In large parts of secular India, Hindu widows, some of them no more than children, are constrained to wear white. Even if you’ve never been to Benaras where widows are reportedly dumped by the dozen in various ashrams, you have only to see Deepa Mehta’s Water or any of the dozens of photo-features that routinely pop up in newsmagazines, to see these women dressed in stark white, unadorned by jewellery, many with shaved heads, begging for a few rupees, a handful of rice, a rotting banana.
You know that they are widows by the talismans of their white saris. Just as you know that a woman in a burqa is Muslim. <b2>
Male-dominated society has for too long controlled what women should and should not wear. In Rajasthani villages, custom dictates what colour a woman’s dupatta should be if she is married, unmarried or a widow. In Kerala, lower-caste women fought for their right to cover their breasts. And in Punjab women routinely cover their heads as a sign of their modesty.
In 2005, an Islamic scholar issued a fatwa against Sania Mirza for wearing short skirts, un-Islamic according to him, while playing tennis. Sania refused to be drawn into the controversy, which in time blew over, with the venerable gentleman going back to the obscurity to which he belonged.
In urban India, even in the conservative north, many clothing taboos are breaking down. Where they wore saris a decade ago, they now wear salwar-kameez, where they wore salwar-kameez, they now wear pants, dresses, shorts even. Not everyone’s pleased: the moral police huffs and puffs about the ‘degradation’ of Indian culture. Regardless, women — even if they are a minuscule minority in urban India — are asserting their right to dress as they please.
So, if we are to condemn the wearing of white by Hindu widows, how are we to react to the donning of a burqa by Muslim women, even when it is ‘voluntary’?
Belgium, with its famed Flemish-French divide where legislators can rarely agree on anything, recently became the first European country to pass a bill in the lower house of Parliament to ban the wearing of the burqa — the garment that covers women from top to toe — in public. Once the ban is endorsed by the Senate, women spotted in public in a burqa could be fined €25 or spend a week in jail.
If Belgium leads, can other European countries be far behind? Italy and the Netherlands are mulling a ban. France, in 2004, banned ostentatious displays of religious symbols, including the headscarf worn by girls and turbans worn by Sikh boys in government-run schools. President Nicolas Sarkozy, who famously said that the burqa is ‘not welcome in France’, is now drafting a ban bill.
Reaction to Belgium’s proposed legislation has been polarised. Muslim groups have condemned the proposed law. So has Amnesty International, which sees the ban as an ‘attack on religious freedom’. Those who applaud the move have a variety of reasons: the burqa, some say, is a security threat; the garment could conceal weapons and how are security forces to ascertain the identity of a veil-covered person? And then there is the argument that the burqa is a garment of male oppression. Banning it is a step forward.
Look at the burqa debate in another way: is a ban to be considered discrimination against Muslims or is it a step to liberate women? The liberal view would be to protect minority rights. The feminist inclination is to say women must be free to wear the clothes they really want to.
But even the feminists have been silent. Belgium’s move could have been applauded but for obvious give-aways. No more than an estimated 215 women in Belgium are fully veiled. In France only 1,900 women, or less than 0.0003 per cent of French Muslims, are estimated to wear the burqa. Behind the lofty claims of liberating women lies the lurking suspicion that the ban is nothing more than thinly veiled bigotry. If nothing else, the legislation signals a clear discomfort with visible symbols of Islam in Europe.
However you see it, the law is an ass. How do you claim to liberate women by fining them or packing them off to jail for wearing garments imposed on them either through direct force or through social pressure? Moreover, a community that believes it is under siege usually reacts by turning inward, clinging to its religious and cultural identities. Ban the burqa and you can be sure that more and more women will take to wearing the headscarf.
Then what? Ban the headscarf too?
Putting a woman behind a veil, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, or for that matter any effort at controlling the clothes she wears — white sari or burqa or skirts while playing tennis — is regressive. The burqa denies women individuality, placing them in a collective cousinhood of unthreatening neutrality.
But coercion — whether it is sought through legislation, a maulvi’s fatwa or social pressure — seldom results in change. Banning the burqa is a step backward, not forward. And that is the sad reality that Belgium’s legislators must face.
Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer
The views expressed by the author are personal