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


From “Looking Beyond the Veil” – a photo-essay by Kate Brooks for Times

Men decide whether the women in their families will wear burqas. If a woman is more conservative, or lives in a conservative area, picking the color of the burqa is often the only choice she makes in defining her public persona.


A short poem by Akbar Allahabadi

Be- purdah nazar aayein jo chand biwiyaan

Dekh kar Akbar ghairat- e- qaum se garh gaya,

Poocha ke aapka purdah kidhar gaya

Boli ki akhl pe mardon ki par gaya.

Seeing some women without a veil

Akbar bowed his head in shame for the community,

When asked where your veil has gone

They said it now veils men’s wisdom.


(Translation by Mahmood Farooqui)


How true!! 😉

I will not lift my veil,

For, if I did, who knows?

The bulbul might forget the rose,

The Brahmin worshipper

Adoring Lakshmi’s grace

Might turn, forsaking her,

To see my face;

My beauty might prevail.

Think how within the flower

Hidden as in a bower

Her fragrant soul must be

And none can look on it;

So me the world can see

Only within the verses I have writ –

I will not lift the veil.

Princess Zeib un Nissa, eldest daughter of Emperor Aurangzeb


Worth a read …

The Evolution Of The Burqa

Mohammad Qadeer

March 23, 2002

he Burqa is not the Taliban’s invention. This tent-like cloak that completely drapes a woman’s body and face, with only a crocheted screen as an eye-piece, has been worn by women to go out in public for almost a century or more in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and parts of the Arabian peninsula. It literally draws a curtain around a woman and allows her to move about outside the family compound, while conforming to the religious-cultural custom of remaining secluded from men. The Taliban enforced its use as a law, contrary to traditions, and thus turned this very photogenic object into a symbol of their oppression and foolishness.

The Afghan Burqa conjures up the image of a Halloween ghost. A group of Afghan women in Burqa, a la movie Khandahar, make a mind-blowing picture for the western public. Liberating Afghan women from the Burqa was a sub-text of the war against the Taliban. Although some Afghan women have discarded the Burqa, after the fall of Taliban, an overwhelming majority continue to wear it as a matter of choice and social norm. So far the Burqa has survived the American bombing and the NGOs onslaught. International activists for women’s rights have been disappointed, and are now silent, by the mass of Afghan women continuing to wear Burqas.Yet the Burqa as a cultural artifact is evolving and changing. It has taken many new forms mostly in the neighbouring sub-continent.

I grew up surrounded by women wearing Burqas. In the British-ruled Lahore (a big city in Pakistan) of the 1940s, almost every middle class Muslim woman wore what is now the Afghan Burqa. My mother and aunts went for shopping, movies and picnics wearing Burqas.They would have been shocked to show their faces to men who were strangers. As women grew old, they often took off the Burqa, replacing it with a thick cotton shawl (Chadour) loosely wrapped around the head and shoulders, with the face left open.

The Burqa was a mark of respectability.Women who worked along- side their men in fields, shops and domestic settings, did not wear it. These women, numerically a majority of the population, wore the Chadour but generally stayed aloof from men who were not relatives. The Burqa was both expensive and obstructive for them.

When a family rose on the social scale, e.g. sons/ daughters became clerks, teachers, mechanics etc, or husbands /fathers were successful in business, its women started donning the Burqa. It was a symbol of their newly gained social status and class. At the top of the social ladder, the custom was different again. The women of rich and modern families, wives and daughters of political

leaders, military commanders, senior civil servants and corporate executives, for example, went about in shawls and scarves without covering their bodies or faces. The Burqa was scarce among the families of the rich and modern. Almost similar social dynamics operated in Afghanistan before the Taliban.

Changes in life styles and fashions have also transformed the Burqa. In the1950s’ and 60s’, a new and more functional Burqa emerged in Pakistan and India. The tent-like Burqa, currently worn in Afghanistan, gave way to a two –piece black satiny coverall, a full-length overcoat for the torso and a head- piece with a voile veil to screen the face. This body-fitted Burqa was a fashion statement of the new generation growing up in cities. My sister and cousins wore this Burqa. They would not be found dead in their mothers’ “shuttlecock” Burqa. The new Burqa gradually blended in to the women’s dress, revealing arms and body contours and shrinking the face veil. In time this Burqa almost disappeared, leaving a silken wraparound scarf (Dupatta) to cover the upper body and head. Burqas, old and new, were confined mostly in the traditionalist clans and families, in cities as well as villages. The generation that adopted the new Burqa also was on the forefront of discarding them. Burqas were kept in the wardrobe, mostly to be taken out for visiting ancestral neighbourhoods and grand parents.

The Hijab is a women’s head covering, without the face veil, which was popularized by the women’s movement in Egyptian universities as a reaction to Nasser’s authoritarian socialism, though Muslim women in the Middle East have worn it for a long time. It particularly suited the needs of women professionals and office workers. They interpreted the Islamic injunctions about women’s public deportment to be requiring only covering the hair and observing modesty.

The Hijab has found a place in the emerging self-definition of young Muslim women in the Western Societies.It is largely from North America and Europe that the Hijab has diffused into Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh and in the South East Asian Countries. It has become the new symbol of Islamic feminity, though still largely confined to the segments of women in schools and colleges. The mothers who grew up without veils and head coverings find their daughters adopting the Hijab.

The Burqa has metamorphosed into the Hijab on the one hand and into the Niqab, a stand-alone face veil, on the other. It was in Montreal about two years ago that l saw someone in a Niqab after a long time. The Niqab is beginning to be seen, occasionally, in Toronto and New York, Houston and other North American cities. It may spread back into Pakistan/India and Afghanistan from here. Yet among Muslims all over, the Niqab and, to lesser extent the Hijab, remain emblems of orthodoxy.

Over a half century, the Burqa has shrunk from a ‘moving tent’ enveloping a woman to a head covering in the form of a more formalized Hijab and alternatively as a loose head scarf in Pakistan-India. This evolutionary path will, inevitably, unfold in Afghanistan if and when it begins to have peace, modern forms of governance and development.

Mohammad Qadeer is a Professor Emeritus of Queen’s University, Kingston and a Fellow of Joint Centre of Excellence for Research on Immigration and Settlement, Toronto, Canada




When Hindus wear the burkha
Jyoti Punwani

1 Oct, 2006 1005hrs ISTTIMES NEWS NETWORK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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