Blog Tuesday, June 30, 2015 - 05:30
Image Source: Flickr - rafay123   Last week, we saw a debate raging on the Twitter timeline of @genderlogindia being curated by @nicemangos on the difference in opinion over Muslim women wearing burqa, hijab or niqab. Is it an individual's choice? And if it is, does it endorse patriarchy? Nuance is lost in the noise created by 140-character-tweets. Here is a blog by Samiah Sultana, breaking the issue down for each one of us to understand it better.   A recent debate about the hijab, niqab and burqa that I witnessed on the internet got me thinking about the different perspectives that came pouring in, some downright scathing and abusive in their approach to the kind criticism they were engaging in, and other more supportive of the curator who was taking on her detractors with élan. And while one may choose to agree or disagree with what she was saying, I do believe it needed to be said, and the debate needed to be engaged in, by all sides, with (like she said) intellectual honesty.   First off, if someone believes that the hijab, niqab and burqa are symbols of oppression, they are entitled to that stance, as is anyone who wants to argue against that stance respectfully and logically. This particular debate left me feeling like I would have preferred a more constructive, mature debate on the issue, rather than a flame war and a group of women claiming to be feminists indulging in ad hominem attacks on the curator. This is a debate that has been long overdue and I’m happy that someone used a platform with a wide readership to initiate it.   When something is mandated by a society, community or culture to take on something (whether it stems from a religious belief, some form of social pressure or some other consideration), it becomes important for the individuals concerned to question it before they accept it. Accepting mandates and giving in to compulsions without questioning them erodes individual agency. And anything that erodes individual agency keeps people from making choices or fulfilling their potential, because it gives other people the right to make their life decisions. And it is in the context of this larger debate that we need to understand and conduct the specific debate on the hijab, niqab and burqa.   The women who wear a hijab, niqab and/or burqa are not a unified, homogenous, oppressed lot. But choice is contextual. And to understand how much of a choice something really is, we’re better of employing a multiplicity of narratives (and understanding and analysing multiple contexts), so the debate itself doesn’t get hijacked by certain sets of people.   Muslim women wearing the burqa, niqab or hijab may be seen as belonging somewhere on a spectrum – the spectrum ranging from women who choose to wear one or more of the three pieces of clothing out of choice to those who detest these pieces of clothing and wear them simply out of compulsion and fear of family, and/or violence perpetrated by the state as punishment for not complying. Somewhere along this spectrum are those multiple narratives – including those of covert and open rebellion, coercion, social conditioning, and so on. Understood within this framework, it is clear that wearing the burqa, hijab and niqab may be a choice for some Muslim women, but for a lot of others, it isn’t. For these women, the burqa as a symbol of oppression isn’t a debate on a micro-blogging site, it’s a reality. These are women who don’t have a voice, because the men in their families and societies don’t believe women have anything important to say, or should have an opinion in any matter of consequence (including their own lives). These are also women who are unable to participate in this debate – they have been denied access to an education; they’re part of a system that does not give them a choice in the matter.   I also see this multiplicity of narratives in my own family.   I grew up in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) until I was 12. I have covered my head from time to time (out of respect for my parents and grandmother, when the occasion required it) but have never worn the hijab as a part of my daily attire. I have also worn the niqab and burqa once when I was in my late teens (in India), because I was asked to (not by my parents or grandmother; I can’t recall who it was), mostly because all the cousins I was going shopping with had started wearing it as a regular practice, and I would be the odd one out if I didn’t.   Growing up, I’ve never seen my mother or grandmother wear the burqa. I’ve seen my mother wear it when it was mandated by the state (when we were in the KSA) and give it up when we moved back to India. They’re both practicing, devout Muslims.   My late grandfather did not impose any form of clothing on my grandmother, mother or any of his other daughters. He did not coerce them to wear or not wear something in the name of modesty, social acceptance or religion.   