The woman in a veil, more accurately the Muslim woman in a veil, can well be described as the 21st century's iconic character. Not a major axis of change herself, she is more the fulcrum around which social and political developments seem to unravel. She symbolises the oppressiveness of brutal regimes (the crying mother or wife in the billowy burqa) that justifies military action, and the stultifying limits set by a patriarchy that would insist on keeping her wrapped so. Of what is concealed and cloaked, we remain naturally suspicious. If not subscribed to the faith, it is easy to assume that wellsprings of fear and pain lurk behind the darkness of the veil.
The veil had come up for discussion while talking with Kamin Mohammadi, a writer of Iranian origin attending the recently-held Jaipur Literature Festival. Mohammadi's family escaped post-revolution Iran to Britain when she was a child, and she is westernised to a fault in both attire and ethos. The violence of oppression associated with a woman wearing the chador was frequently exaggerated, she pointed out. Mohammadi argued that in Iran, a woman might be all covered up and yet be working, driving, loving and living a life that demanded far less than in the West where most women would go under the knife just to keep in step with societal expectations. Violence, of the latter kind, was insidious but widespread.
It was difficult to disagree with her, given that around the same time the French police were busy arresting Jean-Claude Mas, charged with using low-grade industrial silicone to make breast implants, sending around 400,000 women across several countries into paroxysms of fear over possible ruptures and leaks.
And yet, coming to self-righteous and grandstanding moral conclusions about cosmetic surgery is as fraught with risks as is judging a woman behind a veil. What if you are a young girl in a small town in India who was about to be married but had a crooked nose, I was asked by Anup Dhir, a senior cosmetic surgeon of a leading Delhi hospital. What indeed? The choice, and a difficult one at that, would be between learning to live and fight rejection with crooked nose intact, or opting out of a life of insecurity (and pandering to expected standards of beauty) by straightening things, so to say.
In India again, where an increasing number of men, old and young (a rough estimate says one-third of all customers are men though there is no national registry), were opting for cosmetic makeovers (the old transplanting hair and reducing pot bellies, the young mostly resorting to liposuction), a gendered view of the cosmetic surgery industry did not hold much traction either.
All of which brings one back to standard assumptions, and their obvious variance when measured against the nuances of real life. In that same literature fest where I had met Mohammadi, I happened to speak to Gogu Shyamala, a writer and a Dalit from Andhra Pradesh. How difficult was it, went my standard journalistic query, to make the transition from a Dalit village community to her present vocation as a researcher in a women's studies centre in Hyderabad? It wasn't, she said. "You see, there was only one coeducational school in the village and upper-caste women couldn't attend it because of the purdah. As a Dalit, I was under no such restriction and my education never suffered". What did suffer, as she gently pointed out, was my assumption of her persecution.