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We are not asking for it

india Updated: Oct 31, 2006 02:43 IST
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Rapists, shrivel and shudder! Finally, something that is far more effective than Oleoresin Capsicum, the active ingredient in pepper spray, has been identified: the burqa. Or the hijab. Or the Ku Klux Klan outfit.

Till the other day, I had thought that the issue of Muslim women wearing burqa/hijab/niqab (three variants of the Islamic veil) was a matter of personal choice. My mother wears sindoor; my wife doesn’t — hardly fodder for any socio-political commentary about gender relations and identity-markers. Unlike in Jack Straw country, where wearing a veil could still seem like wearing a bow-tie to a Diwali party, in India, Muslim women donning the burqa is not a matter of consternation. Indians are integrated well enough to carry on walking if they spot someone wearing a sari, salwar or burqa.

In Britain, however, the burqa, subliminally or otherwise, can mean an inclination to stay ghettoised. I had visited Oldham in the Greater Manchester area in 2001 to write about race relations in this old cotton-mill town a year after race riots had erupted.

To my surprise, I found whole communities of Bangladeshis and Pakistanis barracked away. It was not only a matter of holding on to their South Asian identities but it was also about proactively resisting ‘outsiders’ — which, in this case, happened to be White Britons and non-Muslim South Asians (mostly Indians).

I met a young Bangladeshi tae-kwon-do instructor who told me that “mixing [with Whites] was impossible”. Considering that Oldham has its fair share of White racists (the ‘anti-immigrant’ British National Party has a presence here), I figured that this was a matter of practicality.

It was when I heard a (non-Muslim) school councillor tell me that Muslim parents had petitioned that some of the government primary schools be made ‘Muslims-only’, that I was shocked. “They don’t want White kids to study in the same school as their children.”

So, for Jack Straw and his boss to be paranoid about burqa-wearing in England is something I could vaguely sympathise with. Britain was, after all, till August 2005, home to Omar Bakri Mohammed (dubbed by the British tabloids as the ‘Tottenham Ayatollah’) who outlined in a gathering in Trafalgar Square the post-jehad vision of Britain: the outlawing of Christmas decorations and mannequins; no free mixing between the sexes; no pubs; no pictures of ladies’ legs on packets of tights (only the word ‘tights’ should advertise the product).

Obviously, he wasn’t the representative British Muslim. He was just a Praveen Togadia-Sadhvi Rithambara type of bloke. The Brits didn’t fear him, they just ridiculed him — that is,  until 9/11, etc.

So for me, the ‘burqa debate’ is a problem in countries where being backward (and wearing a burqa, even in India, is being ‘backward’) is a problem. In India, though, being ‘backward’ poses no problem.

This is a country, after all, where a large number of women — Sonia Gandhi, Jayalalithaa, my mother and my wife notwithstanding — are not treated terribly well.

And it has less to do with religion, much to do with culture. How else can one explain an upper caste mob parading a mother and her 17-year-old daughter naked in Khairlanji village near Nagpur and then raping, torturing and killing them on September 29?

If you didn’t know about that ghastly incident — it is the festive season after all — it’s because being ‘backward’ is still less of a scary issue here than, say, in Britain.

But surely, wearing a burqa in India has nothing to do with horrible aspects of backwardness such as rape, etc? That’s what I thought, until I heard Kamala Das-turned-Suraiya on television state in her empirical, modern way how the burqa is a protective covering for women.

She went on to say that in South India, there are no cases of rape committed against women in veils. No one dares to rape them because they protect themselves.

Das-turned-Suraiya seemed to be echoing the words — although in a slightly more sophisticated way as can be expected from a person who was once short-listed for the Nobel Prize for literature — of Australia’s highest Muslim cleric Sheikh Taj el-Din al-Hilali.

Al-Hilali had stated in a sermon, “If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside... and the cats come and eat it... whose fault is it, the cats’ or the uncovered meat’s?” He later insisted that he was talking about ‘infidelity’ and not being nasty about un-hijab-ed women.

Along with Das-turned-Suraiya’s comment, the debate over the burqa/hijab/niqab in India has suddenly got its sexual sub-filter switched on, thanks to ‘guardians of the faith’ like the Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid, Syed Ahmed Bukhari.

Responding to Shabana Azmi’s remarks about the Quran not compelling women to cover their face and that it was “time to debate the issue”, Bukhari questioned what right she had to talk about what the Quran has to say about the hijab. (Answer: She is a) someone who has read the Quran; b) a Muslim; c) a woman; d) a right-thinking human being.) He even insisted that she wasn’t a Muslim, but a “nachne gane wali aurat”.

I’m no Quran expert, but then if the Vedas tell a widow to jump into her husband’s pyre — which is what  some 300 orthodox Bengali Brahmins insisted was the case when they petitioned the Privy Council in 1832 to overturn the 1827 ban on sati, also citing the basic assurance given in an earlier statute whereby the Hindus were assured complete non-interference with their religion — then I must go against the Vedas, excommunication from my Hindu fold be damned.

It’s nice that Shabana Azmi mentioned that the Quran doesn’t compel the Muslim women to don the veil. But I don’t think she needs to quote the scriptures for approval. That can lead to open text season.

I wasn’t the one who had problems with people wearing the veil. But it seems that a few people have problems with women not wearing the veil.

If wearing a hijab, or other forms of apparel that make women ‘become invisible’ to the male public gaze, protects women in the eyes of Kamala Das-turned-Suraiya, Al-Hilali, Bukhari and God knows how many others, does that mean that women not covering themselves ‘properly’ — and I don’t mean a G-stringed lady prancing about in Connaught Place — are asking for it?

The next time my mother (unprotected by sindoor) or my wife (unprotected by anything but a can of pepper spray) cross the Jama Masjid while on their way to the Old Delhi restaurant, Karim’s, should I tell them to be on the lookout for Bukhari and Co?

It’s after all their fault that the imam will be forced to see them in a dangerously lip-smacking way.

Email Indrajit Hazra: ihazra@hindustantimes.com

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