I’m not much of an old college reunion type. This is partly because I’m terrified of discovering that I haven’t matured one bit in all those years since I left college, and partly because I know old fogeys like myself who endlessly talk about ‘that second year when we staged that play’ as if they are Vietnam veterans trading tales about the efficacies of Agent Orange.
But when I read about Sirin Middya, a 24-year-old guest lecturer at Aliah University in Kolkata being barred for the last three months from teaching because she refuses to wear the burqa to classes, I figured that I better stop pretending that I’m some Oxbridge snot worked up about France’s decision to ban the burqa. For I’m from Jadavpur University in Calcutta, the same univ that Middya did her Masters from some 15 years after I wobbled through to do mine. The English B.A. and M.A. classes I would attend (sic) were held on the floor directly below where Middya must have gone to attend Bengali M.A. classes only a year ago. In March, my fellow Jadavpur alumnus was appointed as lecturer at Aliah and a month later was told by the university’s students’ union to stop attending if she didn’t wear ‘decent clothes’. And by ‘decent clothes’, the union meant the burqa.
This may seem like a relatively minor issue — and maybe it is: a woman being hauled up for wearing ‘inappropriate’ clothes in public. It happens all the time in many Islamic countries when not enough skin is covered by cloth. It will happen very soon in France and Belgium when too much skin is covered by cloth. But what bothers me is that the same folks who talk about free will and a woman’s right to wear a full-body umbrella — or a pink tutu, for all I care — are twiddling their opposable thumbs when a woman is not allowed to not wear a burqa.
The reaction of the authorities at Aliah University have been remarkably similar to that of liberal members of society at large. ‘It’s the Muslim burqa we’re talking about here. Not some stupid noises against the haraam-hugging jeans or trousers,’ they seem to say while keeping mum on the whole affair. (Middya continues to receive a salary and reports at the university library that lies outside the campus.) On its part, the West Bengal government — neither the education ministry nor the minority affairs ministry to which Middya had written a complaining letter — has not uttered a word. Instead, a bunch of empowered regressives beholden to the West Bengal Madrasa Students’ Union have ensured that a teacher doesn’t teach until she comes back wearing the burqa to class like the seven other teachers.
Unlike Middya, who states that she isn’t fundamentally opposed to wearing a burqa, but will wear one only if she feels like it (echoing my position on the necktie), I find the portable tent a silly apparel. But as with suspenders, bow ties, handlebar moustaches and conical brassieres, I wouldn’t want people to stop wearing them if they want to. (Okay, maybe there should be a law about bow ties.) Unfortunately, this age-old debate about personal clothing and grooming that should be fought out between mothers and daughters — ‘Take off that make-up!’, ‘Don’t you dare cut your hair short!’, ‘You can’t go out wearing that!’ (and my prayers will always be with the daughters) — is perennially being played out between a bunch of foghorny men and independent-minded women, the words ‘independent women’ automatically conjuring up the image of prowling Jezebels in the former lot’s heads.
But catch anyone ensuring that Middya goes back to teach without having to wear a burqa thereby driving home the simple message that women can wear the burqa if they like and not wear the burqa if they don’t. We’ll reserve that bluster for the faraway French. These Aliah University students’ union dudes are our Muslim brothers. Let them do what they think fit for their woman. And in super-duper-secular West Bengal, there’s no fear of an ex-Jadavpur University student being mistaken for a Shah Bano.