The veil’s true shroud

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Burqa bans are easy publicity but don’t address the root of the problem

Shabnam HashmiBy Shabnam Hashmi

THERE IS no black and white answer when it comes to the burqa. While I find it a sign of subjugation, that doesn’t mean that states should impose a blanket burqa ban. That will not help women’s empowerment but will affect France adversely. Those who have to wear the burqa will also lose the other freedoms they have.

Illustration: Anand Naorem

The entire debate around the burqa reminds me of Sanjay Gandhi’s sterilisation drive. While India needs family planning, is forcing people to adopt it going to curb population growth? The only way forward is to bring people to the level where they realize that it is better to have three children rather than 10. The same logic applies to the issue of the burqa.

Also, while we talk only about the burqa as a form of subjugation of women, I think dowry is a much bigger humiliation. I don’t know much about the historical origins of the burqa. From what my mother tells me, it was originally suggested that one corner of the dupatta or chadar hang slightly lower to identify a woman as Muslim and protect her, as attacks on all communities were occurring then. At that time, it was not related to oppression. I think it was in South Asia that the tradition grew, especially when it mixed with the idea of the ghoonghat, which, of course, the media never talks about.

President Sarkozy can imply that a burqa is not in line with modern civilization, but I’m not so sure what the definition of modernity is. I recently read about a Canadian girl who felt she was reclaiming her body by wearing a hijab. That indicates the intense pressure to look good in western society; pressure so overbearing that this girl thought that donning the hijab was a worthy price to pay for relief.

Yes, there are women who wear the burqa willingly, but I think that reflects the pre-conditioning that they’ve been put through. For instance, domestic abuse is rampant in India and many Indian women accept beatings from their husbands. Many consider it normal for their husband to slap them. It is the same sort of conditioning that makes women say, “I am happy to wear a burqa”. They think this is what their religion expects of them, but in reality it is an imposition.

Whether sindoor or burqa, few women in our society have managed to discard the markings imposed on them by religious practices. We should become a society where women refuse to be recognised by these symbols and markings.

Sarkozy’s comments reflect a very flawed understanding of society and politics. What needs to be addressed is not the burqa itself, but the process through which it arrived and the process through which it can be phased out. The struggle to create an equal society for both genders is long and slow.

Be it sindoor or burqa, few women have managed to discard markings imposed on them by religion

Whenever a minority or any religious group feels insecure, they move deeper into their religious identities. Specifically in India, since Muslims are being forced out of their religious identities, they are now aligning more closely with it and all the symbols associated with it.

I don’t think we need a government ban to address the issue. We need to understand that Islamic societies are not the confined conservative places they are portrayed as. Walk into Pakistan and you will find women equally militant about their rights, fighting for their choices and not at all confined by the external symbols of religion.

But saying that societies will evolve on their own in a way that will make the burqa disappear is also a stretch. The government does have a role to play. It can use affirmative action to encourage more education and bring minorities and the marginalized onto a level playing field. Education will bring a certain level of consciousness. Once this happens, the transformation will come – but from within.

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