The word ‘Hijab’ is relatively new for me. It was not a part of my vocabulary as I was growing up. I learned it much later, when I began to read literary and religious Urdu texts. That is how I also learned other such culturally potent words as Ishq (Passion) and Siyasat (Politics), and Tasavvuf (Mysticism). The relevant word that I learned growing up was purdah. And I learned the word and its many meanings in the observed practice of the various female members of my middle-class family in Bara Banki, a small town in north India.
For Ammi, my grandmother, purdah meant almost never venturing out of the house. On the rare occasions when she did, it was always an elaborate ritual. Visiting a family in the neighbourhood — only on the occasion of some tragedy, as I remember — she used a doli. The little stool slung from a pole that two men carried would be brought to our back door — the door to the zanana or the ladies’ section — and the two carriers would step away behind the curtain wall. Ammi would wrap herself in a white sheet and squat on the flat stool, and a heavy custom-made cover would be thrown over her and the doli. The two bearers would then come back and carry the doli away on their shoulders.
When Ammi traveled in my father’s car, she covered herself the same way, while the back seat of the car where she sat was made completely invisible by pieces of cloth hung across the windows. Years earlier, she had traveled all the way to Mecca with her daughter and son-in-law to perform the Hajj. I don’t know how she covered herself during the journey itself, but in the holy city she must have done what all Muslim women are required to do: perform the many rituals together with men while keeping their hair and bodies covered but faces fully exposed. She acted in Mecca the way it was required of her by Islam, her religion, while in Bara Banki she did what was demanded by her culture — the culture of the sharif or genteel people of Avadh.
Apa, my mother belonged, to the next generation. She used a burqa. Hers was a two piece ‘modern’ outfit, as opposed to the one-piece — derisively called ‘the shuttlecock’ by my sisters — that was preferred by the older or more conservatively spirited in the family. I also remember that the older generation’s burqas were usually white, while the new burqas were always black.
Apa’s burqa’ consisted of a skirt and a separate top throw — one that covered her from the head to the thighs. The two pieces allowed for easier movement of both arms and legs. The top had a separate veil hanging over the face, which Apa could throw back in the company of women, e.g. while traveling in the ladies compartment on a train, or hold partly aside to look at things more closely when she went shopping. Apa wore a burqa all her life, except of course when she went to Mecca for Hajj. There she wore the same sheets of ihram that Ammi had to were earlier. Like all women pilgrims then and now, she too exposed her face to everyone’s sight but not her hair.
My older sisters went to a school in Lucknow where they boarded. They wore a burqa of my mother’s style while in Bara Banki. They probably wore the same in Lucknow too, on their outings with other students, no doubt always under the supervision of a lady teacher or two. My eldest sister gave up the burqa after she got married, though she always put it on when she came to Bara Banki during our father’s life. She acted as the wife of a certain individual when she was away from Bara Banki, but behaved as befitted the daughter of a particular family when she returned home.
In our extended family, however, there were several cousins of my mother who never wore a burqa, and two had worn western clothes when they were at a convent school.There were also a few families in Bara Banki even then in which the younger women never wore burqas and only half-wrapped themselves in a sheet when they walked to some place in the neighborhood; they otherwise dressed and behaved just like my sisters.
I should not neglect to mention that in those days — I’m talking about the Forties — it was considered improper even for Hindu ladies of certain classes to be seen in public with their hair and faces uncovered, particularly the married women. They never wore a burqa — that was for Muslims alone. Instead, they used a shawl, a plain white sheet, or the pallo of their saris to cover what was not for strangers to see. They too lived in houses that had separate women’s quarters. Their daughters traveled to school daily in a covered wagon that was pushed by two men, just like their Muslim counterparts. (The school was exclusively for girls and had a very high wall surrounding it.)
Another noticeable difference between Hindu and Muslim ladies of the same middle class was that the former did not hesitate to use a tonga. They sat on the back bench of the horse-drawn vehicle where their sari-wrapped lower bodies were visible to all. Muslim ladies, on the other hand, preferred the other horse-drawn vehicle, ekka — where they could huddle on its high seat wrapped in their burqas or even have the whole seat enclosed with a sheet. My sisters, I well remember, hated to travel in an ekka, and did so only under duress in Bara Banki; in Lucknow, they too used a tonga.
