shuaib, a 27-year-old hijabi doctor, also has matching headscarves for her salwar suits in order to “look modest and fashionable at the same time”. She says of Sarkozy’s comment, “I am not a prisoner. I am wearing this out of choice. If somebody forced me to wax my legs and wear a bikini, I would have been a prisoner. My hijab lets people just focus on my work and my values, than on my body.” Shaista says, “I think those who are forced to wear the hijab are enslaved.” But banning any kind of clothing, says Maria, is a “violation of human rights” and such statements are “irresponsible”. “Sarkozy should know if such practice is being followed for thousands of years, it has some use, otherwise it would have died out,” she says.
Andleeb was told by her parents when she was 11 that wearing a burqa is God’s command and is good for her. Even today, when she travels to Delhi from Aligarh, where her parents live, she does not take off her hijab. “When they are not around, I don’t go wild and take it off. I wear it because I like it.”
Hijab, for Andleeb, is a matter of identity. “It tells the world what I believe in and what my values are.”
She also says that the burqa commands more respect when she’s in public. When she came down to Delhi to work at the Holy Family Hospital, a non-Muslim accountant there was surprised. “He probably thought only uneducated women are forced into wearing the burqa.”
Maria too encounters stereotypes. “Often, when I have to pay bills, the look people at the counter give me is that of pity, as if I am an oppressed woman. But once I open my mouth, their expression of surprise gives me the kicks,” she says.
Source: Indian Express, New Delhi