Monday, April 4, 2011

The politics over the burqa- Feminism-

Don't celebrate the burqa, don't ban it either. Amplifying its importance is counter-productive

Make it irrelevant
Sabareesh Gopala Pillai

I recently heard a debate at the India Today Conclave in New Delhi on the question of whether the burqa can co-exist with the bikini. For a student of sociology, the alternate perspectives of feminist writers and activists like Germaine Greer and Fatima Bhutto made it quite interesting. These views however, seem to be exceptions.

Fatima Bhutto argued that it’s a woman’s choice to be veiled. It is neither forced on her, nor is it a symbol of oppression. She felt that it was more dangerously a symbol of resistance in many cases. “In Pakistan, more and more women are choosing to keep their heads covered because they want to follow their custom and tradition. They are making a political statement by wearing the hijab or the burqa.”

Bhutto is correct. It may be a symbol of resistance against imperialism and hegemony by the West in many cases, but hasn’t the burqa existed even before the alleged Western onslaught? She fails to notice the deep-set exploitation that exists under the garb of the burqa in her own country. Of course, if it is worn purely as a matter of individual choice, then it can be fully accepted and appreciated. Is there, however, any individual freedom where cultural pressure dominates choice? Choices may appear voluntary but indoctrination means that it is actually forced.

In this context, celebrating the use of the burqa may lead only to the institutionalisation of the exploitation against women in society. It may shield women psychologically against the influence of Western culture but will progressively increase the level of discrimination vis-à-vis men. More than a hundred years ago, a Bengali Muslim woman named Begum Rokeya Shakawat Hossain wrote a short story called Sultana’s Dream, which is probably the earliest piece of science fiction writing in India and among the first by a woman author anywhere in the world. In this book, the protagonist, Sultana, visits a magical country in her dreams, where gender roles are reversed. Men are domesticated, forced to observe purdah, and wear the veil while women are busy technologists, inventing new devices and travelling in flying cars.

Undoubtedly, Sultana’s ‘dream’ was the ‘projection’ of simmering resentment against the tendency in Indian society to discriminate against women in the public sphere and a response to practices that institutionalised discrimination through direct and indirect coercion - such as observing purdah and wearing the burqa. The larger question therefore is whether a legal ban on the burqa - as in France recently - is the best way to solve the problem.

Burqa on the beach: is hijab hegemony?
Image above and on article thumbnail from Bahadorjn's phtosotream on Flickr.
Creative Commons License

In fact, a legal ban against a symbol of religious identity can prove counter-productive. Especially in the context of the growing Islamophobia in the West, members of the community may construe it as disrespect or even a threat against their religion. This makes the community as a whole insecure and there will be a collective urge to assert their religious identity. If only 1,900 of the five million Muslims had worn the burqa before the ban, now there would be at least twice that number who want to wear it. The ban has actually amplified the symbolic importance of the burqa as religious clothing. Bhutto rightly remarked in this context that, "the more you isolate one group from the other, the easier it is to evict them from the society and the burqa just makes the association to a segregated section easier."

Moreover, the French government’s argument of justifying the ban in terms of upholding liberty appears hollow. Forcing someone not to wear the burqa is as much a curtailment of liberty as forcing someone to wear it. Even the rationalisation in terms of tradition, where there is strict separation between the state and the church, seems faulty. If the state does not indulge in the religious affairs of an individual, then why is there a state ban on a dress code that is followed predominantly as a matter of personal choice? There is no compulsion on anyone and the very fact that only a tiny minority of Muslims in France wear it shows that it is more of an informed choice.

This French model of enforcing bans on religious symbols portrays a fundamentalist textbook approach to secularism. Such representation of secularism is not only artificial but will be superficial and short-lived unless it is internalised by the members of all communities. Secularism is an emotion that needs to be felt and experienced by members of all communities in a society. Only such a union of communities will constitute a real secular society.

The best way to ensure gender equality and personal liberty at the same time is by making the burqa irrelevant. In fact, its relevance in France was limited to a minority, and progressively, its significance would have come down owing to the influence of a large majority who do not wear it. Informal modes of control are much more effective than forced regulation. The ban has, unfortunately, paved the way for a reassertion of the burqa as the symbol of female Muslim religious identity.

It needs to be noted that feminism of the kind expressed by writers like Bhutto arises only among a rising class of women who are better off than the most deprived sections of women in a society. It is relative deprivation that promotes strong activist tendencies among women at large, and this relative deprivation operates only when the particular group or the individual visualises that an alternative condition can exist and realises that she deserves to enjoy that condition. Such a visualisation is impossible when women at large observe a general feeling among themselves that they are lower in the hierarchy vis-à-vis men. This is the reason feminist movements are more active in Western societies than in countries like India and Pakistan, although the level of exploitation of women is much higher in Eastern societies. The burqa may be a symbol of resistance among women in Western countries but in most countries, including some of Western societies where it is an assertive symbol, it is more a tool for subjugation and discrimination.

All religions that have a pre-modern existence are fundamentally biased against the fairer sex. In Hinduism the bias is strongly entrenched in religious texts and in the widely prevalent patriarchal system that exists in society. Even in Christianity, the bias is glaring in aspects relating to priesthood, where nuns are not allowed to occupy the highest levels of the hierarchy in the Catholic Church. The dedication shown by nuns is unparalleled in the working of the Catholic Church. It is true, as Bhutto mentioned in her address, that the fundamentalism that is now used to characterise almost all citizens of Muslim-dominated countries originated from Christianity and not Islam.

The debate in the India Today Conclave concluded on the general agreement that the burqa and the bikini can co-exist. It was rightly noted that the burqa and the bikini do not represent two extremes, and that the usual stereotype that a bikini is progressive, democratic, and modern is completely untrue. Germaine Greer humorously opined, “The bikini actually forces women to have bodies of children, and women, who are naturally fat-bottomed animals, are forced to lose weight and then buy new breasts because they lose them as well."

Further, Greer, who is sometimes referred to as an anarchist, said the two should be allowed to exist with each other and they will eventually wither away as they lose their social relevance over time. However, the use of the bikini and the burqa cannot be generalised and interpreted universally. The cultural context in which it is worn and its overall effect on women should be the focus of interpretations. As long as the cultural milieu is biased against women, the burqa generally intensifies the bias. It is just an indicator of a larger malaise, rather than being a problem as such. However, in societies such as France, other socio-psychological processes also operate. Celebrating or condemning the burqa in multi-cultural settings will only amplify its importance and can ultimately be counter-productive.

Sabareesh Gopala Pillai is a Research Scholar with the University of Kerala