Monday, August 23, 2010

Veiled Matters

In July, earlier this year, the French Parliament passed a ban on burqa. There are other countries which are debating the same. Then there are some which do not have a law against face veils but where women sometimes are persecuted because of the same.

In today’s world, due to a volatile mix of xenophobia, half truths and media hype, the image of a veiled woman is almost always that of burqa clad Muslim woman or in the most liberal instances of a woman wearing headscarves. It is, however, worth remembering that the custom of face veils was common across religions as diverse as Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and Islam at the turn of the twentieth century. Even today, at a traditional wedding, women opt to wear veils, either in the form of the Indian Ghoonghat or the gauzy piece of cloth or net hanging from the headdress of a Christian bride.

The point is that whether a woman wears a veil or not should be her personal choice and not the diktat of either democratic government or dictatorial, tyrant regimes, a la Taliban. Some women claim that they feel safer behind the burqa while there are others who feel suffocated in its close confines, both physically and emotionally. I say, let all of them be.

The paranoid world in which we live today sees the burqa as a threat, as a veil (pun intended) behind which terrorists can hide. To some extent, perhaps the world is justified. After all, even in our potboiler movies we have seen heroes and villains alike wear a burqa to hide their identities in an attempt to either save the day or commit some folly. So, maybe when security checks are required, burqa clad women can be asked to show their faces but to ban it altogether is a mite overreaching.

In Dalrymple’s City of Djinns, there is a very moving account of Mughal women being strip searched for hidden valuables by British soldiers post the 1857 uprising. These were women whose faces were seen by only a handful of people so far, mostly comprising maids and female relatives.

In modern and progressive societies, such incidents evoke outrage at the insult along with a sense of wonder at women who spent their entire lives behind purdah. Then there are old timers who would remember the tehzeeb and adab (courtly manners and chivalry) that marked the heydays of Mughal India. Such people, however, are few and far in between. Mostly people now remember the angst and pain born out of sheer stupidity and violent malice of a handful of gun-toting madmen.

I think it’s time to get past such prejudices. Banning headscarves and veils are not signs of modernity. Neither is passing fatwas in favour of them. Accepting them as a woman’s choice is.

It’s time to remember that each culture and each religion has something unique, something special. We may or may not agree with them. But intolerance should not be tolerated either.

Such proclamations sound preachy to most people (including yours truly) yet they are true. I remember reading a small Sanskrit phrase in school: vasudhev kutumbkam, that is, “the entire world is my home and all its residents my family”. While we selectively quote scriptures to justify all sorts of excesses, maybe we should sometimes quote them to invoke a common goodwill. Surely it’s not that difficult.

And let’s dispel the notion that only illiterates and conservative societies are prejudiced. We, the educated and modern populace, are as misguided by half truths and propaganda as our not so educated counterparts. In some instances, we are as rigid and intolerant as those we deride for their outdated ideas. Just last week or so, I read in the newspaper, how a schoolteacher was slapped by her colleague because she wore salwar kameez to school and not the sari. Another was boycotted by her own students because they did not approve of her choice of attire. And in case you think that these things happen in some remote town, think again. These are real incidents that took place in the outskirts of Kolkata, the thinking man's city.  

Therefore, the least we all can do is, try. We are not revolutionaries who can change the world by ourselves. But we can surely start the revolution to accept what we do not fully understand, not to indiscriminately condemn everything that we cannot comprehend.

Here's raising a toast to such attempts. Slainte. 
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  1. This is a complicated issue. There are some women who choose to wear a veil b/c they've been conditioned to wear it since childhood, and with time they internalize the belief that the veil makes them feel safer. In such cases also it can be argued that veils are a symbol of subjugation.

  2. I agree that it's a complicated and not a simple issue. I would not feel comfortable behind a veil. I think it should be a matter of personal choice and not any kind of diktat, be it by govt. or dictatorship :-)