Needless to say, the women who ‘served’ in our homes in some capacity — as live-in servants or traditional retainers — and the women of the poorer classes all over the city went about their hard tasks without any kind of purdah. On the way to my school I’d walk through a small cluster of homes where some Muslim weavers lived.
Their women went about their daily chores in ordinary clothes, even when working under the trees by the roadside. Their men were believed by most to be more devoutly Muslim than many — the British had called them ‘the bigoted julahas’ — but for untold generations the same devout men had enforced no purdah restrictions on their women.
They could not afford to in the face of the reality of their lives. Only the young married women in their households kept their faces lowered and partially covered with the hem of their dupattas exactly as did their sari-clad Hindu counterparts in that neighbourhood.
In other words, when and where I was growing up the word ‘purdah’ had many different meanings. It described a range of habits, and not just a piece of cloth. The defining emphasis always was on a modesty of behaviour which included a showing of respect for our ‘elders’. Purdah in Bara Banki was not defined by some religious code, it existed as dictated by local practices and sensibilities. And it always seemed open to change.
After the events of 1947, the changes became more rapid. More and more Muslim women gave up the burqa and appeared in ordinary clothes, particularly in saris, in public spaces. One still saw burqa-covered ladies in Bara Banki and Lucknow, but they were less likely to be encountered in the fashionable business areas of the latter. The wagon that carried middle-class girls to their school in Bara Banki first lost its curtains, then it was itself abandoned. The girls went to school on foot, or in cycle-rickshaws. And if someone had asked me to show them a doli I could have done so only by taking them to the civil hospital where a couple were still used to fetch patients too weak to travel any other way.
One no longer saw curtained cars and covered ekkas. People moved in cycle-rickshaws. The women of my mother’s generation retained their burqas, but in my younger sisters’ generation there were hardly any takers.And those who did wear a burqa left their faces exposed. Modernity had met religious requirement, one could say, and found it agreeable. As these changes continued, decisions were made by individuals and families. No religious arbiter appointed himself to the task. There was no general uproar against the changes either, only a resigned groan here and there.
My first encounter with the head cover that is now referred to as the hijab was when I moved to Chicago in 1961, where there was a burgeoning community of Black Muslims. Their leader, the Honourable Elijah Mohammed, lived in our neighborhood, Hyde Park-Kenwood, and one of their mosque-schools was only a few blocks away from our apartment. Their women were not seen in public spaces without a head-covering. Dressed in flowing robes and showing only their faces, they stood out everywhere. At first, though, they didn’t look to me much different from some of the nuns I had come across in India and the United States. If anything, the headgears of these Muslim women were less odd than what I had seen on some nuns.
As I happened upon these women on my trips to the neighborhood shopping areas, what I particularly noticed was the response they drew from the people around them — an almost palpable mix of curiosity and respect. People tended to stare after them, but they also behaved more civilly in their close proximity. That response was most noticeable in the all-Black areas such as the shopping stretches of 47th and 63rd streets. Foul language and boorish behavior seemed to stop as these women walked by. It could have been due mainly to a fear of their men — no one on the street wished to ‘mess’ with them — but I could feel that the people also had respect for these women’s sense of modesty and the proud way they bore themselves.
Many years later, the hijab began to appear on the campus of the University of Chicago where I worked.
First there was just one girl, then there were many, and soon scarved heads became so common on the campus that one stopped noticing them. Some of these Muslim co-eds took courses with me. My experience with them was in no way unusual. To be honest, I was not a little surprised. I too had had some silly notion of these girls being collectively different from other students. Obviously, that was not the case. Each was different or same in the same way as any non-Muslim student. Not all Muslim girls wore a hijab, of course. Needless to say, the two cohorts intermingled both among themselves and with other students.
It was an incredibly clear September morning in Chicago as it was in New York when what was unimaginable until then happened. As usual I had turned on the radio while I made my breakfast, and was only half-listening when it was reported that a plane had crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. It must have been a small plane, I thought, piloted by some idiot trying to show off. Then a few minutes later I heard them say that a second plane had also crashed. I rushed to the TV. and turned it on.
The image remains fixed in my mind.
A brilliantly blue sky; two starkly silhouetted towers rising high above everything around them; and two billowing clouds of smoke. Then images began to change while being shown again and again.The towers imploded then re-appeared; the two planes crashed, then re-appeared to crash again, endlessly.
