Woman and veil: her struggles for space

Anu Muhammad | Published at 12:29am on December 16, 2020

MY MOTHER in burka (veil) is a remote scene in my memory. I have never seen her in Burka. But she used to shade her head with a part of saris. She was pious and used to pray regularly. There were kinds of veils in those days which had only two openings in front of eyes that could frighten children very easily. My mother used to tell me ghost stories showing those kinds of veils. My maternal and paternal grandparents, who used to live in villages, were never accustomed with the veils as the casual wearing. Despite a few occasions or special visits they used to keep usual dress that did not include burka. Although burka was apart from their casual clothing, they would be always considered as women in ‘pardah’.

But my eldest sister took burka permanently after her marriage. In 1971, while the whole country was under the cruel operation of Pakistani military junta, the young women had been under constant threat of rape, physical tortures and harassment. It was almost four years after the death of my mother, during the liberation war, my eldest sister was a student of class ten. My father was summoned by his religious mentor to arrange the marriage of my sister in that turmoil. The bridegroom’s family was strict in religious code. My sister used to dislike burka then. But at her in-laws house burka was a mandatory common practice even for the early teenaged girls. She had to take that dress immediately after marriage. I don’t know whether this change of clothing was peaceful or how my sister changed her dislike into passion. But gradually we saw that burka had become the part and parcel of her clothing. Gloves and socks were the latest addition to her burka. Many of my relatives cannot see her face any more.

This code of dress was taken to my nieces too. My young nieces who are not even eight or ten years old, they also do not come in front of the people, especially males, even without gloves and socks. Usually they feel shy to come in front of me. If by any chance it is needed to meet they give a quick salaam waving their veil on their faces. And they utter only one thing ‘Do your Namaj Mama!’

While we were university students a few of my female classmates used to shade their heads with clothes but there were none in burka. But now most of my female students are covered by hijab, few under burkas. If I ever get a rare occasion to see their faces, which remain totally covered, I know I would not able to recognise them. Obviously I have to talk to them. Their burkas are their identity not their faces.

Contrary to general belief, different forms of veils did not make all of them stagnant or inactive; rather some of them are very promising and active. Some of them are brilliant and serious about their studies. Some of them are also actively involved in different activism including movement against sexual harassment or struggle against religious fascism.

The types of burka, which my mother used to show me to playfully frighten me while telling ghost stories, are not found any more. Those were made of one single piece of big cloth. Nowadays, there are different types of burkas. Burka is no more made of single piece coloured cloth. Advertisements of different types of hijab/burkas made in Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia are common in different cities and market places. Along with burka there is also the practice of wearing big chador that covers specially the upper part of the body in addition to usual dress. These chadors also come from Iran or Saudi Arabia. These are now very popular business products.

How would we define the increase of the usage of burka or hijab? Some would worry about this as the expansion of religious ‘fanaticism’; on the other hand some might be happy to acknowledge burkas as tool of Islamic movement. Some might consider it as the obstacle of freedom of women or as backwardness; on the other hand, some might accept it as a revolt against the western influenced cultures. But, in my opinion, this burka or hijab does not carry so straight line meaning.

Actually burka is neither an Islamic dress nor a non-western get up. Rather history witnessed that these types of dresses were also used in the western countries. Christian and Jews families used to use these kinds of burkas or veils. In the orient, especially in Bengal region, burka was never a part of regular clothing for women in general. Hindu and Muslim solvent families had to use this as a sign of their economic status. But these people were a small minority. Presently many Muslim women who were not accustomed to burkas earlier, living in the west, have been using that as an expression of identity and as a protest against Islamophobia.                                                                                 

 

The reasons behind: heterogeneous and complex

IN BANGLADESH everyone does not put on burka/hijab for the same reason. It is also not obvious that there will be always a religious reason behind this get up. If we notice carefully around us we can identify five reasons behind wearing burkas/hijab: 1) self-protection or hiding; 2) religious beliefs; 3) force from male guardians; 4) choice as convenient dress; and 5) as a symbol of aristocracy.

