[In the wake of social media talking about the Burka Avenger I am republishing an article I wrote long back for the Bell Bajao Blog. The article was originally written in the context of France banning the burqa in public places. But it still holds good in the present context. With regard to the show Burka Avenger which is an animated TV show about a young Muslim super woman dressed in burka armed with pens and books, all of which sounds very cool, my only objection being anything that reinforces the Burqa or Hijab is NOT cool. Burqa is a sign of oppression and it would always remind us of that. It’s a different matter that many women across the globe have owned it, or taken control of their identities with or without a burqa but if we go into the origin it reminds of oppression. That said, I haven’t seen the show so can’t really make an opinion on the same.]
I speak about the tradition of wearing a Hijab or Burqa in the context of this Spanish short film by Xavi Sala about Hijab in Europe and the discrimination young Muslim women face in a so-called “free” Europe.
The film shows a young school girl being confronted by her teacher where she in various ways tries to convince the girl to take off her head scarf, which is seen as a symbol of religion. Through the 5 min conversation, we hear the various arguments in favour of the decision to ban Hijab in public schools. The teacher says “we want people to be equal, no one else is wearing a hijab why do you want to wear it? Do your parents hit you if you don’t wear it? This is a place for freedom and liberty, here we cannot allow a sign of oppression.”
The young girl reveals there is no pressure on her from any side, even her parents want her to take it off, but she simply doesn’t want to. She says, “I cannot see myself without it”
Finally she gives in, takes off the head scarf and goes inside the classroom. She takes one look at the students sitting there, none of the students appear equal so far as their physical appearance, clothes, fashion, hairdo were concerened, if one was wearing a bandana, another was wearing a cap, somebody had a weird hairstyle, another had a tattoo, others had piercings…the room was full of all kinds appearance sported by the students. Only she was not allowed to wear a Hijab because that, as per the law makers, was a symbol of religion.
Her freedom to chose whether she wants to wear the Hijab or not was given to her. It will not be too difficult to view this as Islam phobia on the law maker’s part.
In the context of Islam phobia, I read an article which talks about how the progressive Muslim community at large is urging their women to take off the Hijab. I quote,
Opinions about the hijab are often discordant and sometimes contradictory: Is the hijab a duty or a right? Is the hijab an indication of religious freedom or of submission to Islamic extremism?
On March 8th 2008 a group of Arabic websites and blogs launched the international campaign “Take off the veil,” arguing that it is a response to what they see as “intellectual terrorism” practiced by strict Islamic groups and individuals. One of the campaign’s leaders was Elham Manea, a professor at the University of Zurich, who bravely said: “My hair is not a sex symbol that I should be ashamed of, and my body is not a stage for men’s fantasies. I am a noble human being with my hair and body.”
So far so good, I think I understand both views fairly. I however have some unanswered questions. Some time back I got into this debate on twitter. It started when I made a statement on Twitter saying, “the hijab looks like a sign of oppression to me, I don’t understand how some Muslim women happily wear it.” Masarat Daud a progressive, liberal, secular Muslim woman who proudly wears the hijab immediately responded to me asking how could I make that judgment when I have never actually worn it. We debated for almost half an hour exchanging tweets back and forth.
I have never worn a hijab / burqa, but I still feel it’s oppression on the basis of how I would feel if I was asked to wear one. A big black shapeless colorless garment which covers me from head to toe I will die inside it. In Bangalore everyday while on my way to work I used to see hundreds of young girls wearing it on their way to college near ‘Commercial Street’.
I remembered my college days, they were best days, of the many fun things we did, shopping was the most favourite. But how much fun is it for a burqa wearing woman to go shopping? Do they feel excited to buy that brand new jeans in store? Or that new Remanika skirt? In summers, do they go shopping for those nice pastel summer shades, how about that long over coat for the winters? Or do they not go shopping at all?
What happens to those small aspirations and desires of young girls to look nice, special, to feel good about what they are wearing, to wear something that compliments their bodies, to look at the mirror and feel nice about what she sees? These desires are all sinful?
When a girl happily makes a choice to wear a Burqa she still is not making a positive choice, it is a negative choice. She wears it because she is conditioned to think think it is the right thing for her to cover her modesty. She wasn’t born with that wisdom somebody told her that it is the right thing to do. Who said it, we don’t know, religion perhaps?
One is also not sure which part of our body exactly is the ‘modesty’. Is it our breasts or the waist or the neck line or the cleavage or the vagina? It is also not clear whether those who cover their modesty are of the impression that others who don’t are not modest. So Sania Mirza or Katrina Kaif are immodest?
When a girl is born in any family she doesn’t automatically know what she will wear when she grows up. Somebody in the family or society tells her what to wear what not to wear. We don’t come with the advance knowledge on types of garments like what is a sari, salwar kameez, trouser, skirt, long dress, short dress et all. We learn from what we see around us.
Some of us have that choice to pick and wear whatever we feel like, some don’t. That’s the difference.
I will have no problem if a girl wears a burqa because she thought it was fashionable to wear one or because she thinks she really looks nice and comfortable in it but if she is wearing it because it is a dress code given to her by her religion it becomes oppression.
That’s why in the short film I fail to agree with the message. A tattoo, a weird hairdo, a bandana or a funky caps are things available in the market as fashion items and we pick up out of our own free will. Religion or culture has got nothing to do with it. But a burqa is given to us by the religion. Whether it is forcible or not, it still remains a religious dictate.
And this oppression is not against women, the dictate that Muslim men should have beard, or Sardar men should have long hair are equally oppressive.