News from Washington and Pennsylvania came in. Commentators and reporters kept talking, never seeming to take a break. Like millions across the world, I too sat numb and bewildered.
As the day passed, the numbness increased almost to paralysis. And the bewilderment turned into something I had never felt before: a disorienting mix of rage and shame and fear.Rage at the perpetrators of this horrific crime, shame at their being my co-religionists, and a chilling fear of what to expect in repercussion as a Muslim living in the United States.
I’m sure I was not the only one who felt that way then. I remained glued to the TV. till very late and even then it was very hard to fall asleep that night.
The next morning the ice in my belly had not melted. I went and stood on my balcony and saw some people walk by on the sidewalk below.
I watched a neighbour go to his car and drive off. I didn’t call out a greeting to him. I was fearful of how he could have looked at me. I was scared to go down and be with other people, to speak to them and be spoken to. I had not exchanged a word with another human being for almost thirty-six hours. No one had called the day before, nor had I called anyone.
I had heard only the somber voices on TV. or my own mutterings.
As the morning hours passed I was getting desperate. I had to do something, otherwise I felt I would never be able to do anything. I had lived in the United States since 1957, and had just completed forty years of teaching, taking early retirement to spend more time with my mother in India. I had spent almost twice as many years here as in India. I had taken part in the anti-Vietnam War marches in Chicago and joined other assemblies, on campus and outside, concerned with civil rights here and abroad.
In 1968, when I had published something in support of the student protestors on our campus and against the administration’s efforts to punish them, some idiot had phoned to tell me that he had been stalking me and would soon get me. In 1979 (or was it 1980?), when Americans were hostages in Iran, a man had shouted obscenities and threw a couple of beer cans at me — not empties, mind you — as he drove parallel to me for several terrifying minutes on the Lake Shore Drive.
These incidents had little effect on me. But today was so very different. I had been up since dawn having barely slept for an hour or two. I had to force myself to eat a little breakfast. The TV. was on again. but I couldn’t even watch it any more. I knew I had to go out, if not now then the following day, or the day after. But I was scared to face the world, scared of what it could possibly do to me.
Finally, close to noon, when I was not likely to run into any of my close neighbours, I went downstairs. Out on the ever-so-familiar sidewalk, I felt awkward and nervous. Luckily I didn’t run into anyone I knew as I walked towards the campus through habit. I was convinced that every person I encountered was giving me a look filled with suspicion and contempt. I kept my eyes down and kept walking, slowly and irresolutely, unlike my usual way, all the time struggling to resist an urge to turn around and go home.
Soon enough, though without intending to, I found myself on the campus. The summer session had ended and the university was fully closed except for the administrative offices. As I reached the main quadrangle I saw a small crowd forming in its center, and discovered that a memorial service was to be held soon, involving the various religious groups on our campus. I decided to stick around.
Soon there was a crowd of about two hundred people.There were a few familiar faces in it, but they were at a distance, and I chose to keep my eyes away from them. The meeting was formally opened by the president of the university. He and the dozen or so speakers stood in a circle on a platform surrounded by the crowd. Most of the speakers were men representing various Christian groups; there were also two rabbis and two young students, one representing the Hindu community on the campus and the other the Muslim.
The moment I became aware of the latter I couldn’t keep my eyes away from her for long.As I listened to the various prayerful speeches, my eyes went back to her slight figure again and again. I was most curious to hear what that girl had to say. Not so much because she was a Muslim, and thus somehow would be speaking for me, but because she was wearing a hijab. My curiosity was filled with anxiety. What would a hijab-wearing girl say on this occasion? What could she say? And what if she said something wrong? I almost wished she weren’t there.
Finally it was her turn. She stepped forward, a slip of a girl, wearing standard issue jeans and tunic of a dusty shade, her lowered face framed by the hijab that covered her hair and shoulders. She was visibly nervous, and her voice was barely audible to me as she proceeded to recite from memory the opening short verse from the Qur’an. Next she read out an English translation from the slip of paper she had been clutching in a fist all the time. Then she stepped back and joined the previous speakers. And that was that.
How trite, I thought patronizingly. What she had done was what most Muslims all over the world do when they fall short of appropriate words of prayer at any occasion. She had recited what could be called the Muslim equivalent of the Lord’s Prayer, a Christian staple for similar purposes. In Ahmed Ali’s translation the prayer reads as follows:
“All praise be to Allah,
“Lord of all the worlds,
“Most beneficent, ever-merciful,
“King of the Day of Judgement.