At this point, however, all except five women in my family wear burqas and niqabs. These women fall on different places in the spectrum. While some of us were never asked to and did not choose to wear the burqa, hijab or niqab, some chose to wear them on their own, while still others were asked to and agreed to do so. I have cousin sisters who’ve studied what they wanted to (one of them is a doctor, and some others girls are being ‘allowed’ to pursue their education in whatever fields they choose, provided those field are acceptable for women. Some others are being married off as soon as they finish their basic education, irrespective of whether they want it or not. The permission for all these things is provided by the fathers and the final decisions are also made by them.   I also have cousin sisters who didn’t receive a basic education (they never went to school) because their father believed women should not be exposed so much to the world. They were given no say in the matter. Their mother didn’t have a say in the matter either, and was asked to comply when she tried to challenge the decision. They were sent to a madrasa instead of a regular school, so now they can’t read and/or write in any language that is used for every day communication in this part of the world (in the madrasa, they were taught how to read the Qur’an and pray, so they can read and write Arabic). These girls are in their teens now and, although one hopes that they will find a way to educate themselves at some point in their lives (when their father doesn’t control their lives anymore), they’re most likely going from their father’s house in to their husband’s (unless they decide to leave their father’s house without his permission). And since the father is going to choose the husbands, it is unlikely those men are going to be very different in their outlook towards women. But one can hope.   The compulsion to wear a burqa, hijab or niqab, and the refusal to give girls and women any agency or real choice in the decisions of their own lives is problematic. On its own, the compulsion to wear the niqab, hijab or burqa forces a particular form modesty on women, without giving them the opportunity to explore if they really want to practice it. But what’s even more problematic than the practice is the amount of power it gives men to control the lives of women. It may be argued that for some women, choosing to wear a burqa, hijab or niqab may not curb them from doing anything else they want to. But for a lot of others, the issues of education, empowerment and choice are all intertwined – it’s part of a larger system of self-perpetuating power imbalance between the two sexes – for many of these women, agreeing to a particular tenet without questioning it implies they’re agreeing to be part of that system. A system in which a man doesn’t care if his wife is a doctor and is as educated as he is – he will still think it his right to insult and ‘correct’ her publicly if she appears without a burqa/hijab in front of men. A system where a man can refuse to send his daughters to school and get away with it.   A woman in a hijab, niqab or burqa can win a Nobel Peace Prize. What we need to question and change is the mindset that leads to her being shot in the head before she does.   While it is important to acknowledge the hijab, niqab and burqa-wearing feminist narrative, we also need to acknowledge that for a lot of women and girls, it is, and will continue to be part of a patriarchal culture of oppression. The hijab and niqab-wearing feminist narrative is one of privilege, the privilege of coming from a family that lets you make your choices, and knows where to draw the line and strike a balance. That men in a number of societies and families are using this practice (and other religious ‘practices’) as a pretext to disenfranchise women and girls needs to be acknowledged too. While the larger debate need not subsume or discount this feminist narrative, it does little for the conversations we might be trying to have about girls getting a real chance to fulfil their potential if we argue about it in the absolute as a choice or otherwise. We could argue the merits and demerits of the hijab, niqab and burqa, we could argue for choice, we could argue against inflexible perspectives without nuance, but my fear is that my cousin sisters are never going to participate in this debate because they don’t have the education to do so. And for this to change, there is a serious need for a debate on the repercussions (and manifestations) of ideas that give a certain section of society so much power over another. There is also a need to challenge these ideas, along with the different manifestations. What will emerge from a mature, reasonable debate is hopefully a set of ideas that work towards ensuring people are able to express themselves without fear and meet their full potential without being curbed in the name of religious practices, or anything else.   The blog was first published here.   Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this articles are the personal opinions of the author. The News Minute is not responsible for the accuracy, completeness, suitability or validity of any information in this article. The information, facts or opinions appearing in this article do not reflect the views of The News Minute and The News Minute does not assume any liability for the same.