Let me give some examples. One day one of my students came to bid good bye to me without veil. I was surprised to see her without veil for the first time during her whole university life. She explained the reason behind this change of dress quite spontaneously. She got married before her university life started. The conjugal life was not smooth since the beginning. Her husband did not support the ideas of continuing her higher studies. As she did not want to compromise with the studies, she had to sacrifice the peace of family life. They were separated. To her, higher education was not only the urge of her soul rather it became her only support to stand on her own feet. She had to continue it to establish herself. But her father and relatives, everyone was dead against this wish. So she had to fight and be determined at her own decision. She could realise that she had to walk alone.

She needed money for going alone. But the necessity of money could not be supplemented by the mental strength alone. So taking the private tuition was the only option to her. She had to continue tuition beside her own studies, exams and classes. With a few sets of clothes and with hunger my student had spent almost her whole student life. But it was not enough to be industrious to survive! She had to face all different types of barriers offered by society too. While she used to return to her hostels from her tuition it used to become late afternoons. She was teased and had faced different troublesome experiences while she walked down the roads towards her hostel. It was crucial tests for her all the moments. In many days, she had to pass through the residential halls of the male students who had been spending their noon leisure periods on their windows or in front of the halls. Those students did not want to miss the opportunity of taking the pleasure by teasing her and passing comments on her. No wicked eyes have spared her body on those days. The whole situation became extremely unbearable to her. During those helpless days, the burka appeared as a rescuer. She decided to wear burka to protect herself from all the eve-teasing and the harassment of the male dominated outside world. To protect herself from the external filthiness she had to hide herself in burka.

I remember another student here. She had a totally different experience. She was never seen in burka during her student life. During the final year of the university, suddenly she was absent from her classes, exams and all other activities. We thought that like many other girls she was compelled to stop her studies to show respect to the family decision. At the end of the session suddenly she appeared in one fine morning. She was in burka. I did not want to ask anything about her new get up. But after a few trials she herself revealed to me about the background of this change. She told me that she had an understanding that she had a good relationship with her husband. While her husband used to encourage her to stay in residential halls for her studies she thought that her husband had a great deal of interest in her higher studies. But all her trusts went in vain. One day she went home early than her due time and surprisingly she caught her husband with their maid in a very objectionable position. Since then all her hopes and trusts have been demolished. Everything became unbearable to her. She thought that it was the result of her sins. She had condemned herself. She thought that Allah had punished her thus. So to find the righteous path she has totally changed her lifestyle. She has changed her identity. And finally she started to try to restore her relationship with her husband. What an irony: who the sinner is and who got punished!

Another experience. A few years ago, the result of the SSC examination was announced. Amongst all the success stories and joyous environment an exceptional piece of news was there in a corner of a local newspaper. A daughter of a poor van-puller acquired a very good position in the examination. Living under a single roof with her brothers and sisters and her parents, she kept on with her studies. While there is an overwhelming presence of private tuition and coaching classes countrywide and where a big lump of money is needed to obtain any position within the first 20 students of any education board, how a van- puller’s daughter could do such a good result in the SSC examination? That appears as a mystery to many. In her statement she had mentioned a very significant experience that she used to go to school wearing burka as she had only one dress and it was so torn that people might ask about her whereabouts. But burka helped her to conceal her poverty, her real identity and helped her to keep a favourable distance from other students of the schools and continue her studies!

 

Hiding body, protecting dignity

IT IS not only to hide poverty but to hide one’s own body, own existence even one’s own self, burka is an exemplary costume. The society where we live, women always need to face different tests. Their movements, ways of speaking, laughter, gestures, work and behaviour everything would be counted or marked. Nevertheless their physical beauty, their skin colours, their looks matter to the people a lot. By any chance, if a woman is not compatible to a so-called ‘ideal model’ or ‘ideal beauty’ at a certain period her life would be unbearable by all sorts of cruel comments and behaviour. The advertisement mobs use women to manufacture their brands or do the marketing of their products. Helpless girls in so-called ‘dark skin’ are succumbed by her surroundings, her parents to change her skin from the ‘dark’ colour to ‘fair’ one. The women in the dark skins are always in an inferior position and thrive for the change of her skin colour. If a female is not accepted by a man there is no value of her existence! But the experiences of women do not end there.