“You alone we worship, and to You
“alone turn for help.
“Guide us (O Lord) to the path that is straight,
“The path of those You have blessed,
“Not of those who have earned Your anger,
“nor those who have gone astray.”
(Al-Qur’an: A Contemporary Translation)
What sense, I wondered, could these words have made to the gathered people even if they had been able to hear her? I wished she had shown more imagination and found more obviously consoling words.
Something like the passage from the Upanishads that the Hindu girl preceding her had read. Soon the crowd began to disperse and I too turned around and started walking home.
Then gradually an unexpected significance of what I had just witnessed began to dawn upon me. There I had been a couple of hours earlier, a man thrice as old as this girl but fearful to step out of my apartment because I thought I looked like a Muslim, and there was she, confidently wearing her hijab as if her skin and her features did not already mark her as a possible target of some racist’s attack.
It dawned on me that she had succeeded where I, more mature and wiser in my own sight, had failed. She had found the courage and the wisdom not to buy into the collective guilt which only too many too soon began to heap upon all Muslims. She was a fighter. Unlike me, that frail young person had found within herself the strength to do what she thought was right in the particular moment. She had also resolutely held on to what was necessary to her as a permanent value.
I imagined she had driven in from some suburb, or perhaps taken a train from the north side, to take part in the memorial service.On the way, people must have stared at her. Some of them could have exchanged apprehensive glances, while some others might have whispered to each other nastily about her. But, I imagined, she had looked straight ahead, holding her ‘hijab-ed’ head high.
As I climbed the long stairs to my apartment I noticed that my steps did not feel as heavy as they had a few hours earlier going down. ‘Thank you, little sister, for being so true to yourself’ — I didn’t say it then, but I should say it now.
I began this essay when I read about the decision by the French government to ban the use of hijab by Muslim girls in French public schools. Only a day or two were left before the schools opened and the ban went into effect. Meanwhile, I learn, a group of militants in Iraq have kidnapped two French journalists hostage, and threatened to kill them unless the French law, which goes into effect today, is repealed.
The French President summoned a commission to suggest ways to improve the lives of the ghettoized Muslim immigrants in France. The commission presented a dozen or so suggestions, both economic and social in nature, for immediate action. Out of that list, President Chirac chose to put into effect only one: no religious symbols will be allowed in public schools. Not wearing a hijab, Chirac probably thinks, will improve the lot of the Muslim girls living in ghettoes and bring them closer to the ideal of a modern French woman.
In Iraq, some self-declared Warriors of Islam, utterly heedless to the plight of Iraqi women and children around them, decided to defend the right of some French schoolgirls to wear a hijab by taking as hostage two innocent Frenchmen.
Not too long ago the American administration invoked the plight of Afghan women under the Taliban to justify its military actions. The Taliban are now gone and the warlords, back in power, treat Afghan women not much differently. But now one does not hear from Washington about the women’s plight.
Such was the case in the Eighties too when Gen. Ziaul Haq ordained draconian laws against Pakistani women in, calling it Islamisation. But Washington needed the General for its Cold War. It wished to destroy the communists and socialists in Kabul, who by far had done the most for the benefit of Afghan women, and make Afghanistan the Soviet Union’s ‘Vietnam’. And so President Reagan launched his ‘jihad’ with the help Pakistan’s Military Intelligence and Afghan warlords, criminally oblivious to the consequences it would have for the women and children of Afghanistan.
One does not hear about Afghan women now from Washington, nor about the Iraqi women, who had been doing very well in terms of health, education and professionalism, before the earlier sanctions and the recent war. Needless to say, while the lives of Saudi women are of no concern to the mandarins in Washington — not a peep was heard when 15 Saudi girls died in a fire in 2002 only because the Saudi religious police did not let them come out bare-headed — they seldom fail to mention Iranian women when expanding upon the ‘evils’ of the next country they just might target.
It seems that championing the cause of Muslim women has become as popular a refuge of a scoundrel as patriotism was once said to be — of course, it is always he who decides what that cause consists of.
C. M. Naim is Professor. Emeritus, South Asian Languages & Civilizations, University of Chicago
Published in OUTLOOK INDIA, September 2, 2004