(Editor's Note: This is the second in a two-part series on the recent uproar in Mangaluru over a Muslim student wearing a head scarf to college. The first story was titled The battle of bigots over the burqa in Mangaluru)
“Family members will always comment. Just as I was stepping out of the house today, they asked me why I wasn’t wearing a burqa. You know, I wear it if I feel like it, otherwise, I just chuck it somewhere. But it’s useful when I have to work and the roads are dusty,” Raheena Thokkotu said in a very matter of fact tone over the phone, while she was on an errand run.
Hailing from Punjalkatte, a village 48km from Mangaluru, Raheena moved to the city around 15 years ago when she got married. It is only in the past few years that the burqa has begun to matter, for reasons wholly unconnected with her personal life.
“I was the first Muslim woman in my village to complete PU. My father used to be a driver. He had travelled and seen women get an education. When he sent us to school, people would talk. We faced a kind of censure from other Muslims in the village. They would say ‘What will she do with an education? Let her roll beedis at home and earn money for her wedding.’ No one had studied beyond Class 5. But my father insisted that my sisters and I complete pre-university. It was my biggest blessing. For that, he will always be my hero,” she says, with warmth in her voice.
But Raheena couldn’t complete her degree as she got married. “My in-laws said they would allow me to study, but they didn’t. I kept asking them to, but it never happened.” So she decided to complete her Arts degree by enrolling in a distance education course.
She had a son, and married life continued for 17 years until 2012. “The very month I got my divorce I enrolled for an MA in journalism in Mangalore University. Sikkidde chancu (I finally had my chance),” she said laughing. She paid the fees for her course by working as a driving instructor. “I didn’t take money from anyone. For two years I studied and was very happy,” she says.
Twenty years ago, you would have been hard pressed to find Muslim girls in schools, let alone colleges. You would definitely not have found Muslim girls in numbers large enough to protest, the way the female (and male) members of the CFI (Campus Front of India) demonstrated in front of Mangaluru’s Srinivas College. They campaigned that it was their right to wear the headscarf.
Contrary to their visibility today, both the large number of female Muslim students in coastal Karnataka and their black burqas, are fairly recent developments. And within the Muslim community, both the headscarf and different types of burqas hold complex meanings.
In August 2011, a 17-year-old pre-university student in a small town 33km away from Mangaluru made headlines. Haadiya Iqbal objected to her college’s refusal to allow her to cover her hair with the dupatta of her uniform. She spent the better part of her second year in pre-university studying from home as neither she nor the college were willing to back down.
Today, Haadiya is 23 and is married. She completed PUC after the PU Department gave her permission to sit in the Class 12 board exams. She plans to do an MSc in Kuwait, where she is now settled. The burqa, is her constant companion, even though her mother never wore one.
“They never knew what the Quran says. But I have read it myself and I know that Islam says that a woman should wear loose-fitting clothes and cover her head. It need not be a burqa. Girls must only wear it after they mature (hit puberty),” Haadiya told The News Minute over the phone. She had just arrived the previous night from Kuwait.
“If a woman is wearing a burqa, or salwar kameez, and another girl is wearing a mini skirt, who will people look at?” Haadiya asks, echoing the standard argument of women’s ‘safety’ that many proponents of the veil make. “I feel protected in a burqa.” From what, I ask. “I don’t like people being able to see my curves. Only my husband should be able to see me. Women must dress in a way that they are not attractive to the opposite sex. Men are supposed to lower their eyes,” Haadiya says.
But many women and men argue that such rules are simply not prescribed in the Quran. Others maintain that regardless of whether they are or not, the idea of the hijab, or the veil, is simply misogynistic and patriarchal.
Even if one accepts the idea that the hijab is prescribed for men too, 29-year-old Zoya* says that its social enforcement is heavily biased against women. Zoya has lived and worked in Mangaluru for most of her life.
“Boys are supposed to wear the cap and grow a beard. Why are they not criticised if they don’t? Why are we judged?” Zoya asks.
Raheena says there was a time when women of the region were indistinguishable. “Aisamma, Khadijamma, Jameela, Jayanti, Parvati, Leelavati wore the same clothes when they planted paddy saplings in the fields. Today, when I see an Ayesha, Fatima and Khadija, who have set out to obtain modern knowledge, demand different clothing, I wonder whether education has indeed made women knowledgeable. It is fundamentalist men who support the demand for different dresses. The fundamentalists who’ve set out to give the burqa a religious identity have no clue about the true purpose of clothing.”
Underpinned by religious sanction, the pressure on girls to behave in ‘Islamic’ ways – including different degrees of veiling – is exerted early. It often results in a very stifled childhood for girls, robbing them of simple joys such as participating in extra-curricular activities and cultural programmes held in school.
