When Hindus wear the burkha
Jyoti Punwani

1 Oct, 2006 1005hrs ISTTIMES NEWS NETWORK

Malti Laad is looking forward to going shopping with her friends next week. It’s Ramzan after all, and, she points out, “Hamari Diwali bhi to hai.” As the group of veiled women samples the goodies on Mohammed Ali Road, they will help Malti buy what’s on top of her Diwali shopping list: a black burkha. The one she wears now belongs to the school where she teaches.

As Malti talks to me inside the school’s air-conditioned audio-visual room, a middle-aged, bearded male enters announcing his presence with a loud “excuse me”. Without a pause in the conversation, Malti pulls down her double-layered naqaab (face veil). As I try to adjust to the pair of kohl-lined eyes that this jovial 23-year-old has suddenly transformed into, the man walks towards us with glasses of water, his head turned firmly away from us.

The Al-Jamiatul-Fikriya Islamic English School in central Mumbai, which is run entirely on Islamic lines, is full of such surprises. A bearded man in a white kurta pyjama and namaz cap welcomes me in fluent English, commenting on the sudden downpour. Then I see a string of teachers appear, their eyes looking out from black veils as they greet me, “Good evening, ma’am.” Some of them are Hindu.

It was not easy for any of them to accept a job which entailed shrouding themselves from head to toe in black. They discussed it for hours at home. (A pre-condition for the job was a no-objection letter signed by their parents.) Some candidates were hesitant but their parents suggested that they try it out. Others were told by their elders to think long and hard before deciding.

What finally clinched it was not just the attractive salary (Rs 7,500 for an 8 am to 5 pm day), but also other factors, varying from a long spell of unemployment to the need for work experience, from the school’s proximity to home to the desire to get away from politicking seniors in other schools. For all, the favourable first impression of their working environment was a strong factor, an impression that was confirmed when they began working here.

They cite the “cozy atmosphere and the supportive staff” as the main advantages of the school.
Care is taken not to offend their religious sensitivities, they say. “I was told at the very beginning, ‘We are not going to convert you,'” recalls Nalini Mohite. While one of the teachers admits that she’s hesitant to eat non-vegetarian food here, another points out that during Shraavan, the canteen makes special vegetarian fare. Visiting preachers who come to talk on Islam are informed that the staff includes Hindus. (Apart from one Christian, 35% of the non-teaching staff and 19% of the all-female teaching staff, is Hindu.)

Twenty seven-year-old Prerna Krishna commutes three hours every day, but has turned down offers from other schools because, “For me what matters is the work environment and the students’ response. The students (all Muslim) reciprocate our concern for them, and the staff is very co-operative.”

And the burkha? Doesn’t it matter at all?

Interestingly, none of them knew when they responded to a newspaper ad that they would have to wear it. Senior teachers recall being told about the ‘dress code’ during the interview. Then the school got wiser and began informing applicants about it when they called them for the interview, “so as not to waste their and our time,” says supervisor Shireen Parveen.

“Wonderful, I thought, when I was told there was a dress code,” recalls Nalini. “Now I won’t have to bother about looking smart every day.” Her elation dipped sharply when the dress code was spelt out. “But the Hindu HRD manager reassured me and showed me the Christian telephone operator wearing a burkha. ‘If she can, why not I,’ I thought.”
Nalini had experienced dress codes earlier. Sarees had been compulsory in her previous job, “making me look middle-aged, especially since I used to wear my mother’s,” says the vivacious 28-year-old. “And in my final year of college, I had to give up jeans. So I told my parents, ‘It’s not a burkha, it’s part of school discipline.’ After all, I’m not being asked to expose, but to cover myself. Nothing wrong with that.”

Initiated into the garment by supervisor Parveen, the girls find the burkha convenient. The entire school is air-conditioned and the garment keeps them warm. But the veil takes weeks of getting used to, even though they can lift it up in the two areas where they spend most of their time – the classroom, where it’s important for students to be able to hear them and see their expression, and the staff room, where they can remove the burkha altogether, since all their colleagues are women. “But we don’t, it’s become a habit now,” Nalini says. But in the presence of the maulanas who impart religious education or the male non-teaching staff, they must remain veiled. “It’s better for us, na,” says Nalini, “we don’t come in contact with them.” Malti too has rationalised the garment’s significance. “However modestly we may dress, men’s eyes always fall on our bodies, sometimes resting here, sometimes there. But in a burkha, what can a man see?” she says laughing, adding regretfully that she can’t say this to her Hindu friends. Prerna too has given up trying to make her friends understand.

For all this, none of them would dream of wearing the burkha after school hours. Once outside, “we go back to our religion,” Prerna says. So, inside, it’s a uniform, outside, it becomes a badge of religious identity. Perhaps that’s why, though the burkhas are taken home to wash, they are not put out to dry. Neither neighbours, nor relatives outside their immediate families, know they wear it. “I used to hang it out, till a colleague told me not to,” says Nalini.

The school’s founder, Suhail Shaikh has offered to assuage any doubts the parents of the Hindu teachers might have. But only one father has approached him so far.

“I assured him that his daughter would be safer here than in any other school,” Shaikh says. In fact, the only objection came from a donor who refused to make any further donation when he learnt that the staff included Hindus. But that has not shaken Shaikh’s resolve to reward talent instead of faith.

Not surprisingly, the burkha and the environment in which they wear this attire, have begun influencing them. After the July 11 blasts, they find themselves countering those who label all Muslims as terrorists.