The woman who crosses the standard of fair woman is not spared from the comments or slangs either: Khassha Maal, Maal Ekkhan (what a good, what a piece)! On the contrary, the woman who fails to fulfil the criterion of a fair lady will be teased on the street like Kailla Bhut (black ghost), Shorire Kichu Nai(nothing worthy in the body), Cheharar Ki Chiri (What an ugly face). The women could become also a target of fatwa in the name of religion for her movement. Her own body is her enemy. To protect this body from all these nasty comments and verbal barbarism, veil is taken by some as a shield. It can be compared as to giving the criminals a lesson by committing suicide. The veil apparently ‘protects’ her in the street. But back at home she might face the same situation. She is compelled to listen to those cruel things regarding her life, marriage, skin colour, appearance, dresses and get-ups also from very near and dear ones. Burka/Hijab cannot protect her there.

Female garment workers who return to their houses walking between male eyes or late at night try to have safety under burka or chador. They are unsafe in their working places, their houses and their communities. Everyday news confirms that days and nights all are same for their security. Nevertheless, they have to work and try different ways to save themselves. Burka is one of them. But how would they save themselves from those mastans linked with their employers or loafers around their living places?

 

Different tariqa: Views on recommended space for women

IN MANY cases these kinds of self-defence or self-sheltering arrangements turn into a faith or belief. To establish rationality in favour of burka many women want to justify burka with religious flavour. But there are also differences of opinion regarding burka and pardah amongst religious leaders. Some believe that women cannot participate in education, employment and do things whatever they believe necessary. Her success or failure, her lifestyle, her existence everything depends on males. Most women cannot walk swiftly, cannot talk loudly, cannot go out alone, and cannot participate in co-education. According to them, even the women in burka are not allowed to avail many opportunities. To hide her existence she is compelled to put on burka. Burka is meant to hide her physical beauty that makes males getting attracted to women. So burka, according to this view, should be made as unattractive.

On the other hand, some people think burka/hijab as the medium for the girls to move freely on the road or outside their families. To protect her from the greedy eyes of the male chauvinists and social humiliations and harassment, burka/hijab is believed to work as a shield. Some opine that females can go out, move freely, and work together with male colleagues but they have to put on Burkas. Many of this group ‘allow’ making burka/hijab more decorative and attractive. For them, burka/hijab does no more symbolise the ‘confinement’ of females within four walls.

To develop an attractive image of the burka/hijab, market agents have become active. The advertisement world is also on the show. There are different kinds of burka/hijab on market nowadays. A few years ago a Muslim organisation in the USA organised a ‘Fashion Show’ on burkas. To put on a decorative chador is a by-product of the burka culture. These kinds of evolutions of the fashions and styles on burkas/hijab have really attacked the very fundamental and ethical reasoning behind burkas.

 

Prestige Piece

Burka or hijabs are also recognised as symbol of aristocracy for many families. A few decades ago, a large section of the middle class or ‘aristocrat’ families used to keep burka as their regular formal costume. Still there exists the tradition of using this costume amongst a small section. The lower middle classes also have the same feeling towards burkas. But it had never been a casual dress for the poor section, majority of the society in Bangladesh. Because while a single piece of sari is a mere necessity for a poor woman how they could afford burka/hijab! But the ‘pardah’ issue always occupies their mind. She keeps her faith and tries to interpret their way of life as in ‘pardah of mind’. Still she suffers from a sense of guilt and this sense is instigated by the so-called traditional religious talks or sermons. After all the strenuous and laborious work to maintain her livelihood, she is suffering from a sense of guilt that she cannot do ‘pardah’ and would be cursed and punished because of that.

