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The Reviled Veil: Unfolding The Layers Of The Burqa

15/10/2015 8:19 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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HYDERABAD, TELANGANA, INDIA - 2015/06/21: Muslim women in burqa buy fruits near Charminar during the holy month of Ramadan in Hyderabad. (Photo by Subhendu Sarkar/LightRocket via Getty Images)

It lacks transparency and therefore cannot be entertained in public spaces, some say. It is too dangerous in the modern world, where seditious elements can use it to their advantage, many worry. Where is the need for such an outdated sartorial convention when we are marching towards modernism? It is just a convenient punishing tool to suppress and control human spirit, several observe. Antiquated, repressive, protective -- whatever it might be, it has attracted enough controversy in the recent past to be banned from public life by several countries. Its strong religious connotations, a fundamental issue, forcing it into limelight time and again.

Yes, 'it' is the burqa, worn by Muslim women all over Middle East and many other Muslim nations. Exploring and unfolding its layers is a challenge for someone who has no religious affiliation to it and needs to delve into history, tradition, culture and religion to understand it deeply. The real challenge is to understand why such a convention came into being and what exactly we need to denounce about it... for everything is not wrong with the burqa per se, but only how it is used as tool for suppression.

"When and how it became part of the religious cult is hard to say especially because the Quran does not have a direct reference to it."

For the uninitiated the many coverings worn by Muslim women -- hijab, niqab, al-amira, shayla, chador, khimar, burqa and others -- are not one and the same. While some are meant to cover the face, others are meant to shield certain body parts and the head. While all coverings do not represent oppression, the burqa, the most concealing of the lot, is vastly misunderstood and much reviled by modern society, although its genesis can be traced to a time much before it was co-opted as part of a religious tradition and, thereafter, lost some of the flexibility of its meaning. But before it was so, the burqa or a similar outfit was used as a convenient overgarment (like an overcoat), worn only when one stepped out of the house.

When and how it became part of the religious cult is hard to say especially because the Quran does not have a direct reference to it. The word burqa does not appear even once even when it talks about hijab, to mean "modesty" in dressing, in general, and khimar, as a body cover like a shirt or a coat or a blanket. The Quran neither recommends an overall cover as a mandatory dress code for a woman not commands her to cover her head or face specifically. Its instructions are unambiguous in its context.

The first one is: "Cover your jayb(cleavage) with a khimar; 'do not show adornments except that of it which normally shows..." (24:31) -- It is interesting how it mentions jayb very clearly but does not use the words face and hair specifically, allowing women the discretion to choose what is appropriate as per place and time. The second one just says: "Lengthen your garments" (33:59).

It is to be noted that the tradition of a head-cover neither emerged from Islam nor is restricted to any particular community. Prevalent across the globe, across all religions and communities in traditional societies, it may be used symbolically to show respect ( to God and elders), or for practical purposes of hygiene (to stop long hair from breaking and falling everywhere).

In fact, much before the advent of any organised religion, the tradition of loose wrapped overgarments and headgears where common in places. In ancient Persia the headgear denoted prestige and high social rank and at the time of Prophet, only his wives wore a head cover.

Covering the head in sacred places, by both men and women, is common among both Semitic and non-Semitic religions. The Christian head covering, the veil, has a Biblical basis found in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and has been in practice by most Christian women up until the 1960s. It is very similar an odhni or dupattas, worn by a Hindu.

A headscarf as a symbolic means for married women to set limits and announce their marital status is also quite widespread in many in parts of the world even today. It is what a married Hindu woman does with the anchal of her sari (used like a cowl) or a dupattas , and a Jewish one does with tichels or snoods.

"The ignominy of the burqa started when it became mandatory attire in some Muslim nations."

It is believed when tiaras and crowns slowly replaced the scarves for the aristocracy, the tradition of wearing headscarf was passed on to the commoners, who were keen to look as dignified. This led to the different styles of tying it, which over a period of time grew as a tradition, often carrying the stamp of a particular place.

Just as the male headgear pagrior a safa in India can say so much about the person wearing it, so does a hijab. Sitting at the plush and sprawling food court in Dubai these amazing styles are at once noticeable, representing different countries like Egypt, Lebanon, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan. The women wearing them look gorgeous, dignified and alluring, flaunting their identity in a proud beautiful, ethnic and yet fashionable way.

The tradition of the burqa as a loose wrapped overgarment would have also started in the harshest desert climes, where the blazing sun and the gusty winds carrying sand and dust would have left quite a few women in acute discomfort. With a convenient hood and a face cover, this garment must have taken care of all their problems at once -- protecting these gorgeous women not only from the marauding invaders of the north, but also from the wild wind and sand that spoilt their long tresses and lovely skin and beautiful clothes. Remember, the scarcity of water meant they did not have the luxury to bathe themselves or wash their clothes every day. Note that men in Saudi Arabia have their bodies and heads swathed in layers of clothes even today. The Muslim men from the Tuareg tribe of North Africa still wear a hijab, similar to the safas worn by Hindu men from the hot regions of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Punjab, and for the same reasons.

So when did the burqa turn into "a horror for those trapped within it" when it was meant to be a protective shield?

The ignominy of the burqa started when it became mandatory attire in some Muslim nations. And why did it become so? When the rumblings of modernisation and women's movements across the globe brought a revolution in the way women wanted to claim their identity in the 1900s, a lot of traditional societies reacted to it adversely. Religious conservatives took up arms against the "European" liberation of women and fought against western hegemony by turning inwards. A more dogmatic position was taken, upholding traditional values in all their severity in places like Afghanistan. Excepting for few liberal or democratic or secular governments like Turkey where people are allowed to choose what they wear, most Islamic nations chose to conform to the more conservative rules set out by the Hadith and Islamic scholars and not the Quran.

A tradition imposed out of its social context, the burqa began to be seen as a hideous contraption by Westerners. Does it denote identity or lack of it -- was the question with which intellectuals grappled.

"[T]he burqa has become a battleground of values..."

With "force" replacing "choice", the burqa became a tool of oppression. With women having to run the risk of being intimidated, ostracised or even killed for flouting a simple dress code, the burqa was given a disproportionate amount of value, above human life, making the custom unhealthy and worrisome. Matters were compounded further when it started being misused by Islamist terrorists. Eventually, some Western countries banned the burqa, raising a furore in the Islamic community.

The ban was seen as an equally oppressive statement against Islamic free will. Today, not that many women wear the burqa and those who do so outside the Middle East and Afghanistan are not always acting out of fear. And thus the burqa has become a battleground of values. For example, Zainab, a courageous doctor who runs an NGO in Badhakshan (Afghanistan), strongly denounces it: "There is no need for a burqa when most of us wear a separate overgarment and cover our heads anyway. It is an oppressive tool in the hands of the fundamentalists. We must stop it." On the other hand, Fatima in India chuckles, "No one has forced me to wear it here. My mother doesn't wear one. But I do... I like it. It gives me my identity."

The customs of one place seen through the lens of another will seem like oddities, and their interpretation out of context tend to warp their real meaning. At the very least, before we leap to the burqa's defence or condemn what we think it stands for, it is important to sift through its layers before coming to any logical conclusion.

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