By Sehba Farooqui
1 August 2010
It would not be entirely correct to assume that the animated discussion these days on the subject of the burqa necessarily reflects a concern for the rights of Muslim women. The current discourse partly serves to reinforce the stereotype of the “backward” Muslim.
Nevertheless, this has emerged as a controversial issue wherein, ultimately, conservative and right-wing agendas are being pursued. The rights of women have no place in these agendas.
It would be worthwhile to view the issue of the burqa within a larger social and historical context. Patriarchal societies, across time and space, have had a long tradition of making women conceal their faces through the use of the veil. The nature and style of the veil has of course varied from society to society. There are references to the veil for instance in Shakuntala, and to its use by women of the aristocracy in Europe in the 19th century, in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. In several parts of north India even today the custom of covering the face with purdah or ‘ghungat’ is widespread, and not confined to any particular community.
The use of the typical robe-like burqa covering the entire body from head to ankle, with two small openings for the eyes, seems to have become prevalent in parts of the subcontinent only during the 19th century. There are hardly any visual representations of this form of the burqa earlier. By the beginning of the 20th century this type of burqa was worn quite extensively by Muslim women in large and small urban centres. There was a tendency for older women to wear a heavy white-coloured burqa while relatively younger women wore a lighter black burqa . Then, by the 1960s and early 1970s young Muslim women, particularly those who had had access to higher education, often preferred not to wear the burqa — usually covering their heads with a dupatta. In other words, not wearing the traditional burqa had become quite acceptable among several sections of Muslims in India.
This trend was not specific to India alone. In fact during the course of the 20th century, an increasing number of Muslim women in several countries of Asia and Africa (countries which had a predominantly Muslim population) did not wear any kind of burqa or veil. Prominent among these are Turkey, Algeria, Tunisia, Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt. Even in Indonesia and Malaysia one mainly comes across a covering for the head. In subcontinent, we are familiar with images of Benazir Bhutto, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina covering their heads with a dupatta or pallu. Thus, one cannot regard the use of the traditional burqa as a universal practice in Muslim societies.
The political developments of the 1980s and 1990s in the Indian subcontinent contributed to a revival of the burqa, or at least a growing emphasis on its use in the way in which Islam was perceived by some sections of Muslim societies. To some extent this trend was set in motion after 1979, when the mass upsurge against the hated regime of the Shah of Iran took a right-wing turn and culminated in the establishment of a conservative religious orthodoxy in that country with far-reaching ideological consequences. The more important development was the coup of Zia-ul-Haq in Pakistan. This resulted in an ultra-reactionary regime which was fully backed by the United States. Against the backdrop of the events in Iran, which more or less coincided with Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan in December 1979, the Zia regime became the US instrument to thwart progressive and democratic movements in this region.
Women obviously became the main victims of this reinterpretation, which in its extreme form was manifested in the Hudood Ordinances of 1979. These measures were a major setback for the movement for women’s rights in Pakistan, and had an adverse impact on the entire subcontinent.
Overlapping with these developments was the growing communalisation of Indian politics during the 1980s and 1990s. The phenomenon is too ?well known to require elaboration. Suffice it to say that in this situation the Muslim minority in India felt increasingly threatened and insecure. The riots which followed the demolition ?of the Babri Masjid, particularly the ?anti-Muslim pogrom in Mumbai, led some sections of Muslim society to adopt specific modes of dress and other outward symbols as an assertion of identity. In Mumbai, quite a few college-going girls from affluent Muslim families took to wearing the burqa. This trend, which is also the result of processes at work in the neighbouring region (as well as internationally since 9/11), suits the agenda of conservative sections from which it finds support and encouragement.
The issue of the burqa cannot be understood without referring to the larger context. At the same time it needs to be noted that the current preoccupation with it in the media is essentially due to the attempt by the Sarkozy government in France to ban the burqa in public places. The Sarkozy government is not a great champion of women’s rights, and the politics of burqa in France has to be related to the complex situation in that country rather than using it to label Muslims in India as being generally backward, or as a pretext to push Muslim women into seclusion.
Sehba Farooqui is General Secretary of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, New Delhi
Source: The Indian Express