The girl, Teslime, spent her last evening silently watching a series called Marianna. After making tea and serving it to her parents, she went to her room and readied herself for her prayers, washing her mouth, her feet and her hands. When she had finished her ablutions, she knelt down on her prayer rug, lost herself for some time in thought and prayer, then tied her headscarf to the lamp hook from which she hanged herself.
Snow, Orhan Pamuk
Farzana Sheikh Aslam, 37, teaches in school in Mumbra and is bringing up her two children as a single parent. Twelve years ago, her husband left her to marry another woman. For someone who says she once wore a burqa and whose hands trembled when faced with the prospect of talking to a stranger, her renting a two- room- and- kitchen home has been a phenomenal journey…She may have broken away from what she calls the “compulsion of wearing long black robes in Mumbai’s muggy weather,” but the choice isn’t so easy for many others.
“Will getting our women to shed purdah end bias?” Seema Chishti
September 05, 2006, Indian Express
Black Veil: Towards a Social History of the Burqa’
A Research Proposal
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?
The veil in some form or the other, whether as the hijab in France and Turkey or the blue voluminous shuttlecock burqa in Afghanistan, has become a politically charged garment drawing opinions from a diverse range of people – from clerics to politicians and activists to terrorists. Amidst these borrowed anxieties regarding the veil, stands the burqa or rather the woman in the burqa – seen as a “passive, dependent and oppressed” being who needs to be rescued by her more liberal and emancipated counterparts. And the first step to freedom seemingly comes from shedding the “long black robes”. Is it so easy then to write off as “conservative”, “orthodox”, or “victimized”, those who continue for one reason or another to wear this garment?
What defines ‘conservatism’, ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘victimhood’?
The research focuses on the black burqa worn as an outer garment largely by women from the Muslim community in north India. The garment in this form can be traced to have a history of more than 150 years – considerably shorter than the history of the practice of veiling. Initial forays into the research reveal a lack of mention of any black, overcoat/nightgown style of garment in the writings of mid 19th century scholars like Ghalib and Zauq. The birth of the modern burqa seems to coincide with the formalization of the saree in Bengal by the Tagore family as a suitable garment to be worn by ladies in the second half of the 19th century that finds a public presence in the early part of the 20th century. As pure conjecture at this stage, is it possible then to say that the contemporary burqa was regarded as a suitable garment for women from middle class households so that they could move out of the house without a covered palki/ doli/ or bagghi? Does the burqa then become the vehicle that allows mobility for women so far confined in the zenana? Seems daunting at this stage but I do hope to uncover a history of this garment through mentions in literature/ poetry of 19th century and to a later appearance of the burqa clad woman as an object of mystery and allure in Hindi/ Urdu language films like ‘Chaudhvi Ka Chand’ to ‘Mere Mehmoob’ to ‘Niqab’.
The research will map out through interviews and photographs, the material world of the burqa – the changing fashions, trends, designs and fabric. It will be naïve to say that contemporary Islam, its varied interpretations and perceptions have not influenced the burqa and burqa wearing practice in north India. I seek to understand how far these influences have gone in to shaping the contemporary burqa – Where the form fitting overcoat style of burqa was more popular till the early 1990’s – now the abaya style burqa designs from Saudi Arabia and other parts of west Asia rule the market. The Iranian chador finds more takers in younger women from middle class backgrounds in more urban settings like Chandni Chowk, who would not like to be covered in a black “floor to ceiling” garment, the abaya style loose garment has more takers in small towns, while many in both cities and towns have also taken on the hijab – initially brought as gifts by relatives abroad – from Dubai, Muscat, Jeddah and even Birmingham as a more “modern” alternative to the traditional burqa.
Without denying the fact that enforced veiling practices exist and that the purdah is used as an excuse to contain a woman by other women and men, and that the burqa does often become a manifestation of physical control and confinement of huge numbers of women, I wish to know What is the burqa clad woman thinking? And actually is there such a category as the burqa clad woman? One of my major concerns in the project will be to interact with as diverse a range of women as possible and to understand their social worlds.
I am curious to understand the shift between the burqa as a passport to mobility in cases where it allows women to step outside the house without male escort, to work, shop and travel, to the burqa as one of the markers of the boundary between the mehram and the na- mehram space. How is this space negotiated? What happens when the gaze of the burqa clad woman falls on the rest of the world, often from behind the net veil over her eyes? Does she see anything different? What is the power to be able to see the world and yet remain unseen, an enigma? How is the outside negotiated?
What is the sense of the body when it is hidden and the face often revealed? What are the desires that reside in the veil?
Without it becoming a celebration of the burqa, this research will attempt to engage with the lives of women – domestic help, students, chikan workers, homemakers and teachers.
What is their self-perception? Do they see themselves as helpless beings or active agents of their destiny? What do they feel about veiling as a practice – its social and theological interpretations, its ramifications and perceptions? A short poem by Akbar Allahabadi seems apt at this juncture –
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.
(Translation by M Farooqui)
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.
The image of a burqa clad women as a symbol of Islamic identity hovers between various constructs – one as I said before – a passive victimized being who in the name of religion is controlled by the men of her society, is deprived of basic freedoms, education, career opportunities and is usually forced in marriage to men (usually Arab sheikhs) considerably older than her. Or, a less popular construct is of the exotic mysterious being who will be found tying mannat threads at the dargah of Nizam ud Din Auliya, reciting eloquent Urdu poetry and at times controlling the men from her zenana quarters. The third image is of an “orthodox”, “conservative” person who in “ignorance” never questions religion induced patriarchy and demand her rights as a person.
I hope to put together narratives (audio and video interviews) of women who live real lives, working as housemaids, tailors, embroidery workers, vegetable sellers, small kirana shop owners, and semi skilled crafts persons who may never have heard of Ghalib or Nizam ud din but would not miss the latest show of a Karan Johar movie, who may never have read the Quran or performed namaaz but would eagerly prepare sweets on Shab – e – barat, who may never have heard of Dukhtaran-e-Millat, who save money to buy the latest Banti Babli salwar kameez, to be worn under their burqa.