I visit a potter’s house by a pavement in Delhi to buy clay pots. A middle-aged married woman shows me pots in various designs. I am impressed by her salesmanship and negotiation skills as well as her mental math ability as she quickly calculates the total cost of a large number of differently priced pots without using a calculator. However, I am taken aback when, while stepping out of her house, she dons the ghunghat and covers her face with the pallu of her sari.
When I ask her the reason for resorting to this patriarchal practice of donning the ghunghat or purdah, she laughs and says it is a family custom she has been used to for many years. As I inquire further by asking how rigid a custom it is, she says it is more of a habit now. The obduracy had been diluted since they moved to the city from their village in Rajasthan many years back. She also tells me that she does not expect her daughters or daughters-in-law to follow the archaic custom in future. “Samay badal gaya hai (Times have changed now),” she says.
This brings back memories of how my mother and other female relatives her age in the 1990s wouldn’t step out of the house without a dupatta and for whom wearing western clothes, even the humble jeans or trousers, was taboo. I personally take pride in the fact that the dupatta that used to be an essential symbol of modesty has now become a mere accessory, at least for families like mine that are rather conventional, and women of my mother’s generation are finally empowered enough to choose their attire, be it Indian or western dresses.
Women’s dressing is closely associated with their levels of empowerment as well as with politics. In conservative cultures, including in our country, whenever there are attempts to control women, it is their clothing that becomes the first target. Those who like to keep their daughters, sisters and wives on a leash keep a thorough check on their dress. Rowdy behaviour of men, including heinous crimes like rape, are mostly blamed on women’s attire, which is considered a critical benchmark of their character.
This brings me to the ongoing debate around the burkini or full-body swimsuit consisting of the hijab or head covering worn by conservative Muslim women at beaches in France. There has been much brouhaha over France’s criticism of the distinctive swimsuit and the decision to ban it in public places. This issue has raised two questions in my mind:
1) Is France right in banning the garment in public places?
2) Does the ban really prohibit women from ‘choosing’ to wear what they desire?
Answer to the first question needs to be independent of the merits of wearing the burkini.
France has one of the most liberal and pluralist cultures in the world. Among European countries, it is exceptionally secular. The country has for over a century been against religion being pushed too prominently into mainstream society. While France upholds multicultural ethos, it has a right to say no to practices that bring religion too far into public life simply because it is a principle the country likes to follow. In the name of multiculturalism, it shouldn’t let its own liberal culture diminish. No community should be given exceptions that are in conflict with France’s liberalism.
France had earlier banned men’s baggy swimming trunks from public pools, so why not ban full-body swimsuits, even if for aesthetic reasons? Just as at an event with a black tie dress code people in t-shirts are not allowed to enter, why not respect the dress code that France wants to have at its public pools and beaches?
In the name of culture, many Islamic countries prohibit foreign tourists, especially women, from wearing clothes that are deemed offensive by the host country. So why can’t France be offended by Islamic clothing to safeguard its own culture? With the 2017 Women’s World Chess Championship slated to be held in Iran, all the female participants are expected to wear the hijab and cover up throughout their stay in the Islamic Republic, which could well be against most participants’ liberal cultures.
Saudi Arabia, that treats its women like third-class citizens, doesn’t give any leverage to visiting foreigners when it comes to their dresses or eating habits that are not harmonious with Islamic culture. So why can’t western countries be expected to refrain from accepting traditions that are against their liberal values?
Now coming to whether the burkini is a woman’s personal choice or something imposed on her.
Much has been said and written about how a large number of Muslim women choose to wear the burqa or chador or hijab or abaya for the purpose of avoiding the male gaze and safeguarding their modesty. Much has also been said about how western women are conditioned to expose their bodies and appear in a certain way to satisfy the male gaze.
Everyone has a right to choose their outfits depending on comfort and free will. In conservative societies in the world including India, women have been trained to believe that it is their own responsibility to protect their honour and stay modest by covering their bodies and abstaining from various things they might desire to do, such as wearing make-up or certain clothes, visiting certain places, choosing uncommon careers or having a few drinks. This means that in such cultures it is believed that men have no moral values or self control, and that they have a right to ogle at, pounce at or judge a woman based on how much modesty she reflects.
In such societies, decisions about their lives are not taken independently by women but as a consequence of the patriarchal mindsets that both men and women inherit. When a choice is made under the influence of unquestionable rules passed on from generations, it is certainly not free choice. While the same could be said about western women being influenced by the mindset that revealing their bodies is emancipation, at least such women do not have strict rules to abide by and no fear of shame or punishment upon breaking any laws of lifestyle.
Aheda Zanneti, the Australian Muslim woman who designed the burkini, wrote in The Guardian that the burkini is not a symbol of Islam but is meant to benefit women who want to cover up while indulging in sport or leisure by a swimming pool.
If that is the case, then why the rigidity with the hijab or head cover being strictly in place. Why are women not allowed to take off the hijab for just a few minutes in public even when they feel hot and want to get some air? Isn’t it cruel to play a sport in thick spandex covering you from head to toe in the blaring heat? Revealing one’s body need not be for the purpose of exhibition. It can be done for mere comfort as well. And why is covering of bodies a stricture only for women? Are women really sex objects, whose exposed ankles or arms can titillate a man? If a woman’s bare legs or shoulders can excite a man, will not the sight of a man’s bare chest at a beach arouse women?
To sum up, I would like to quote Zanneti from the article she wrote for The Guardian. “Do I call myself a feminist? Yes, maybe. I like to stand behind my man, but I am the engine, and I choose to be. I want him to take all the credit, but I am the quiet achiever.” Perhaps this distorted definition of feminism, a concept already abused and persecuted in the harshest ways, can help find answers to this mindset.