By Azra Razzack
The Sachar Committee attempted to transform the debate of Muslim backwardness from the confines of religion and identity to issues of development. Five years later, not much appears to have changed, especially for the Muslim woman. The discourse has been largely confined to issues like divorce, purdah, polygamy, etc., the reporting limited by stereotypes. 2010 has brought some more stories, other names have joined the list of Ameena, Gudiya, and Imrana. Recently, Sirin Middya of Aliah University in Kolkata was in the news because of her refusal to wear the burqa, despite a diktat from the students union. Soon after, we have Rayana R. Kazi, an engineering graduate from Kasargod district in Kerala, who has been threatened for failing to observe purdah and wear the headscarf. Reason enough for her to hit the headlines. Even though women across India are subjected to strictures from their communities, stories about Muslim women are particularly news-worthy.
What was surprising in the Sirin Middya case was the silence of the university authorities. The Aliah University website states: “It is hoped that along with the people of any race, creed, caste or class, this university will play a crucial and leading role in the advancement of higher education”. The vision statement mentions that the university would like to instill a dynamism so that the students “can successfully cope with the critical needs and challenges of the present... develop love and respect for fellow citizens of the country, and integrate themselves to the nation.” Transferring Sirin Middya to another campus, away from the protesting students, was hardly a reflection of this spirit. It took the West Bengal minority affairs minister’s intervention to let her resume classes. Rayana Kazi is still struggling to exercise her choice and has had to seek protection from the high court against a harrassment which is now over an year long.
It is easy to take a position and say that these kind of diktats are unacceptable, wherever they emanate from. But the wearing or not wearing of a burqa/hijab is an individual choice about attire. Just as other women exercise their option to dress in the manner they want, without any hue and cry, a woman in burqa/hijab should have the right to dress in the way she wants to. However, what is problematic in this debate around the veil is the assumption that the mere wearing of a hijab is retrogressive, and that not wearing it is liberating. The assumption that by wearing it, a woman’s mind, determination and intellect are also being enclosed, is preposterous.
Purdah, burqa, hijab are words that have generated controversy across the world. President Suharto had banned its use in public schools in Indonesia, Kemal Attaturk in Turkey. France has banned it “to respect the principle of secularity in school.” If teachers in France refused to teach Muslim students who were wearing the headscarf — it is Muslim students here in India who are refusing to be taught by a teacher who does not wear a headscarf. The personal faith and religious convictions of an individual are being fought in the public sphere.
So how does one address this problematic perception of the Muslim woman? Can we not address the more pressing problems Muslim women are confronted with while negotiating their daily existence? Can we not lift this veil, not from the Muslim woman’s face but from our narrow and ignorant minds, which refuse to see beyond? Fundamental to this debate around the purdah and the hijab is the obsession with a woman’s physical form. No one seems to be bothered about the Muslim woman’s intellect, her resolve, her strength, her desires and aspirations — but her dress attracts intense scrutiny. No one is bothered about her poverty, her illiteracy, her exploitation. She is subjugated, and reduced to an object for comment — whether by the students of Aliah University, activists of the Popular Front of India in Kerala, the innumerable maulanas who issue fatwas by the drop of a hat, or the so-called “progressive” voices of the “developed” world. If the maulana doesn’t give the Muslim woman a choice, nor does the so called “progressive”. The lens through which Muslim women are seen is problematically tinted, and myopic. Whether it is the banning of the veil where women want to wear it, or the compulsion of the veil where women don’t want to wear it, they have no choice. It is an assault on their selfhood.
The issue here is not just the right to a choice of clothing, or modesty for that matter. It is one where the Muslim woman can be seen as attempting to reclaim space for herself, a space which had been lost in the process of colonisation and now, with the compulsions of a globalised world. Both the wearing of the burqa as well as its rejection can be seen the unfolding of the recovery of an Islamic self — the form in which it is manifested is another matter. What matters is the informed choice that Muslim women have begun to make.
The writer is professor, Centre for Dalit and Minorities Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia
Source: The Indian Express, New Delhi