By Uma Sudhir
A colleague whose wife, he says, grew up wearing short skirts to high school, now won’t step out of home without her burqa. They have two daughters. The elder one went to a Christian school. The younger one is going to a Deoband-run school. He says there is a perennial clash of values at home. He doesn’t want his wife to wear a burqa. Till a few years ago, she agreed. Now she doesn’t. The elder one loves to dress in jeans and other western outfits. The mother doesn’t approve. The younger one, just stepping into her teens, won’t even show the lower half of her legs or even her feet, even when sitting on the ground. I have seen her happily wear a headscarf even as a child.
As someone who does not wear a burqa, I have no firsthand authority to speak on how the women who do wear or are expected to wear, feel. Nor what it means to them.The cultural values we imbibe as we grow and social conditioning makes us decide what we think is right for us.
And sometimes, when we feel threatened and want to emphasise our identity, going back to the folds of religion, culture, tradition, whatever you call it, gives a sense of satisfaction and security. That perhaps explains why the wife chose what she and her daughters should wear.
I can’t make a value judgment. Can’t label it regressive or oppressive. Even if I disapproved of it, I would go with the philosophy behind a quote attributed to Voltaire, a personal favourite : “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Similarly so for what women choose to wear.
So how come the country from where this philosopher hailed, the country that famously immortalised `liberty, equality and fraternity’ as values for the world to celebrate, has chosen to dictate to its women what they can wear and what they cannot?
The intentions are made to sound adequately noble. It is an attempt to save them from “enslavement and debasement”, from a “walking coffin”, a “muzzle” and help them shed their “dark sectarian image”.
The rider being that if the women don’t fall in line with the government’s attempt to ensure their “freedom”, they can be penalised for it. A $185 fine, compulsory citizenship classes. Essentially nullifying their freedom to make choices.
What an irony. Instead of focussing on lifting the veil off the women, wish they would spare a thought on their own veil of prejudice, their own veiled bigotry.
To me it seems that behind the lofty claims of liberating women, there is a thinly veiled unease with the visible signs of Islam in Europe. The claim of overwhelming support to the ban (80 per cent of the French, 70 per cent German voters and 62 per cent British voters, according to a recent poll), to me, reveals the deep-seated fears of the West about Islam and the black of the veil fits in with their underlying dark fears about what could be behind it.
Any liberal would agree that the State has no right to interfere in the religious choices of its people, specially the minorities. Whether the burqa is a religious symbol is of course an altogether different debate. Then again, feminists would argue that women alone should decide what they choose to wear, whether they want to show their face and hair or not.
Am sure, Europe is short of neither liberals nor feminists. But then it is estimated that less than 2000 Muslim women still wear the burqa in France out of a Muslim population of five million to six million. Thats less than 0.0003 per cent of the population.
If we take the case of Belgium that is also mulling a ban, no more than an estimated 215 women in Belgium are said to be fully veiled.
Claims of threat to public security and assertion of national identity and dignity are shallow. If this is an attempt to define French national identity, wouldn’t values of liberty, equality and fraternity define France better? France banned religious symbols, including Islamic headscarves, in schools in 2004. But the important difference was that turbans, crosses and Jewish stars were also banned. So there was in a sense a parity in the imposition of values advocated.
You can discourage wearing veils but bringing a law to impose that is blatantly and patently wrong. Many may view this as an attempt to correct how women are viewed in Islam but I suspect this is much more about how Islam is viewed in the West.
I suspect it is a fallout of judging other cultures and religions by the yardstick of one’s own cultural, religious and moral values. The subjective context in each case is forgotten.
Ideas of modesty and decency considered appropriate for public spaces and religious spaces also differ vastly in the West and the East. Wonder if it would not be scandalous if a streaker or a bikini-clad woman were to walk into a church.
In the attempt to impose what we see as right, we turn into exactly the kind of people we criticise. No more can the claims be made of being upholders of freedom and tolerance, of being evolved and enlightened civilisations. Why then single out and criticise countries like Afghanistan that doesn’t let a woman wear jeans and skirts? Why point fingers at a Saudi Arabia for banning other religious symbols like the Bible and Hindu idols from even being brought into the country and not allowing people to wear religious symbols associated with anything other than Islam? How is a Europe better, that is banning the burqa and doesn’t let a woman decide for herself ?
Not to say that there is only one view about the burqa. I asked a young friend from Pakistan who I have always seen in a burqa (not necessarily with the face-veil though) what the dress meant to her. She said she wore it because it made her family members happy.
“One day I am going to stop wearing it but till then, no two lives. One before the family and one for myself, my friends. So I never step out without it now but one day I will give it up for good.”
My interactions with women from many parts of India, Afghanistan, Maldives and elsewhere leaves me with only one thought. Coercion, whether through legislation, a maulvi’s fatwa or social pressure, doesn’t change attitudes. It may be a garment of oppression but it is not a simple piece of cloth. It has symbolic value. Many see it as a personal, religious and political choice.
That is why women need to be allowed their freedom to make the choice. Banning the burqa is a step backward, not forward.