So whenever her conditions improve she tries to have at least a large chador. Many husbands, after starting a good earning, try to separate their wives from the common others by covering them with Burka or Hijab.

 

Choice and Hegemony

IN SOME cases, family pressure plays a significant role in wearing veil. But here is an important point to note that no one knows the limit of one’s own choice and the force of the family, where one begins and where the other ends. Often ideological hegemony, if not force, from without at one point is being internalised by women and she accepts the rule as if it is given and obvious. Religious restrictions, status of woman, her future, and the ideas of so-called social dignities have designed her minds since her childhood in various ways. It is difficult to come out of that vicious cycle and grow up with one’s own personality.

The ideology to control and restrict women has its own logical matrix. The main identity of a woman in a society like ours is that she is a sex object and a reproductive machine to produce children. Her each limb carries that message. So, if she does not cover or hide those limbs they can cause a big chaos in our society. Moreover, according to this worldview, women are not reliable or trustworthy. She does not have any self-control. Women are dangerous. Since their sexual desire is higher than that of a male, if she remains freed she would spoil the social norms. So she should be controlled and tamed by different means. Her physical beauty or sexuality is a treasure for her husband. So she should be far away from other males’ sight. She has to hide herself. She has to put on such a kind of costume that she does look unattractive to other males. If a male and a female come closer by any chance that might generate an adulterous situation. They will be involved on illegal sexual mating immediately and they would suffer due to their misdeeds. So it is better that these two species should always be separated from each other.

These kinds of humiliating, irresponsible and illogical beliefs are being constructed in the name of tradition, religion and culture. As if, her own existence is her enemy. It is often found that in different religious recitations and speeches, the main topic for discussion remains the physique and behaviour of women. No other problems of the society get priority over this from professional speakers at religious gatherings. Unfortunately those males who name women as the lower category of living beings often forget that their mothers also belong to these awful female species too.

By going through all these so-called teachings, the women grow up with a guilty feeling. It becomes very difficult for her to stand on her self-esteem. Self-dignity or self-realisation is considered a kind of sin of her. It is important to note that this ideology is not only confined in the burka culture but also found in other ways in places where the women body and sexuality are used for commercial purposes. Women are presented there as sex machine. The value of their life is on the price and acceptance of them as sexual substance, not as human being. So the social logic of wearing burka/hijab has some common elements of insulting females which is, again, common in the market oriented societies or ‘beauty’ culture. Both the models make attempts to control and grab women’s life and sexuality.

 

Backlash and Struggle

MY MOTHER or my grandmother or my great grandmothers were from a period when women were really considered or treated as the ‘beings in chain or confinement’ by all means. They had really limited opportunity to come out of their houses. But those days have gone by and the situation has been changed in various ways, women are more seen on the streets, especially the working women in public places are increasing day by day. Number of female workers and middle class professional females has increased significantly. Women workers appear to have become a potentially radical social force, a new phenomenon for society as a whole. Not only in cities but also in the villages, women are participating in public jobs and education. These changes have invited backlash too.

The women have been attacked in various forms: sexual harassment, verbal abuse, humiliations, teasing, rapes, fatwa, trafficking, sex marketing, murders etc. But obviously it is not possible for women to get scared by the risks and to step back. Since social mobilisation and organised resistance are yet to grow sufficiently, women are trying to find their own individual arrangements. That is why some women have accepted burka/hijab as their protection, some of them have taken it as a tool to compromise with their families and outside world. Therefore, one cannot reach a simple conclusion regarding the increasing use of veil. Wearing burka/hijab may represent the dominant ideology that appears to be humiliating for women; nevertheless it does not exclude her struggle against many odds. Again, not wearing burka/hijab per se does not reflect one’s rejection of that ideology.

 

Anu Muhammad is a professor of economics, Jahangirnagar University.