The veil of ignorance

That schools and colleges should refuse to accept a covered head is distressing. Even more distressing is their argument broken down: you are only acceptable if you show exactly as much skin or hair as we demand

March 07, 2022 08:00 pm | Updated March 08, 2022 11:10 am IST

For 18 months, my family had maintained a strict masking and sanitising routine. I didn’t walk for exercise because maintaining a six-feet distance from others on the street was impossible and there were no large, empty parks around. If I stepped out for groceries, I bathed and changed my clothes immediately. In the early months of the pandemic, I read that the virus also clings to hair. My hair was long and hard to wash thoroughly (20 seconds of soaping for each strand?). That was how, for the first time in my life, I began to cover my hair when I stepped outside home.

I either wore hoodies or wrapped a scarf around my head. The former did not give me pause for thought; the latter did. Kids begging on the street sometimes addressed me as ‘baaji’ instead of ‘didi’. I sensed a tiny bit more deference at certain food-stores, but waited longer to be served in others. Was this was really happening or was I being over-sensitive? Yet, I also felt that female street vendors and other female shoppers did not react to the scarf. Only one woman laughed at my hoodie, mocking me for wearing it in a sweltering Mumbai summer.

During the second wave, in 2021, the virus struck me despite all my caution. Weeks later, I moved in with my brother’s family in a better-designed residential complex. It was possible to walk while maintaining a distance from others. One of the evening walkers was a woman who nodded and waved at me in passing. One day, she stopped wearing a mask.

I continued to smile and wave at her, but also continued to wear a mask. She approached me one day and told me that I must stop wearing a mask too. I don’t know if my eyes betrayed incredulity; I hoped they did. This woman went on to say that walking with a mask is bad for health. I made some sort of polite noise, saying the pandemic was not over. She said, if you’re vaccinated, you have nothing to worry about. I pointed out that there were two asthmatics at home. Yet, this woman argued. Then, abruptly, she asked where I lived, which flat?

I saw the wheels turning in her head, her mind casting about for what she may have heard about ‘who’ lives in that flat. I continued my walks with a mask on. The woman walked without a mask; she no longer smiled or waved.

What was going on in her head? My guess is, she didn’t know how to ‘place’ me. I was no longer covering my hair and was resigned to daily shampoos, but this wasn’t enough. The woman was looking for uniformity of a sort. We were both pajama-wearing, sneaker-wearing, walker ladies. Still, she couldn’t handle the difference of a scrap of fabric on my face.

What separated me from that woman was not my mask but the fact that covering up does not destroy my sense of who I am. I didn’t grow up in a hijab or even wearing a dupatta at all times, but I do not use skin, hair or clothes as a way of judging whether or not someone belongs. Besides, I am able to look at uncovering and covering as a spectrum and not as silos of identity.

In India, women in sarees and salwar-kameezes outnumber those in swimwear on our beaches and these are not Muslim women for the most part. There are times I find myself wishing there were fewer topless men around because the contrast is dissonant: men and boys of all age, shape, size displaying their underwear, while the women are covered neck to ankle. But I don’t go about challenging anyone’s right to show as much of their bodies as they choose. I do have some reservations about the rationale for a total rejection of clothing in public spaces but I do not show disrespect to men who go without clothes in the name of their religious values.. I avert my eyes rather than impinge on their right to self-expression. What I cannot accept is that some people have such rights while others do not.

We cannot discuss cultural rights without acknowledging the right to be different. Both the spirit of the Constitution and morality demand that difference be upheld as the norm and that uniformity, where necessary, be implemented with a degree of flexibility. People can mould themselves in the light of their own vision, but must not interfere with another person’s right to do the same. Unless this idea is upheld, democracy and freedom cannot be upheld.

Uniformity as a value can be taken to ridiculous lengths. I am reminded of my own schooldays when I was pulled up by a teacher for wearing my long hair loose, although there was no rule forbidding it. When I gave in and began to tie my hair, I was told to tie it in a different style. The problem was not my hair. It was that I didn’t look like other girls. I was experimenting with my ‘self’, and my desire to be different was making some of the teachers uneasy.

A good school or college teaches students to see people for the good or harm they do rather than focus on their skin, surnames, hair or tiffin-boxes. No society can hope to emerge from the dark pit of ignorance if it refuses to allow experiments with appearance, habits, even cultural values. What is ignorance, after all, but not knowing? Knowledge comes from seeing, listening, recognising, interpreting. A mulish refusal to allow difference is rooted in an irrational fear of knowledge. If uniform rules lead to the denial of education, the best academic response is to discuss the role of uniformity as a cultural value.

That schools and colleges should refuse to accept a covered head is distressing. Even more distressing is their argument broken down: you are only acceptable if you show exactly as much skin or hair as we demand. This is as good as saying: you have no right to govern your own body. This is a dangerous idea to put into any institution, private or public, and especially dangerous for women if endorsed by the state and courts of law.

Those who use the ‘uniform’ argument to keep Muslims out of educational institutions have struck a double blow. The first blow lands on the rights of Muslim students while the second lands upon the hearts of Hindu students whose capacity for critical thought and solidarity is being squeeze-shrunk out of them. They are being taught that it is okay to reject someone based on their appearance, that it is okay to bully or hate those who are different. Worse, it pushes forward the idea that cultural identities are fixed and citizens have no right to multiple or overlapping identities.

There have been some mal-intentioned arguments on social media, based on pictures of girls with and without the hijab, seeming to make the argument that if a girl can show her hair in one location, among one set of people, she has no right to cover herself in another location. The dangers of this argument are so great, and so obvious, that I am amazed at how little pushback there has been from women’s groups across the country.

I have worn sarees and swimsuits, not the hijab. Even so, I reserve the right to wear a scarf or a burqa at any time. Whether I do this to fit into a cultural milieu or as a political act, whether I wear it all the time or simply because I don’t want strangers looking at me in a specific location, is my business. Feminists have long argued the right of women to occupy public space and institutions on our terms, to be defined by intellect or physical capabilities and not by how much of our bodies is on display. Yet, larger women’s alliances have not protested alongside Muslim girls in support of their right to self-determination.

It is also distressing to hear ill-informed arguments about how Indian Muslim women have not progressed enough over the last few decades. In 1951, only 8.8% of the total female population was literate. As per the 2011 census, just over 65% of girls over the age of seven were literate. The figures for Muslim women are slightly lower, at 51.9% but to suggest that they haven’t been striding forward since Independence is simply false. After all, over 44% of Hindu women also remain illiterate. The difference has more to do with inequity and the greater poverty of Indian Muslims as a whole than a desire to remain uneducated. Many more Muslim girls and women do go to school and college now.

Women ought to know better than to equate female progress with the exposure of female bodies. To take away from a woman the right to cover herself is an absolute inversion of the bullying tactics that once prevented women from running marathons, or attending university, or wearing trousers. Bullying in the opposite direction is bullying nevertheless.

The right question to ask is: why is it that despite graduating in ever-larger numbers, women are not a bigger part of the workforce? Why are Muslims, men included, underrepresented in organised industries and in leadership roles? What rules and policies do we need that will right our current imbalances? Why have we, as a nation, become obsessed with uniformity and homogeneity, and how does anyone dressing or loving in a different way hurt anyone?

If we cannot bring ourselves to ask the right questions, we are doomed to flounder in the sea of wrong answers and, for once, we will flounder uniformly. When the whirlpool of wilful ignorance sucks us all down, it will not pause to inspect our headgear or hemlines.

Annie Zaidi is a writer and filmmaker.

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