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Behind the veil

We believe women have travelled a long way because we are able to flaunt our sexuality, writes Barkha Dutt.

india Updated: Oct 28, 2006 03:26 IST

It’s the classic cliché: meek eyes staring out from behind miles of cloth; the grim black colour making the perfect style statement for suppression.     

But is it really that simple?  

Is the veil a symbol of equality or entrapment? Does it stand for religious freedom or retrograde ritualism? At a time when the globalisation bulldozer is swiftly flattening out individuality and turning us all into assembly-line products, is the veil a healthy assertion of multiculturalism? Or is it simply sexist in the extreme?

Jack Straw, England’s former Foreign Secretary, kick-started the row when he declared that he would prefer Muslim women in Britain to completely discard the full veil. Salman Rushdie was even blunter: the veil, he said, “sucks”, and was just another way of taking “power away from women”. And Tony Blair joined the chorus: the time had come, he said, to step outside the boundaries of political correctness and debate the place of the veil in a modern, secular society.

So which side of the debate are you on?

I have to confess that, despite being an unabashed liberal feminist, I am pretty confused.

Sure, I am instinctively revolted by religious dogma and sickened by the subtext: stifle female sexuality in swathes of impenetrable dark cloth. I have always argued that certain principles of equality must override and supersede religion. So, while Jack Straw’s comments were restricted to the niqab that cloaks women from head to toe, personally I find even the hijab or the headscarf scarily suggestive of subservience.

But it disturbs me only as much as the ghungat in the Hindu homes of rural India or the feudal chic of urban socialites who dress up in fancy chiffons and pearls and then,  demurely drape their heads and reach for their husbands’ feet if required. The veil offends my notion of equality just as much as temples that deny entry to women or as much as churches that regard priesthood as the preserve of men.

The fact is that gender is always on the wrong side of faith. And so, almost by definition, the classic feminist position is always at loggerheads with tradition.

The problem, as many feminists, including myself, have discovered is this: our ideology often doesn’t have the width for all the complexities of the world. It ignores socio-economic realities and forgets how inextricably culture and identity are linked.

In real life, context is everything. And the truth alters as the context shifts.

I remember being in Kashmir in 2001. A shadowy militant group was trying to push women behind a blanket of black: the veil was being enforced in a valley where many women traditionally never wore it. Outspoken young girls went on record to protest the infringement of their freedom and the distortion of their culture. As we aired these reports on television, a fatwa was slapped on my head, warning me against returning to the state.

A few months later, 9/11 shook the world, and I was in New York. This time, there were threats too, but of an entirely different kind. Muslim women were being compelled to discard the safety and comfort of the hijab. At the city’s community centre for Arab-Americans, social workers advised women to dress in a way that would blend them into the mainstream: no headscarves, skirts and dresses, if possible. At a peace vigil, I met a Bangladeshi woman who suddenly broke down and wept; it was the first time she had stepped out of her house without wearing the customary salwar-kameez.

Freedom had really become another word for nothing left to lose. And, suddenly, what could have been a symbol of oppression in another place, at another time, had transformed into an emblem of religious dignity.

So, when Jack Straw says that the full veil is a “mark of separation” and a custom that segregates the community, it raises all sorts of other questions. The assimilation debate is always a dangerous one: must Muslims conform to an Anglicised notion of dress to be considered ‘regular’ people? The London-based journalist Zaiba Malik was one such ‘integrated’ Muslim who had never worn a veil before, but decided to conduct a little experiment. She shrouded herself in black and walked across her city. Among the slew of comments heaped upon her was: “You Paki terrorist, go back home”. Reading about her experience, I thought that one remark would have enraged me enough to want to wear the veil forever.

On the other hand, there is also no doubt that there is a crisis of modernity and leadership in Muslim communities everywhere. As terrorism plunges the world into a Samuel Huntington-style  clash of civilisations, Straw is right in saying that cities must not be split into self-contained ghettoes. The question is this: did his remarks actually end up achieving exactly that?

There are no simple answers. Modern politics has got caught in the polarisations of the West vs Islam battle, and the modern gender debate is tragically trapped in extremes as well.

Read the furious bloggers on Jack Straw’s comments. One of them, a young Muslim, demands to know: “What are Straw’s views on teenage pregnancy, on young girls going out dressed in next to nothing?”

Beyond the obvious cultural clash, the comment got me thinking. Would there ever have been a public debate over whether women dressed in handkerchief skirts and bikini blouses were appropriate role models?

Of course not.

Today, we believe women have travelled a long way because we are able to flaunt our sexuality and strut our stuff. To question that is to be labelled prudish and backward. And yet, I often wonder, is this progress or is the circle merely completing itself?

The debate reminds me of one of my favourite stories, one that some readers may have heard before. I first met ‘item girl’ Momed Khan during the recording of a television show on censorship. The sultry, long-haired, short-skirted Momed, best-known for her seductive serenade in the hit song Dekh Le, sprang to her feet, and pointed aggressively at the skirt riding up her leg. This is what women wanted to be, she said, almost yelling. The age of the salwar kameez was over. As the audience applauded, I thought: here’s a 19-year-old Muslim woman from conservative Lucknow, in Bal Thackeray’s Mumbai, defying convention and norm. That seemed pretty radical by any standard.

Yet, I kept thinking: what did she really stand for? The manufactured sexuality, the crafted coquettishness — it seemed to me that we had just gone and replaced an old stereotype with a new one. Had she turned up draped in a full veil instead, would she have been a different woman beneath the black?

Somehow I’m not so sure.

Modernity is a confusing business, and sometimes moving forward is the same as going back.

Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, NDTV 24x7 barkha @ndtv.com