In 2015, Mangaluru-based journalist and documentary filmmaker Mohammed Irshad released a short documentary titled Swargada Haadiyalli Kamarutiruva Kanasugalu (Shattered Dreams on the Path to Heaven). In the film, many primary school Muslim girls in villages across Dakshina Kannada district say that they would love to be part of the dance programmes organised for the Annual Day, but had been forbidden by their madarassa teachers. The standard refrain was, “We are Muslims, we are not allowed to dance.” Boys, however, face no such restrictions.
Puttur-based Congress leader Zohra Nisar Ahemd says that boys and girls are made to believe this interpretation of the Quran since childhood. “Just take a walk around Mangaluru in the morning. You’ll see girls as young as three going to attend Arabic classes in a burqa. It’s fed to them since childhood. Is there one type of justice for women and another for men? Is there one Allah for women and a different one for men?” asks Zohra.
Many Muslim parents send their daughters to school because the scarf or burqa offers them a mental placebo. But because of the scarf or burqa, Zohra says, Muslim children have learned to maintain a distance from other children from a young age, and this distance continues into adulthood.
“A school is meant to be a place where people of different backgrounds study and associate as equals. If these differences increase, there will be no way for people from diverse backgrounds to get to know each other, and be friends,” Irshad says.
Irshad’s documentary was met with much criticism; he’s got calls from men who threatened him. But what he faced was nothing compared to the venom and abuse directed at Raheena when she questioned religious strictures.
Although Raheena signed up on Facebook in 2012, it is only in the past one-and-a-half years that she freely expressed her views.
Before 2012, she worked a sub-editor for conservative Kannada publications. “Then, I used to think that women should wear a burqa.” Doing a post-graduation in journalism changed her thoughts in many ways. Referring to her divorce, she said: “After I became free, I began to write openly. I couldn’t until then,” she says.
Raheena faced extreme abuse online when she wrote about her views on the burqa and on the idea of covering up. “They did not like me critiquing religion.” People advised her to cover her face in public to avoid recognition. (She had uploaded photos of herself on Facebook.)
“If at all a woman thinks she needs to hide her body so that no one else should be able to see her, she’s bankrupt in her thought. If she should question anyone, it should be the one who created her as a woman. Otherwise, she must show the way for men to change their mindset with her courage, conviction and actions. It is meaningless to think that she will go to heaven either because she has hidden her body or because she believes that her beauty is reserved only for her husband,” Raheena says.
Zohra says that many Muslim women tend to wear the burqa not for themselves, but for the larger society. The personal and social pressure that Zoya had to negotiate illustrates this.
Zoya was one of the few Muslims girls in coastal Karnataka who obtained an education in the 1990s. Today, she is also a rarity in that she is still one of a few Muslim women who can make use of their education and work afterwards. Most college-educated Muslim women simply never make it to the workforce.
“I had to make a lot of compromises to get here. For the first year after I got married, I gave my family all my time. Gradually, my mother-in-law herself suggested I work,” she says.
As reported in part one of this story, Zoya began to wear a scarf only after she got married. That’s perhaps the only thing she hasn’t been able to get around, but has taken it in her stride. “My mother-in-law also only covers her hair. My sister-in-law lives in Bengaluru, but she doesn’t do even that. In the extended family though, people will talk if the daughter-in-law doesn’t cover her hair. I cover my hair just because I don’t want people to talk,” Zoya says.
Quoting a line from the Shah Rukh Khan-Kajol hit Baazigar, Zoya says with a laugh: “I know this sounds filmy, but kuch paane ke liye kuch khona padtha hai. Nobody questions me today. I can do whatever I want.”
During the week, she goes about with the scarf. But on weekends, she gets evenings off from the scarf: She and her husband hang out with their friends at places where the missing scarf would not raise any questions.
Regardless of their own views on the veil, Zoya, Haadiya, Zohra, and Irshad, all agree that no one should be forced into one or out of it.
Raheena says that all talk about the burqa reminded her of a story from Akkamahadevi’s life.
(Akkamahadevi and Allama Prabhu are bhakti saints, widely revered in Karnataka for the wisdom in their vachanas, a type of literature that emerged from the bhakti movement.)
“Akkamahadevi rejected her husband and left her clothes behind with him to devote herself to her god Chennamallikarjuna. She worshipped him naked, her body covered by her long hair. Allama Prabha once asked her why she, who had given up worldly matters, displayed such smallness of mind by covering her body with her hair. To this, Akkamahadevi replied, ‘It is not for me, but for you, who forever seek worldly pleasures’.”
Raheena says that if we desire an equal society, the same rules must be applicable for all. “Man’s custom of keeping women hidden from society stems from his failure to overcome his weakness and small-mindedness… But I think filmmaker K Asif settled the debate in his film Mughal-e-Azam, in which Anarkali tells Akbar: “Parda nahi jab koi khuda se, bando se parda karna kya.”