“Ban the Burqa, No Ripped Jeans”: When Will We Stop Telling Women What They Can or Cannot Wear?


“Ban the Burqa, No Ripped Jeans”: When Will We Stop Telling Women What They Can or Cannot Wear?

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

It’s a paradoxical time for the perennial burqa-hijab-ghunghat debate. On one side of the debate is Shiv Sena, that saw an opportunity and grabbed it. When the Sri Lankan government declared its intention to enact an emergency law to ban any face garment that “hinders identification” in the wake of the deadly Easter Sunday suicide attacks that killed 250 and injured hundreds, Shiv Sena decided it was the perfect time to urge the Modi government to issue our own ban on the burqa. On the other side is Javed Akhtar, who has ostensibly never worn a burqa, nor is likely to be asked to put one on in the near future. He says that he was “not averse” to a ban on the burqa if the government imposed a similar ban on the ghunghat, immortalised by Akhtar himself in several Bollywood songs. He later clarified his comment saying that both the burqa and the ghunghat were a disservice to women’s empowerment.

And concluding the unholy trinity is us, the “liberal” citizens of the world, who were giddy with delight when Sports Illustrated, a magazine that is as much (if not more) about photographs of models in itsy-bitsy bikinis frolicking on beaches as it is about actual sports, included a Muslim woman in a burkini and a hijab in its swimsuit issue. In the social-media economy, far be it from us, self-advertised progressive liberals to risk putting ourselves in the way of the Islamophobia firing squad. Even if that means celebrating a garment that has historically been used to tell the world that women are tempting purely by virtue of being women, and must be covered up so that men can be relieved of the monumental burden of not behaving like savages.

To be clear, I don’t think being a man or not wearing a veil (Muslim or Hindu) should preclude someone from having an opinion on it. Nor do I have a problem with women — who for whatever reason continue to wear a burning symbol of the patriarchy on their bodies — finding representation within the pages of a magazine. The fashion industry is brutal enough on women; we don’t need to weaponise it further by deciding that a whole category of women is not worthy of being included in its ranks.

But there’s definite reason to worry when the only way in which we find ourselves equipped to discuss the contentious issue of the veil is by either demanding bans, or legitimising it in an ill-conceived attempt at inclusiveness. And there’s a big problem when the voices of the women most affected by both the ban and the support are missing from the cacophony of opinion and outrage.

I was raised in a family where women covered their heads in front of the male elders of the house. For most of my childhood, I saw my mother and aunts hastily pull their aanchals over their heads whenever my grandfather entered the room. And I went to a school where most of my classmates were Muslim, with mothers who strictly adhered to the burqa/niqab/hijab code of dressing up.

Suffice it to say, I’ve grown up around women who wore their head or face coverings like it was some kind of phantom limb or an extension of their bodies, so unthinkable was the idea of going without. Some of them still do.

I went to a school where most of my classmates were Muslim, with mothers who strictly adhered to the burqa/niqab/hijab code of dressing up.

My mother might wear jeans and curse the dupatta on particularly odious summer days now, but I still remember the haye-haye and haww-haww that followed her for weeks when she first decided she was no longer going to be told how to dress in her own home.

I’ve watched more friends than I can count come to school one day with stricken expressions, after being informed by their parents that they were forbidden from being seen in public without the anonymising protection of the burqa, or its cousins niqab, hijab, or khimar. Some of my closest friends have had to endure tremendous ridicule, anger, and on occasion even violence for refusing to veil up. Some of them caved — there were other battles they wanted to fight, this was not the hill they were willing to die on — while others compromised: “We’ll wear it, but only for prayers, or in a one-kilometre radius of the house.” (True story!)

How many of these women, who have some experience with being forced to cloak some part of their anatomy in restrictive pieces of clothing in the name of religious or cultural obligations feel represented by people, especially men, who seek blanket bans? When we repackage a repressive, forced way of life for women as an empowering “choice”, we’re undoing the work of all the women who carry the weight of what it means to fight the world, your family, and your own conditioning to establish that you are not some object that is meant to be hidden from the greedy eyes and hands of men.

There are no easy answers in this debate. If you support the ban of a piece of clothing in the name of women’s empowerment it might get the job done, but you’re still, paradoxically, supporting the idea that women’s bodies, and what they put on them, can and should be subjected to regulation. It’s an unfortunate ideological alignment with religious fundamentalists on both sides of the Hindu-Muslim aisle. But if you don’t, do you become a gender traitor?

A few days ago, a middle-aged woman in Gurgaon found herself at the centre of a raging social media controversy when she offended a group of young women by “slut-shaming” their friend for wearing a short dress. Women who wear revealing clothes are looking to attract attention and deserve to be raped, she was seen yelling at the group of women who surrounded and confronted her. The video clip quickly went viral, and after several days of incessant trolling and death threats from overzealous social media warriors, the woman issued an apology on Facebook. Death threats and calls to violence have a universal DNA — whether they’re being issued to assert a woman’s right to wear a skirt, or as fatwas against women who won’t wear the burqa. Similarly, whether women are being told they can’t wear a bikini or a burqa, the larger problem persists: that someone has the right to tell women what they can or cannot wear. Agency over your own body needs to be an absolute, or it is worthless.

In an ideal world, education, intellectual evolution, and baseline human decency would make both the burqa and the ghunghat redundant. Maybe someday they will. But in the meantime, as we grapple with questions of collective social identities, our best hope is to engage with our cultural preoccupation with controlling women through their clothing in a more thoughtful and informed manner. Neither knee-jerk displays of Islamophobia, nor bending over backwards to create the illusion of inclusiveness. Now, more than ever, we need to be able to unequivocally condemn certain practices and customs, while just as fiercely defending a person’s right to follow it.

Do I wish that we could all form a giant pile and burn every last one of the travesty, the assault on vision that is men’s Bermuda shorts? Absolutely. Will I still fight to the death men’s right to wear the offending garment? Tragically, yes.