Nearly three years ago, I was bemused by a sight that confronted me in a Mumbai classroom: eight Muslim school teachers in black, full-body niqabs sat in a semi-circle around me, with only their eyes showing from the slits.
My approach to the veil — Muslim or Hindu — is the same: I think it’s regressive, but to each her own belief and practice. I grew up accepting every religion and faith. My father taught me the language of the Hindu scriptures, Sanskrit, but questioned the existence of God. My mother did her daily puja, read me the classics in Marathi but grew angry at the venom of those who claimed to represent her, the Shiv Sena.
So, why was I ill at ease? It’s just that I never had a meaningful conversation with a veiled woman before. If I now found the prospect of talking to eight women whose reactions I could not judge, I think I could be allowed my unease.
Once we got talking, I found all the veiled teachers of the Al-Mumin School were articulate young women. Twenty-one-year-old Suraiya Khan told me how she came to teach junior kindergarten in a classroom that sat atop a bar (which shut its doors when class was in progress).
“My father was illiterate, and came to Mumbai from a conservative UP town, knowing nothing more than to deal in scrap,” said Khan in fluent English. “We found it hard to speak even Hindi when we came. We speak (a UP dialect) Bhojpuri, at home…but five of us sisters, my father put us all through convent school.”
Her students, all boys — most from poor Muslim families, about half their parents illiterate — reminded Khan of her own family’s struggle to reconcile tradition with opportunity.
It seems obvious the world has taken a hard turn to the right and towards religiosity since the turn of the century. Whether a temple in Mumbai, a mosque in Istanbul or an evangelical church in South Carolina, most religious congregations report increasing attendance and a search for identity in a globalising world where change is the only constant.
For many Muslim women in India, as across the world, the veil has become equally an affirmation of faith as a declaration of identity. A good example is a school principal I know. Shahnaz Shaikh, like her mother, never wore a veil of any kind while attending the best convent schools, becoming a medical doctor and manager for a French pharma company, roaming the world, and living in the best hotels. As the 21st century rolled in, Shaikh ‘rediscovered’ her faith — and the hijab, which covered her head but left her face open. Nine years ago, she started the English-medium Al-Muminah school in a Mumbai Muslim ghetto.
In the West, wracked by self-doubt, slowing economies and fear of the other, the veil has become the most visible — and contentious — symbol of Islam as country after country has succumbed to a strange, sweeping paranoia.
France, with no more than 2,000 Muslim women who cover their faces, is close to proscribing the veil. Spain is close to political consensus on a ban. Seven other countries (Germany, Denmark, Belgium, Canada, Britain, the Netherlands and Italy) have either introduced legislation against the veil or debated a ban. The British government says it will not follow suit, but 67 per cent of Britons favour a ban.
The only western country where public and government sentiment appears to be holding out against the ban is the US, where 65 per cent of those polled in a recent survey said they would oppose it.
Personal liberty is — I’m guessing — a stronger concept in the US than Europe. But in many parts of the land of free and home of the brave, they are still not free or brave enough to accept leaders who are non-Christian.
Why else would Nikki Randhawa Haley avoid all reference to her Sikh upbringing (she is now an evangelical Christian) as she tries to become the first Republican female governor of South Carolina? Why else would Bobby Jindal (a Hindu convert to Catholicism), the Republican governor of Louisiana abstain when the US Congress in 2007 overwhelmingly passed a resolution recognising Diwali as an American festival? For the conservative right in the US, Christianity is closely equated with patriotism. Hence the unceasing whispers, psst, that President Barack Obama is Muslim.
India has its anti-minority paranoia. Try getting a house when Muslim in middle-class Delhi or Mumbai, or try taking on the right-wing army that patrols the Net, spewing venom at anyone suspected of being against Hindu interests. Hindu terrorists are now blamed for at least five bombings, previously attributed to Islamic terrorists.
But the paranoia has stayed on the fringes. Private prejudices don’t usually become public policy or gain wide support (Gujarat, religious profiling and the crackdown in Kashmir are grim exceptions). Nearly 18 years after the destruction of the Babri Masjid sparked Hindu revivalism, Hindu parties haven’t fired popular imagination or paranoia. Electoral battlegrounds are increasingly driven by aspiration, not religion.
No political party would question the right to office of an elected representative or public official on religious grounds. Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Parsis and Jews have at various times led India, its states, its defence and police forces.
Despite its spread, the veil in India will never be an issue for government legislation. If we can understand the revival of religion but keep its poison out of our body politic, there is much we can, still, teach the world.