Like most feminists, I am wary of religious codes that foist forced modesty on women. Like most liberals, I am uncomfortable with the State playing God on what’s secular and what’s not. That’s why French President Nicholas Sarkozy’s comments on the ‘burqa’ managed to push even my normally over-opinionated self into a zone of ifs and buts.
There’s no doubt that when Sarko declared that the face-covering, body-length burqa was ‘not welcome in France’ he sounded dangerously xenophobic. He made the French — otherwise legendary for their permissiveness — sound dogmatic and intolerant. He was in fact echoing what Jack Straw, a former foreign secretary in Britain had said a few years ago. Straw described the full veil as a ‘mark of separation’ and a custom that ghettoised the Muslim community. Sarkozy made a similar argument in an address to his country’s parliament proclaiming that, “the burqa is not a religious sign, it’s a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement”.
The liberal in me found the comments grating and very offensive. He made multiculturalism sound like it had an expiry tag. Yet, the feminist in me began to wonder when he argued that the full veil essentially forced women into being “prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity”.
The fact is that the debate around the veil is too complex to be reduced to these kind of sweeping generalisations. What the veil stands for seems to change every time history, context and culture shifts.
I have to confess that I don’t get it when some women say that being behind a veil liberates them from the prying eyes of the male gaze and makes them feel safer. It’s become just about the most clichéd explanation. But then — if you deconstruct any religion and culture — chances are that you will find several attempts at reigning in female sexuality and containing it within bounds of modesty and meekness. The ghoonghat, the covered head — even the dupatta — were all originally such symbols of protocol and morality. It’s just that as societies change, symbols can often get separated from their original contexts and become contemporary in usage. Take the bindi for example. Most of us, who wear one today do so for entirely aesthetic reasons, unmindful that once upon a time it would have made us Hindu and Married. Perhaps the burqa isn’t yet seen as an aesthetic cultural custom to those who watch from the outside. But, the hijab or the headscarf, for example, seems to have been assimilated into the mainstream of several societies across the world.
Essentially, classic western feminism hits a dead-end when it comes to a complex word called choice. Traditions that seem patently unequal find refuge in the argument of choice. And we can debate forever whether it’s about free will or socialisation by a patriarchal regime, but there’s not much you can say to a woman who chooses to drape herself in swathes of black cloth. I still remember Kamala Das, the eccentric — but fiercely independent — poet arriving on my television show in a burqa. She had recently converted, and this she said, was her choice. How could anyone argue against that?
When we look at the veil debate through the prism of gender, there’s also one more question that’s begun to nag at me. Does less really mean more? Do pin-up girls in little bikinis and big breasts that invite a travelling camera lens as if it were a lover really symbolise liberation? Is manufactured hyper-sexuality the only antidote to decades of control? It seems as if women can only be pulled towards two different extremes. Whereas most of us, I suspect, like the place in the middle and the freedom to define it for ourselves.
Ironically, it was the politics of cultural assimilation that first helped me change my own textbook positions. It was 2001. 9/11 had just shaken the world and I was in New York. Though it’s admirable that there was no violent backlash, I remember how scared Muslims in the city were. In the first few weeks, several Muslim women I met had discarded the safety and comfort of the hijab because they didn’t want to be noticed or targeted. 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 her customary salwar-kameez. So, in effect, clothes condemned as old-fashioned by some, suddenly became symbols of religious and political freedom. No wonder today, it’s Obama who is telling Western countries to “to avoid dictating what clothes a Muslim women should wear,” saying such action is actually ‘hostility’ towards other religions in ‘the pretence of liberalism’.
There’s the famous story of a London journalist, Zaiba Malik, who wore a veil just for a day to chronicle whether her city would respond differently. “On the street it takes just seconds for me to discover that there are different categories of stare,” she wrote, “Elderly people stop dead in their tracks and glare; women tend to wait until you have passed and then turn round when they think you can’t see; men just look out of the corners of their eyes. And young children — well, they just stare, point and laugh.”
And that’s the main problem with Sarkozy’s remarks. He’s trying to homogenise culture. You can’t claim to stand for Freedom when you impose and force your views on those who think differently. Freedom, in the end, is the space to be yourself.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV