Veiling as a cultural practice that predates Islam, today finds itself confined within the discursive framework of representation and stereotype, oppression and freedom, identity and choice, of the “homogeneous” entity called the “Muslim woman”. In the midst of debates around these, the nondescript black burqa, struggles for a narrative beyond the permissible limits of mainstream discourse.

The contemporary burqa as a form of purdah or veiling practice encompasses more than a simple veil covering the face, head or body of the “good Muslim woman”. Lost in the debate are countless narratives of women for who perchance may be wearing the burqa out of choice, custom, social pressure, or religious conviction but then they are more than the garment that covers them.

Without going into Quranic exegesis on the veil or getting trapped by feminist discourses ranging from Fatema Mernessi to Irshad Manji, the proposed research is an attempt to look at the burqa and its wearer outside the framework of “Muslim” identity.
My key questions remain:

What are the prisms of looking at the burqa clad woman?

What are the possible ways to define her besides as a “Muslim” woman?

for the full text, go to – Proposal on Veiling Practices (Pages)


Abu ‘Abd ar-Rahman As-Sulami

Rkia E. Cornell, translator
Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 1999. 270p. Paper. $24.95 ISBN 1887752064.

Early Sufi Women covers two topics currently in vogue among Western
scholars of Islam: Women and Sufism. Given the current spate of negative
publicity Islam is suffering, this is a timely book. It reminds the reader
that burqa-clad non personhood is not the normal state of women in Islam,
nor is legalistic asphyxiation of the spirit its main characteristic.

The present work is a first ever English translation of Dhikr an-niswan
al-muta ‘abbidat assufiyyat (the book of Sufi Women) by Abu ‘Abd ar-Rahman
As-Sulami (937-1021 CE) who wrote it as an appendix to his larger work on
male Sufis called Tabaqat assufiyya. The manuscript from which this
translation is made was thought to be lost until recently and was only
discovered in Riyadh in 1991. Thus it is probably the “oldest Sulami
manuscript in existence” dating to 1081 CE, as well as the earliest
hagiographical work on Sufi women (44).

In the Introduction, women’s Sufi tradition is called “a veiled tradition”
while an attempt is made to unveil this tradition by way of translation of
this early manuscript on Sufi women. This unveiling, as it were, is to the
point of making manifest the role Muslim women played in the religious and
spiritual domains of Islamic life and practice in early Islam. This work
counters the myth prevalent in some circles that, throughout Islamic
history, Muslim women were deprived of spiritual rights, by way of
retelling the stories of spiritually accomplished women. This effort also
highlights the fact that the conservative view of women as being incapable
of spiritual chivalry is neither universal nor authoritative. Indeed Muslim
societies are not homogenous, and the diversity and differences of opinion
concerning the role women play in forms of piety and mystical expressions
are immense.

Thus the current work under review is important for four reasons: 1) It
comes from a formative period of Islam when legal and theological positions
were in ferment; 2) It focuses on practical rather than speculative Sufism;
3) It recalls the importance of women during the formative period of Islam,
which was passing from memory even at the time the original work was
written; and 4) It includes a splendid introduction to the author and his
period; both the introduction as well as the translation are supplied with
extensive notes.

The author, Abu ‘Abd ar-Rahman as-Sulami was born in Nishapur, and lived in
proverbial “interesting times.”(1) The Muslim world was divided into three
competing Caliphates (The Umayyads in Cordoba; The Fatimids in Mahdiyyah,
Tunisia, soon to be in Cairo, and the ‘Abbasids in Baghdad). The
Sunni/Shi’i split was still fresh and the legal lines between the two not
completely solidified. Nishapur was an important military and commercial
center at the time and experienced a veritable cross-fertilization of
ideas, which sometimes led to violence among adherents of various
philosophies. The Mu’tazila/Ash’ari controversy regarding the relation
between reason and revelation was current. The two major legal schools of
Shafi’i and Hanafi were well represented. For our purposes, it is important
to recall that Shaf’i, who died in 820 CE developed the concept of usul
al-fiqh (“roots of jurisprudence”) which holds that inspiration from God
(ilham) is admissible for legal decisions when the Qur’an and Sunnah do not
have clear rulings. This school appealed to the Sufis of Nishapur at this
time regarding legal matters. Philosophically, they tended toward Ash’ari
since they suspected that the Mu’tazila elevated human reason to the point
where they expected God to conform to their imaginings.

As-Sulami’s father, Husayn Muhammad al-Azali was a Sufi of the “path of
blame” (Tariq al-Malama) which flouted external laws in order to draw
external opprobrium and internal blessing upon them. While obviously
scandalous, this was not necessarily insane. For example, when as-Sulami
was born, his father sold off all of his possessions and gave the proceeds
to the poor. This was not to put his son into poverty or to appear overly
pious, but because the new father thought to himself: “A son has been given
to you and you have nothing to give him. If he becomes righteous, he will
be a patron for the righteous. But, if he becomes an evildoer, he has been
given no means to do evil” (31)(2). The tension between outward law and
inner servanthood was thus impressed upon the young man.

His father was absent most of as-Sulami’s life(3), thus he was raised by
his mother’s side of the family and given an excellent education, since
they were a very prominent family. The Shafi’i concept of “roots of
jurisprudence” along with the concept of ilham combined with the young
man’s sensibility to the outward/inward dichotomy caused him to set out to
“usulize”(4) Sufi doctrine so that it may be codified along the same lines
as the hadith literature. The model set was tabaqat (levels or classes)
which codified hadith literature according to the veracity of its sources.
The seminal model was Muhammad Ibn Sa’ad’s (d. 845 CE) al-Tabaqat al-Kubra
(The Greatest Generations)(5) which included portraits of all the bearers
of tradition from the companions of the Prophet to his own contemporaries.
Likewise, as-Sulami includes hadith-style isnad, or chains of authority.
Since these would have given specific knowledge to contemporary readers and
function as a kind of evidence for the overall veracity of the stow, the
translator offers the modern reader footnotes when necessary to enhance
understanding of the text.

As-Sulami was a noted systematizer in his day and his works were widely
spread (considering each copy had to be hand-written). Many of his lost
works are only known by reference in other extant manuscripts. His works
were generally in three genres: 1) Sacred biographies (of which the Dhikr
an-niswa is one); Treatises on Sufi institutions and practices; 3) Qur’anic
commentaries.(6) As mentioned above, the Niswa is actually a portion of a
larger work, the Tabaqat as-Sufiyyah (Generations of Sufis) which is an
abridgement of the even larger Tarikh as-Sufiyyah (History of Sufis).

For the purpose of “usulization” of Sufi doctrine, as-Sulami sets out to
trace the origin of Sufi practices and doctrines while classifying them in
light of the Sunnah, thereby distinguishing the defective doctrines from
the helpful and original ones. His concern is primarily with the acts of
the pious rather than with philosophical speculation. He treats women as
equals to men in their ability to gain exalted levels of intellect ‘aql and
religious observance din and thus presents them as models of imitation for
men as well as women. In this aspect, as the translator rightly points out,
as-Sulami’s book “challenges the legitimacy of modern restrictions on
women’s participation in Sufism by demonstrating that in Sufism’s formative
period, women were not so often excluded from the public aspects of
spiritual life” (20-1).

This work presents eighty-two vignettes of Sufi women in bilingual fashion
with the Arabic text facing the English text.(7) This may add slightly to
the cost of the book, but is extraordinarily useful in helping to
familiarize the English-speaking student of Islam with the classical idiom
while supplying clarification to those more familiar with Arabic that would
not be otherwise available as the text is not readily found in any other
format.(8) The arrangement is more by region than chronologically.

The two main schools are those of Basra and Syria. Basra is the earlier,
flourishing in the 7(th) and 8(th) centuries CE. This would include the
famous Rabi’a al-‘Adawiyya (d. 801 CE), who had almost a century of
feminine tradition to draw on in this city. Some of the women of Basra at
this time met in underground circles called saradib and did not usually
meet openly with men. Their characteristic observances included prayer,
fasting and night vigils. Other characteristics include buka, weeping for
the sinful nature of humanity, which is also enjoined upon men by Abu Hafs
of Nishapur (156), and wara’, or systematic avoidance of evil, since the
believer is the slave of God. The famous Rabi’a is depicted as a
spiritually disciplined woman in charge of her mystical states rather than
as an overly emotional soul (74-81).(9)

The Syrian school is linked to the Basra school by Ahmad ibn Abi al-Hawari
and his wife Rabi’a bint Isma’il. Chronologically, this school comes along
a bit later, around the turn of the 9(th) century CE. The Syrian women
spoke of love (mahabba), intimacy (uns) as well as fear (khawf) of God
(64). By the second half of the ninth century, women Sufis mix more freely
with men and even travel sometimes with them. Women’s contributions to the
realm of Sufism were widely recognized. After all it was a Sufi woman,
Rabi’a, who first introduced the notion of pure or `Divine Love’ into the
mystical world of Islam, influencing numerous others who followed in that

Through Divine Love or mahabba, which is the only form of pure love, the
seeker is able, with endurance, to transform oneself from the earthly
practices of self-denial and self-discipline to a higher state of
awareness. By focusing on the love the Sufi attains knowledge (ma’arifa)
that is otherwise hidden from him/her. This self denial encompasses all
aspects of one’s being and is reflective of a highest form of conscious
living. Thus looking at one of Rabi’a’s prayers one can locate the energy
moved by love for rather than fear of the divine majesty of God.

O God! If I worship Thee in fear of Hell, burn me in Hell; and if I worship
Thee in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise; but if I worship Thee
for Thine own sake, withhold not Thine Everlasting Beauty!(11)

The translator notes that as-Sulami’s use of the term, “niswa/niswan”
relates to a masculine counterpart “fitya/fityan”, the latter pair denoting
groups of men who practice futuwwa (young manliness) or chivalry (66). In
doing so, even though he does not seem to advocate separate feminine
spiritual circles, he does imply that women have a “corporate identity” and
have a form of Sufic chivalry of their own. Chivalry, even though often
defined in patriarchal terms, is gender neutral, at least in the spiritual
sense, since it deals with the servitude towards and constant remembrance
of God, seeking the company of good people, to be introspective and having
a focus on removing one’s own defects and to guard one’s soul against all

Women have the same capability as men to become slaves of God rather than
slaves of self and as this collection shows women in early Islam not only
had their own Sufi movements and schools of female asceticism but they were
known for advising men by virtue of their spiritual status which comes not
by virtue of gender, but by the humble practices that lead them closer to
their Lord. Thus in the words of Prof. Annemarie Schimmel:

Throughout the ages we find names of pious women who pursued the mystical
path, either independently or as consorts or mothers of Sufis. Many of
their names are noted in the hagiographical works, and the memory of many
saintly women is kept alive in small sanctuaries found in North Africa,
Anatolia, and particularly in Muslim India. This role of women is not
astonishing since in the Islamic Middle Ages women participated in various
aspects of social life…. In the mystical life, women have played an
important role to this day; even some successful leaders in the modern
traditions have been women.(13)

Like religion in general, Sufism has been affected by modernity and its
response to modernity has been to try to adapt and modify its practices,
and in some places this meant shrouding it in a more conservative cloak,
thus displacing the role women played in it in the past.(14) This is to say
that historical performance is one thing, and contemporary situation is
another. Women’s role in the religious life of contemporary Muslim
societies varies depending on many external factors, including but not
limited to Wahabi influences.(15) Indeed as mentioned in the Introduction
to this excellent work, today “it is rare to find a Sufi order that accepts
women as a matter of policy,” with the exception of some groups in Moroccan
and Turkish Sufism (18-9).(16)

Over all this work is a rich resource and would be quite useful for those
interested in issues concerning women in Islam. In our view this work goes
a long way in disseminating a better understanding of the role of Muslim
women in history. To conclude, in the words of Prof. Nasr, this work is a
“testament to the role of women in the Sufi tradition in the past and to
female spirituality in Islam in general.”(17)


(1) The translator suggests Richard W. Bulliet. The Patricians of Nishapur:
A Study in Medieval Islamic Social History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 1972) for detailed description of the city.

(2) Quoting Abd ar-Rahman Jami. Nafahat al-uns (Tehran: Kitabfurushi-e
Sa’di, 1958).

(3) Al-Azali either died or went to Mecca, never to return. He supposedly
met the Sufi luminary, Abu al-Qasim al-Junayd (d. 910 ce) in Baghdad.

(4) The translator credits Vincent J. Cornell with coining the term,

(5) Muhammad Ibn Sa ‘ad, al-Tabaqat al-Kubra (Cairo: Dar al-Tahrir, 1970).

(6) Cf. Gerhard Böwering. The Minor Qur ‘an Commentary of Abu ‘Abd
ar-Rahman as-Sulami (Beirut, 1995) for a recent translation of one of
as-Sulami’s tafsirs.

(7) An appendix includes translation of another sixteen short bioal-Jawzi.

(8) The manuscript was only discovered in 1991 in the library of Muhammad
Ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh.

(9) Michael Sells. Early Islamic Mysticism (New York: Paulist Press, 1996).

(10) Margaret Smith. Rabi’a the Mystic and her Fellow-Saints in Islam
(Cambridge: University Press, 1928); and Annemarie Schimmel. “Women in
Mystical Islam,” in Women and Islam, ed. Azizah al-Hibri (Oxford: Pergamon
Press, 1982) and My Soul is a Woman: The Feminine in Islam, tr. Susan H.
Ray (New York: Continuum, 1997).

(11) A. J. Arberry, Sufism (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), p. 42-3.

(12) Summary of a description of chivalry by Khwaja Abdallah Ansari (d.
1089 CE) cited in Sachiko Murata. The Tao of Islam: A Sourcebook on Gender
Relationships in Islamic Thought. (Albany: State University of New York
Press, 1992), p. 267.

(13) Annemarie Schimmel, “Aspects of Mystical Thought in Islam,” in The
Islamic Impact, eds. Yvonne Y. Haddad, Byron Haines and Ellison Findly
(Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1984), p. 114-5.

(14) Elizabeth Sirriyeh. Sufis and Anti-Sufis: The Defence, Rethinking and
Rejection of Sufism in the Modern World (Richmond: Curzon Press, 1999).

(15) Many modern reformers, even though influenced by Sufism, were critical
of Sufi practices that to them seemed outside the purview of the main
teachings/pillars of Islam. Muhammad Abdul Wahhab of Najd (d. 1791) is well
known for his rejection of Sufism and regarding it as heretical.

(16) Prof. Schimmel has written about Samiha Ayverdi, a Turkish woman who,
with her fellow Sufi women, “carried on the tradition of the Rifa’i order”
in Istanbul. See Schimmel, “Women in Mystical Islam,” op. cit. p. 145. For
Moroccan Islam, the translator suggests Vincent J. Cornell. Realm of the
Saint: Power and Authority in Moroccan Sufism (Austin, TX: University of
Texas Press, 1998); see also Daisy Hilse Dwyer, “Women, Sufism, and
Decision-Making in Moroccan Islam,” in Women in the Muslim World, ed. Lois
Beck and Nikki Keddie (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978).

(17) Seyyed Hossein Nasr, From the comments on the back cover.

Found this poem on a blog. The bogger in turn found this on a website with a page for women. The website belongs to the Worldwide Islamic Network of Women; the acronym they use is WINOW.

For an exegesis on the poem 😉 visit

Be Proud of Hijab

You look at me and call me oppressed,
Simply because of the way I’m dressed,
You know me not for what’s inside,
You judge the clothing I wear with pride,
My body’s not for your eyes to hold,
You must speak to my mind, not my feminine mold,
I’m an individual, I’m no mans slave,
It’s Allahs pleasure that I only crave,
I have a voice so I will be heard,
For in my heart I carry His word,
“O ye women, wrap close your cloak,
So you won’t be bothered by ignorant folk”,
Man doesn’t tell me to dress this way,
It’s a Law from God that I obey,
Oppressed is something I’m truly NOT,
For liberation is what I’ve got,
It was given to me many years ago,
With the right to prosper, the right to grow,
I can climb mountains or cross the seas,
Expand my mind in all degrees,
For God Himself gave us LIB-ER-TY,
When He sent Islam,
To You and Me!

I really don’t know what to make of this. On the one hand, I agree that there are stereotypes regarding women in veil, in burqas, in hijabs – stereotypes that project a veiled woman as a passive subject, always to be seen as oppressed, needing the help of her more liberated/ emancipated sisters and brethren!

But I would be very wary of this almost celebratory tenor of writing and self-image of “Muslim” women as propagated by this poem and website… Very different from Zeib un Nisa’s ‘I will not lift my veil’ 😉 Probably because this hijab is rooted in religion while Zeib un Nisa’s veil was more of a cultural construct… I think….

Also keep tabs on

The website of National Organization for Women… You’ll know why, if you have visted Gates Of Vienna…

by Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain

Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain was born into a Bengali Muslim upper-class family in the small village of Pairaband in the district of Rangpur, north of present day Bangladesh, then a part of the colonial British province of Bengal Presidency. Her date of birth is not known. However, a nephew of hers posits Dec. 9, 1880.

The Secluded Ones, has humorous essays that expose some ridiculous consequences of the practice of Purdah.

(from )

 Report Fourteen

The following incident happened about twenty-two years ago. An aunt, twice removed of my husband, was going to Patna from Bhagalpor; she was accompanied by her maid only. At Kiul railway junction, they had to change trains. While boarding the train, my aunt-in-law stumbled against her voluminous burqa and fell on the railway track. Except her maid, there was no woman at the station. The railway porters rushed to help her up but the maid immediately stopped them by imploring in God’s name not to touch her mistress. She tried to drag her mistress up by herself but was unable to do so. The train waited for only half an hour but no more.

The Begum’s body was smashed – her burqa torn. A whole stationful of men witnessed this horrible accident – yet none of them was permitted to assist her. Finally her mangled body was taken to a luggage shed. Her maid waited piteously. After eleven hours of unspeakable agony she died. What a gruesome way to die!

To think that this was written in the early part of the 20th century… very enjoyable with plenty of food for thought…

 Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (1905)

One evening I was lounging in an easy chair in my bedroom and thinking lazily of the condition of Indian womanhood. I am not sure whether I dozed off or not. But, as far as I remember, I was wide awake. I saw the moonlit sky sparkling with thousands of diamond-like stars, very distinctly. All on a sudden a lady stood before me; how she came in, I do not know. I took her for my friend, Sister Sara. “Good morning,” said Sister Sara. I smiled inwardly as I knew it was not morning, but starry night. However, I replied to her, saying, “How do you do?” “I am all right, thank you. Will you please come out and have a look at our garden?” I looked again at the moon through the open window, and thought there was no harm in going out at that time. The men-servants outside were fast asleep just then, and I could have a pleasant walk with Sister Sara. I used to have my walks with Sister Sara, when we were at Darjeeling. Many a time did we walk hand in hand and talk light-heartedly in the botanical gardens there. I fancied, Sister Sara had probably come to take me to some such garden and I readily accepted her offer and went out with her. When walking I found to my surprise that it was a fine morning. The town was fully awake and the streets alive with bustling crowds. I was feeling very shy, thinking I was walking in the street in broad daylight, but there was not a single man visible. Some of the passers-by made jokes at me. Though I could not understand their language, yet I felt sure they were joking. I asked my friend, “What do they say?” “The women say that you look very mannish.” “Mannish?” said I, “What do they mean by that?” “They mean that you are shy and timid like men.” “Shy and timid like men?” It was really a joke. I became very nervous, when I found that my companion was not Sister Sara, but a stranger. Oh, what a fool had I been to mistake this lady for my dear old friend, Sister Sara. She felt my fingers tremble in her hand, as we were walking hand in hand. “What is the matter, dear?” she said affectionately. “I feel somewhat awkward,” I said in a rather apologizing tone, “as being a purdahnishin woman I am not accustomed to walking abut unveiled.” “You need not be afraid of coming across a man here. This is Ladyland, free from sin and harm. Virtue herself reigns here.” By and by I was enjoying the scenery. Really it was very grand. I mistook a patch of green grass for a velvet cushion. Feeling as if I were walking on a soft carpet, I looked down and found the path covered with moss and flowers. “How nice it is,” said I. “Do you like it?” asked Sister Sara. (I continued calling her “Sister Sara,” and she kept calling me by my name). “Yes, very much; but I do not like to tread on the tender and sweet flowers.” “Never mind, dear Sultana; your treading will not harm them; they are street flowers.” “The whole place looks like a garden,” said I admiringly. “You have arranged every plant so skillfully.” “Your Calcutta could become a nicer garden than this if only your countrymen wanted to make it so.” “They would think it useless to give so much attention to horticulture, while they have so many other things to do.” “They could not find a better excuse,” said she with smile. I became very curious to know where the men were. I met more than a hundred women while walking there, but not a single man. “Where are the men?” I asked her. “In their proper places, where they ought to be.” “Pray let me know what you mean by ‘their proper places’.” “O, I see my mistake, you cannot know our customs, as you were never here before. We shut our men indoors.” “Just as we are kept in the zenana?” “Exactly so.” “How funny,” I burst into a laugh. Sister Sara laughed too. “But dear Sultana, how unfair it is to shut in the harmless women and let loose the men.” “Why? It is not safe for us to come out of the zenana, as we are naturally weak.” “Yes, it is not safe so long as there are men about the streets, nor is it so when a wild animal enters a marketplace.” “Of course not.” “Suppose, some lunatics escape from the asylum and begin to do all sorts of mischief to men, horses and other creatures; in that case what will your countrymen do?” “They will try to capture them and put them back into their asylum.” “Thank you! And you do not think it wise to keep sane people inside an asylum and let loose the insane?” “Of course not!” said I laughing lightly. “As a matter of fact, in your country this very thing is done! Men, who do or at least are capable of doing no end of mischief, are let loose and the innocent women, shut up in the zenana! How can you trust those untrained men out of doors?” “We have no hand or voice in the management of our social affairs. In India man is lord and master, he has taken to himself all powers and privileges and shut up the women in the zenana.” “Why do you allow yourselves to be shut up?” “Because it cannot be helped as they as stronger than women.” “A lion is stronger than a man, but it does not enable him to dominate the human race. You have neglected the duty you owe to yourselves and you have lost your natural rights by shutting your eyes to your own interests.” “But my dear sister Sara, if we do everything by ourselves, what will the men do then?” “They should not do anything, excuse me; they are fit for nothing. Only catch them and put them into the zenana.” “But would it be very easy to catch and put them inside the four walls?” said I. “And even if this were done, would all their business, political and commercial – also go with them into the zenana?” Sister Sara made no reply. She only smiled sweetly. Perhaps she thought it useless to argue with one who was no better than a frog in a well. By this time we reached sister Sara’s house. It was situated in a beautiful heart-shaped garden. It was a bungalow with a corrugated iron roof. It was cooler and nicer than any of our rich buildings. I cannot describe how neat and how nicely furnished and how tastefully decorated it was. We sat side by side. She brought out of the parlour a piece of embroidery work and began putting on a fresh design. “Do you know knitting and needle work?” “Yes; we have nothing else to do in our zenana.” “But we do not trust our zenana members with embroidery!” she said laughing, “as a man has not patience enough to pass thread through a needle hole even!” “Have you done all this work yourself?” I asked her pointing to the various pieces of embroidered teapoy cloths. “Yes.” “How can you find time to do all these? You have to do the office work as well? Have you not?” “Yes. I do not stick to the laboratory all day long. I finish my work in two hours.” “In two hours! How do you manage? In our land the officers, magistrates — for instance, work seven hours daily.” “I have seen some of them doing their work. Do you think they work all the seven hours?” “Certainly they do!” ” No, dear Sultana, they do not. They dawdle away their time in smoking. Some smoke two or three choroots during the office time. They talk much about their work, but do little. Suppose one choroot takes half an hour to burn off, and a man smokes twelve choroots daily; then you see, he wastes six hours every day in sheer smoking.” We talked on various subjects, and I learned that they were not subject to any kind of epidemic disease, nor did they suffer from mosquito bites as we do. I was very much astonished to hear that in Ladyland no one died in youth except by rare accident. “Will you care to see our kitchen?” she asked me. “With pleasure,” said I, and we went to see it. Of course the men had been asked to clear off when I was going there. The kitchen was situated in a beautiful vegetable garden. Every creeper, every tomato plant was itself an ornament. I found no smoke, nor any chimney either in the kitchen — it was clean and bright; the windows were decorated with flower gardens. There was no sign of coal or fire. “How do you cook?” I asked. “With solar heat,” she said, at the same time showing me the pipe, through which passed the concentrated sunlight and heat. And she cooked something then and there to show me the process. “How did you manage to gather and store up the sun heat?” I asked her in amazement. “Let me tell you a little of our past history then. Thirty years ago, when our present Queen was thirteen years old, she inherited the throne. She was Queen in name only, the Prime Minister really ruling the country. “Our good Queen liked science very much. She circulated an order that all the women in her country should be educated. Accordingly a number of girls’ schools were founded and supported by the government . Education was spread far and wide among women. And early marriage also was stopped. No woman was to be allowed to marry before she was twenty-one. I must tell you that, before this change we had been kept in strict purdah.” “How the tables are turned,” I interposed with a laugh. “But the seclusion is the same,” she said. “In a few years we had separate universities, where no men were admitted.” “In the capital, where our Queen lives, there are two universities. One of these invented a wonderful balloon, to which they attached a number of pipes. By means of this captive balloon which they managed to keep afloat above the cloud-land, they could draw as much water from the atmosphere as they pleased. As the water was incessantly being drawn by the university people no cloud gathered and the ingenious Lady Principal stopped rain and storms thereby.” “Really! Now I understand why there is no mud here!” said I. But I could not understand how it was possible to accumulate water in the pipes. She explained to me how it was done, but I was unable to understand her, as my scientific knowledge was very limited. However, she went on� “When the other university came to know of this, they became exceedingly jealous and tried to do something more extraordinary still. They invented an instrument by which they could collect as much sun-heat as they wanted. And they kept the heat stored up to be distributed among others as required. “While the women were engaged in scientific research, the men of this country were busy increasing their military power. When they came to know that the female universities were able to draw water from the atmosphere and collect heat from the sun, they only laughed at the members of the universities and called the whole thing ‘a sentimental nightmare’!” “Your achievements are very wonderful indeed! But tell me, how you managed to put the men of your country into the zenana. Did you entrap them first?” “No.” “It is not likely that they would surrender their free and open air life of their own accord and confine themselves within the four walls of the zenana! They must have been overpowered.” “Yes, they have been!” “By whom? By some lady warriors, I suppose?” “No, not by arms.” “Yes, it cannot be so. Men’s arms are stronger than women’s. Then?” “By brain.” “Even their brains are bigger and heavier than women’s. Are they not?” “Yes, but what of that? An elephant also has got a bigger and heavier brain than a man has. Yet man can enchain elephants and employ them, according to their own wishes.” “Well said, but tell me please, how it all actually happened. I am dying to know it!” “Women’s brains are somewhat quicker than men’s. Ten years ago, when the military officers called our scientific discoveries ‘a sentimental nightmare,’ some of the young ladies wanted to say something in reply to those remarks. But both the Lady Principals restrained them and said, they should reply not by word, but by deed, if ever they got the opportunity. And they had not long to wait for that opportunity.” “How marvelous!” I heartily clapped my hands. “And now the proud gentlemen are dreaming sentimental dreams themselves.” “Soon afterwards certain persons came from a neighbouring country and took shelter in ours. They were in trouble having committed some political offense. The king who cared more for power than for good government asked our kind-hearted Queen to hand them over to his officers. She refused, as it was against her principle to turn out refugees. For this refusal the king declared war against our country. “Our military officers sprang to their feet at once and marched out to meet the enemy. “The enemy however, was too strong for them. Our soldiers fought bravely, no doubt. But in spite of all their bravery the foreign army advanced step by step to invade our country.” “Nearly all the men had gone out to fight; even a boy of sixteen was not left home. Most of our warriors were killed, the rest driven back and the enemy came within twenty-five miles of the capital. “A meeting of a number of wise ladies was held at the Queen’s palace to advise as to what should be done to save the land. “Some proposed to fight like soldiers; others objected and said that women not trained to fight with swords and guns, nor were they accustomed to fighting with any weapons. A third party regretfully remarked that they were hopelessly weak of body. “‘If you cannot save your country for lack of physical strength,’ said the Queen, ‘try to do so by brain power.’ “There was a dead silence for a few minutes. Her Royal Highness said again, ‘I must commit suicide if the land and my honour are lost.’ “Then the Lady Principal of the second university (who had collected sun-heat), who had been silently thinking during the consultation, remarked that they were all but lost, and there was little hope left for them. There was, however, one plan which she would like to try, and this would be her first and last efforts; if she failed in this, there would be nothing left but to commit suicide. All present solemnly vowed that they would never allow themselves to be enslaved, on matter what happened. “The Queen thanked them heartily, and asked the Lady Principal to try her plan. “The Lady Principal rose again and said, ‘before we go out the men must enter the zenanas. I make this prayer for the sake of purdah.’ ‘Yes, of course,’ replied Her Royal Highness. “On the following day the Queen called upon all men to retire into zenanas for the sake of honour and liberty. “Wounded and tired as they were, they took that order rather for a boon! They bowed low and entered the zenanas without uttering a single word of protest. They were sure that there was no hope for this country at all. “Then the Lady Principal with her two thousand students marched to the battle field, and arriving there directed all the rays of the concentrated sunlight and heat towards the enemy. “The heat and light were too much for them to bear. They all ran away panic-stricken, not knowing in their bewilderment how to counteract that scorching heat. When they fled away leaving their guns and other ammunitions of war, they were burnt down by means of the same sun heat. “Since then no one has tried to invade our country any more.” “And since then your countrymen never tried to come out of the zenana?” “Yes, they wanted to be free. Some of the police commissioners and district magistrates sent word to the Queen to the effect that the military officers certainly deserved to be imprisoned for their failure; but they never neglected their duty and therefore they should not be punished and they prayed to be restored to their respective offices. “Her Royal Highness sent them a circular letter intimating to them that if their services should ever be needed they would be sent for, and that in the meanwhile they should remain where they were. “Now that they are accustomed to the purdah system and have ceased to grumble at their seclusion, we call the system ‘Murdana’ instead of ‘zenana’.” “But how do you manage,” I asked Sister Sara, “to do without the police or magistrates in case of theft or murder?” “Since the ‘Murdana’ system has been established, there has been no more crime or sin; therefore we do not require a policeman to find out a culprit, nor do we want a magistrate to try a criminal case.” “That is very good, indeed. I suppose if there was any dishonest person, you could very easily chastise her. As you gained a decisive victory without shedding a single drop of blood, you could drive off crime and criminals too without much difficulty!” “Now, dear Sultana, will you sit here or come to my parlour?” she asked me. “Your kitchen is not inferior to a queen’s boudoir!” I replied with a pleasant smile, “but we must leave it now; for the gentlemen may be cursing me for keeping them away from their duties in the kitchen so long.” We both laughed heartily. “How my friends at home will be amused and amazed, when I go back and tell them that in the far-off Ladyland, ladies rule over the country and control all social matters, while gentlemen are kept in the Murdanas to mind babies, to cook and to do all sorts of domestic work; and that cooking is so easy a thing that it is simply a pleasure to cook!” “Yes, tell them about all that you see here.” “Please let me know, how you carry on land cultivation and how you plough the land and do other hard manual work.” “Our fields are tilled by means of electricity, which supplies motive power for other hard work as well, and we employ it for our aerial conveyances too. We have no rail road nor any paved streets here.” “Therefore neither street nor railway accidents occur here,” said I. “Do not you ever suffer from want of rainwater?” I asked. “Never since the ‘water balloon’ has been set up. You see the big balloon and pipes attached thereto. By their aid we can draw as much rainwater as we require. Nor do we ever suffer from flood or thunderstorms. We are all very busy making nature yield as much as she can. We do not find time to quarrel with one another as we never sit idle. Our noble Queen is exceedingly fond of botany; it is her ambition to convert the whole country into one grand garden.” “The idea is excellent. What is your chief food?” “Fruits.” “How do you keep your country cool in hot weather? We regard the rainfall in summer as a blessing from heaven.” “When the heat becomes unbearable, we sprinkle the ground with plentiful showers drawn from the artificial fountains. And in cold weather we keep our room warm with sun heat.” She showed me her bathroom, the roof of which was removable. She could enjoy a shower bath whenever she liked, by simply removing the roof (which was like the lid of a box) and turning on the tap of the shower pipe. “You are a lucky people!” ejaculated I. “You know no want. What is you religion, may I ask?” “Our religion is based on Love and Truth. It is our religious duty to love one another and to be absolutely truthful. If any person lies, she or he is�.” “Punished with death?” “No, not with death. We do not take pleasure in killing a creature of Good, especially a human being. The liar is asked to leave this land for good and never to come to it again.” “Is an offender never forgiven?” “Yes, if that person repents sincerely.” “Are you not allowed to see any man, except your own relations?” “No one except sacred relations.” “Our circle of sacred relations is very limited; even first cousins are not sacred.” “But ours is very large; a distant cousin is as sacred as a brother.” “That is very good. I see purity itself reigns over your land. I should like to see the good Queen, who is so sagacious and far-sighted and who has made all these rules.” “All right,” said Sister Sara. Then she screwed a couple of seats onto a square piece of plank. To this plank she attached two smooth and well-polished balls. When I asked her what the balls were for, she said they were hydrogen balls and they were used to overcome the force of gravity. The balls were of different capacities to be used according to the different weights desired to be overcome. She then fastened to the air-car two wing-like blades, which, she said, were worked by electricity. After we were comfortably seated she touched a knob and the blades began to whirl, moving faster and faster every moment. At first we were raised to the height of about six or seven feet and then off we flew. And before I could realize that we had commenced moving, we reached the garden of the Queen. My friend lowered the air-car by reversing the action of the machine, and when the car touched the ground the machine was stopped and we got out. I had seen from the air-car the Queen walking on a garden path with her little daughter (who was four years old) and her maids of honour. “Halloo! You here!” cried the Queen addressing Sister Sara. I was introduced to Her Royal Highness and was received by her cordially without any ceremony. I was very much delighted to make her acquaintance. In the course of the conversation I had with her, the Queen told me that she had no objection to permitting her subjects to trade with other countries. “But,” she continued, “no trade was possible with countries where the women were kept in the zenanas and so unable to come and trade with us. Men, we find, are rather of lower morals and so we do not like dealing with them. We do not covet other people’s land, we do not fight for piece of diamond though it may be a thousand-fold brighter than the Koh-i-Noor, nor do we grudge a ruler his peacock throne. We dive deep into the ocean of knowledge and try to find out the precious gems, which Nature has kept in store for us. We enjoy Nature’s gifts as much as we can.” After taking leave of the Queen, I visited the famous universities, and was shown some of their manufactories, laboratories and observatories. After visiting the above places of interest we got again into the air-car, but as soon as it began moving, I somehow slipped down and the fall startled me out of my dream. And on opening my eyes, I found myself in my own bed lounging in the easy-chair!

