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Unveil your minds, please

Colombo, Sri Lanka - April 13, 2010: Muslim women walk on the beach in Sri Lanka. A majority of Sri Lanka is Buddhist, but because of trade routes, Islam was introduced and can be found in many Southern Communities.

I come from a Muslim family that, at least for the past three generations, has not observed purdah or worn the hijab. (Yes, I know that ‘purdah’ and ‘hijab’ are different things, but let us use them as synonyms.) My grandmothers and my mother were deeply devout individuals, but they did not veil themselves. My grandfather and father were believing Muslims, but they did not believe that veiling was required by religion or respectability.

While we had professional education, we were not a ‘westernised’ family: our idiom was essentially Awadhi Urdu, and our lifestyles influenced by that complex heritage. We did not stop observing the custom of purdah in order to be modern or ‘westernised’; we did so because we believed it was not required by our religion. In this, though, we differed from many Muslims around us and from some of our extended family members. To our credit, we never thought badly of them because the women in their families observed purdah. To their credit, they never tried to talk us into observing purdah.

Matter of choice

I grew up not just unaccustomed to the purdah — the hijab was not used until the 1980s in other branches of the family too — I am and remain opposed to the custom. If my daughter wanted to wear a hijab or observe purdah, I would do my best to talk her out of it. However, if she insisted, I would accept it — without demeaning her — just as I would accept it if she chose any other kind of clothing. There are various reasons why I would do so, and they are based on my opposition to the hijab and the purdah.

First, personal decisions, such as the clothes we wear or the person we decide to marry, are and can only be matters of individual choice. My opposition to the hijab is based on the fact that some social circles tie it too closely to religion and respectability, thus shrinking the sphere of choice for many women. But this, in India, is also the case with, say, wearing ripped jeans or skirts or the kind of ‘cholis’ that our glamorous ‘villagers’ wear in Bollywood films: social pressure exists on women in many circles, including Hindu ones, not to wear such garments because “they are against our culture” or “they are indecent.” This pressure does not just frame the hijab; it frames many other choices of clothes in India. If we want the hijab to become less popular in certain Muslim circles, we will need to change this largely patriarchal way of thinking all over mainstream India. This we cannot do while sitting in our safe enclaves, wearing whatever we want; we will need to go out and take on the male mobs currently bullying and preventing hijab-wearing Muslim students from going to college.

My opposition to the hijab — or the ‘Hindutva’ discourse that considers certain kinds of clothing more Indian than other kinds — is based on choice. I feel that neither religion nor culture nor ‘respectability’ can be used as an argument against personal choice in such matters. This is so because finally any definition of religion, culture or respectability is someone else’s interpretation: if I impose my opposition to the hijab or purdah on my daughter, I impose my definitions on her. It is, in that regard, no different from someone imposing the hijab on his or her daughter, or prohibiting her from wearing ripped jeans. I want my daughter to work out her own definitions, and I am willing to accept that her definitions will not always coincide with mine. This is because I want her never to veil her mind. I want her to live by assuming full responsibility for her own decisions and choices.

If a woman wears the hijab, but educates herself, works or takes responsibility for her own life, I have far more respect for her than for a woman who ‘liberates’ herself in her clothes, but not in her mind or her living space. I have met many Muslim women who wear hijabs and live an active, thinking, working life; I have also known a few Muslim women or men who look down on the hijab from a class perspective, but do not have half the strength of such veiled women.

Three outcomes

There is a needless hullabaloo over the hijab in places like Karnataka today. It ignores many factors, including the fact that it is better for a girl to wear a hijab and get a good education than to be forced to stay at home. This manufactured controversy will have only three outcomes, each linked to the other. One, it will consolidate some more Hindu votes for a certain political nexus. Two, it will pressure more Muslims into holding on tightly (and erroneously) to the hijab as a symbol of identity. Three, it will make it more difficult for those who believe that the hijab is unnecessary as a symbol of religion or respectability, and want Muslim girls to get better education and a place in the Indian workforce. India can do better.

Tabish Khair is an Indian novelist and academic who teaches in Denmark


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Printable version | Feb 17, 2022 12:51:07 am | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/unveil-your-minds-please/article65056205.ece