On the Hijaab (Veil), Topless Jihad, etc.

Posted on April 15, 2013

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Let’s be honest, whenever we think of a Muslim woman in a hijaab, we think of oppression or conditioning. We do not think of it being a personal choice and freedom. We think to ourselves how that woman was forced to wear it, or taught (read brainwashed) that she needs to wear it.

My first interactions with Muslim girls were during my school years. Some of them wore salwars (baggy cotton drawstring pants) under our school pinafore and draped dupattas/scarves around their shoulders.  Some wore shin-length pinafores. Honestly, as a child, I never thought of it as odd or different. When we played together, they were just like me.

The first time I met a young woman wearing a hijaab was when I was at TISS for my MSW. She was a master’s student with me. At that time, I did think of it as a cultural identity. I don’t think I thought of it as a negative or as an imposed thing. What surprised me was that this young woman had CHOSEN to wear the hijaab. She hadn’t grown up wearing it; she wore jeans and short tops to college. It surprised me more than anything. I thought to myself, “Why would she choose to cover herself up?” I heard that my peers asked her these questions, and sometimes rudely, being judgmental – you’re attracting more attention towards yourself by wearing that thingWell, if there had been 10-20 more like her, I am sure she would not have attracted so much attention. I am not saying have reserved seats (?) but there is a cultural accessibility issue in non-Muslim countries, as far as veiled women are concerned.

Come to think of it, I did not think of it as odd when I was in school because there were several Muslim girls wearing salwars and dupattas with their pinafore uniforms. That means, educational institutions have to go out of their way to ensure they’re inclusive. I went to Mount Carmel, and it was a government-aided school. Would that happen in a private international school in Bangalore/Mumbai or even Ahmedabad? I don’t know. I don’t know if it is common in the U.S. either. In France, there are rules against any religious symbolism in schools, but it is said that is mainly to prohibit the hijaab and possibly the Sikh turbans. In France, in 2010 a veiled woman was fired from her job; she sued her employer and the court ruled against her.

In 2006, I was part of gender and sexuality program that had participants from India, Palestine and Egypt. This time, I met two girls from Egypt who wore the hijaab. I got to know both of them and found out that they had personally chosen to wear the hijaab. Their families didn’t subscribe to that thought. Their sisters and mothers didn’t wear the hijaab. One of them was feisty like me. It was funny to me that someone who dressed soooo differently than I did, could be so much like me, subscribed to the same feminist beliefs and concepts of freedom! That’s how I chose to wear the hijaab for two days. To see how it felt.

I remember feeling “less noticeable”. By that I simply mean, less attractive. It was funny, because I believe that beauty lies in a woman’s brains, and the hijaab was definitely not veiling any of that. I went to a few outings wearing the hijaab and I felt people looking at me and making assumptions about what I was like! May be I am wrong. But probably not. Because I know I do (or did) and I know my friends do too.

Taken from Facebook "Journal of an Indian Feminist", Source: Unknown, from the internet :)

Taken from “Journal of an Indian Feminist”, Source: Unknown, from the internet 🙂

I began writing this post because of the Topless Jihaad. My issue is not with nudity or women fighting for the right to own their bodies and not be raped or harassed or marginalized. My issue is with the belief that somehow throwing off the veil is suddenly going to empower women. Or that women who do not wear clothes or wear sexy clothes are somehow more empowered. In fact, I tried to look for pictures from the Topless Jihaad for big women who participated. At max, the largest women that participated in taking their clothes off, were a size 8 or 10. And even those were relatively shapely. If someone can send me pictures of women of size 20 or 22 having participated in this protest, I am willing to bite back my words and change my statement, and give you credit for it. On that note, what about older women, women with disabilities? Is there an accessibility issue here? I think so.

There are popular views on what is sexy, empowered, modern and most of the time, it is about wearing skimpy clothes and being attractive to the “opposite” sex. In fact, there is a great deal of effort made to build on this popular notion of being liberated, and sexualize young women. Victoria’s Secret’s Bright Young Things campaign is just a drop in the great ocean of “be sexy” messages out there. It makes people think that the only aim in life one should have is to be attractive! And that there is a specific type of attractive that you ought to strive to be. So aren’t we all unempowered and trapped in our own notions of modernity? I think, all of us, women and men alike, could do with wearing a cloak or a hijaab two days a week, to help us break free from our constant efforts to be attractive.

I am not saying women are not conditioned to be a certain way. But that’s common to all cultures and not just Islamic women. So why single them out? And IT IS a stereotype to think that every woman wearing a hijaab was forced to do so and has an issue with it. Even if they are conditioned to wear the hijaab, if they’re okay not taking it off, we don’t have the right to tell them to take it off. I don’t see a beeline to help Sikh men shed their turbans or Arab sheikhs to take off their traditional garb when they come for multi-million dollar deals! Not to say that there aren’t whispers behind their backs, but still, there isn’t any “Chop off the Locks” or “Shed the Cloak” jihad happening anywhere! And noooo, this is not a call to start that!

It also reminds me of the ongoing efforts from the “civilized world” to help the native tribes in Andaman and Nicobar Islands. We’re constantly trying to get them to wear clothes and embrace modern medicine and education. Even though, they were the ones who were able to survive the tsunami with their traditional knowledge, while we, the civilized were devastated! Read this detailed report of the chillingly negative impact of modernization on native tribes across the world, to know more about how the civilized world should mind their own business.

Bottom-line: Women have the right to be naked and to stay covered up. Do not try to homogenize the world! Let’s change our concept of empowerment and progress.

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Posted in: attitude