Originally published in The Indian Ladies Magazine, Madras, India, 1905, in English. The text presented here is from Begum Rokeya Rochonaboli,, Bangla Academy, 1993.

Where Women Rule And Mirrors Are Weapons: Amardeep Singh

This site has an interesting write-up on Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain. Watchout for the blogroll too.

 Wonderfully engaging and yet delightfully unsettling mediated, largely Westernized representations of Muslim women, Fatema Mernissi’s book, “Scheherazade goes West: Different Cultures, Different Harems” is a must read for anyone with curiosity regarding women from the Arab world.

An extract from the first chapter, The Tale of The Lady With the Feather Dress

“The best way to remember your grandmother,” she told me on her deathbed, “is to keep alive the tradition of telling my favorite Scheherazade story — ‘The Lady with the Feather Dress.’ ” And so, I learned that story — narrated by Scheherazade, the heroine of The Thousand and One Nights — by heart. Its main message is that a woman should lead her life as a nomad. She should stay alert and be ready to move, even if she is loved. For, as the tale teaches, love can engulf you and become a prison.


At age nineteen, when I took the train to register at Mohamed V University in Rabat, I crossed one of the most dangerous frontiers of all my life — that separating Fez, my medieval hometown, a labyrinth-like, ninth-century religious center, from Rabat, a modern, white metropolis with wide open city gates, situated on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. At first, I felt so terrified of Rabat, with its large avenues, that I could not even move about without Kemal, a fellow student who happened to be from my neighborhood in Fez. But Kemal kept repeating that he was confused about my feelings for him. “I wonder sometimes if you love me, or if you just need me as a buffer against the thousand other men who have flocked here from all over Morocco to register at this university,” he would say. What I resented most about Kemal in those days was his incredible ability to read my mind. But one reason I became fond of him was that he knew Yasmina’s tale by heart. However, his version was the official one, published in the book version of The Thousand and One Nights (better known to many English readers as The Arabian Nights). And he told me that illiterate women like Yasmina were more subversive than educated ones both because they introduced heretical distortions into the tales and because they used storytelling, that oral medium, to escape censorship. Throughout Muslim history, he said, the oral tradition has reduced even the most tyrannical of despots to powerlessness.

According to Kemal, the first distortion that Yasmina introduced into her favorite tale was to feminize its title. In the book version of The Thousand and One Nights, the story is called “The Tale of Hassan al Basri,” Basra being a city in southern Iraq, at the crossroads between the Mediterranean and trade roads heading toward China. But the tale that I inherited from Yasmina was entitled “The Lady with the Feather Dress,” and it opens in Baghdad, then the capital of the Muslim empire. From Baghdad, Hassan, a handsome but bankrupt youth who had squandered his entire fortune on wine and gallant company, sailed away to strange islands to seek his fortune. Gazing at the sea from a high terrace one night, he was struck by the graceful movements of a large bird who had alighted on the beach. Suddenly the bird shed what turned out to be a dress made of feathers, and out stepped a beautiful naked woman, who ran to swim in the waves. “She outdid in beauty all human beings. She had a mouth as magical as Solomon’s seal and hair blacker than the night….She had lips like corals and teeth like strung pearls….Her middle was full of folds….She had thighs great and plump, like marble columns.” But what captivated Hassan Basri the most was what lay between her thighs: “a goodly rounded dome on pillars borne, like a bowl of silver or crystal.”

Smitten with love, Hassan stole the beauty’s feather dress while she was swimming and buried it in a secret tomb. Deprived of her wings, the woman became his captive. Hassan married her, showered her with silks and precious stones, and when she bore him two sons, relaxed his attentive tenderness, believing that she would never again think about flying. He started traveling on long trips to increase his fortune, and was astonished to discover one day when he returned that his wife, who had never stopped looking for her feather dress, had finally found it and flown away. “Taking her sons in her bosom, she wrapped herself in the feather dress and became a bird, by the ordinance of Allah to whom belongs might and majesty. Then, she walked with a swaying and graceful gait and danced and sported and flapped her wings…,” flying away over deep rivers and turbulent oceans to reach her native island of Wak Wak. Yet before leaving, she left a message for Hassan: He could join her if he had the courage to do so. But no one knew then, and still less knows now, where the mysterious “Wak Wak” — land of exoticism and faraway strangeness — is located. Arab historians such as Mas’udi, the ninth-century author of Golden Meadows, situated it in East Africa, beyond Zanzibar, while Marco Polo describes Wak Wak as the land of the Amazons, or the “female island” of Socotra. Others identify Wak Wak as being the Seychelles, Madagascar, or Malacca, and still others situate it in China or Indonesia (Java).

Yasmina’s second subversive distortion, according to Kemal, was her unhappy ending. In my grandmother’s story, Hassan keeps desperately searching for the mysterious Wak Wak, but is never able to locate it, or to win back his wife and children. But in the book version of The Thousand and One Nights, recorded by men, Hassan does manage to find his wife and sons, and brings them back to Baghdad to live happily ever after. Kemal told me that men are irresistibly attracted to independent women and fall deeply in love with them, but are always terrified of being abandoned — which was why he himself resented Yasmina’s ending. “To end the story the way your rebellious grandmother did, by insisting on women’s privilege to abandon husbands who go on long business trips, does not help Muslim families to become stable, does it?” he said. Attacking Yasmina and blaming her for Hassan’s family problems became Kemal’s favorite way of expressing his jealousy whenever I wanted to respond to an invitation as an unaccompanied woman or undertake a trip by myself. He kept telling me that he wished we were still living in medieval Baghdad, where men could imprison women in harems. “Why do you think our Muslim ancestors built walled palaces with internal gardens to imprison women?” he would ask me. “Only desperately fragile men who are convinced that women have wings could create such a drastic thing as the harem, a prison that presents itself as a palace.”

Every time this conversation arose, as it did too often for my taste, I tried to calm down Kemal by reminding him that men in the Christian West did not lock up women in harems. But instead of soothing him, this argument only made him flare up even more. “I do not know what goes on in the minds of Western men,” he would say. “All I can tell you is that they would have built harems, too, if they saw women as an uncontrollable force. Could it be that in their fantasies, Westerners imagine women without wings? Who knows?”


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

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