Beneath the Burqa: A Protest?

Posted on May 2, 2012 in Society

By Devika Mittal:

“Mariam had never before worn a burqa. Rasheed had to help her put it on. The padded headpiece felt tight and heavy on her skull, and it was strange seeing the world through a mesh screen. She practiced walking around her room in it and kept stepping on the hem and stumbling. The loss of peripheral vision was unnerving, and she did not like the suffocating way the pleated cloth kept pressing against her mouth. “You’ll get used to it,” Rasheed said. “With time, I bet you’ll even like it.”” (extract from “a thousand splendid suns” by Khaleed Hosseini)

As a kid, I would always give a second look to a woman clad in burqa. I would always be very curious to see the face beneath. But more than that, I would always think about her. Not that my own religion does not have such ‘fascinating’ examples but generally purdah is seen to be synonymous with conservatism. I would try to imagine the woman in her household. How she would be ‘forced’ to be confined to her room and would have very little say in her own life.

I would keep on looking at her, staring into her eyes as they say that the eyes can give one all the answers. But there was something that again, I always managed to see. I would see beautiful kohl-lined eyes and nose piercing. I would also manage to see a small portion of the jazzy lowers beneath the burqa.

I have always seen them. I have also always seen a very beautiful face in the hijab. Needless to say, beauty is not very natural. A clear, glowing face, devoid of any unwanted facial hair and complete with kohl-lined eyes is not very natural. I always used to laugh at this, finding it ‘contradictory’. A muslim woman is fully covered but the most beautiful part which is the face and more particularly, the eyes remain uncovered.

I now see this as a form of protest. Burqa and hijab are as important as the sindoor for a married hindu woman. In both cases, it is very difficult to do away with these markers. But even sindoor has been undergoing a lot of changes. So instead of the thick layer of sindoor which was to be traditionally applied in the centre parting of the hair, we almost have it now as a formality. It has become another accessory in the make-up. I feel that this is a form of protest. The significance is diluting (atleast in urban spaces) but not disappearing completely.

In a similar way, I feel that the jazzy lowers and the beautiful face are silent forms of protest. One point can be that the jazzy lowers is for the household when the burqa will be removed. However, this is not very convincing. If they can remove the burqa, they can also change clothes. The purpose of a burqa is to look unattractive. So display of an inch of the attractive clothing beneath the unattractive burqa is not acceptable. I should also mention that my references are generally confined to young women, even though I have also seen kajal in case of older women. Similarly, the purpose of the hijab is to look unattractive. The ‘uninviting’ burqa is supposed to be a long black garment. However, I often see burqas with embroidery. They are pretty and yes, attractive. The rich bohra community ‘allows’ burqas of different colours.

I am not arguing that this is a conscious form of protest. It may be unconscious. People may attribute this to a dozen of external factors but the fact is that the protest is happening. Women beneath the burqa are struggling to get out. They are making use of bright colours(the shiny lowers) to shun away the darkness in which they are supposed to confine themselves. They are speaking. The kohl in their eyes is speaking. The kohl is struggling to ask questions to the clerics, to the male counterparts and to the society, as a whole. The kohl asks, “Women should cover themselves because men can’t control their sexuality? Women should cease to be human beings because men behave like animals?” The nose ring pierces, “If women are attractive to men, aren’t men attractive to women? Why don’t they wear burqa too?” the jazzy trousers questions, “don’t women in burqa gets raped or molested? People stare at women in burqa too, infact even more closely.”

I am also aware of feminists who view the burqa and hijab as symbols of liberation as then women are not objectified. But to my dear feminists, I would like to ask if attraction is just a one-way process. Are only women attractive to men? What about men being attractive to women? The fact that it’s the woman who has to cover herself because men can’t control their animalism shows how these feminists are surrendering to the patriarchal order.

I don’t buy this. Neither, as I state above, I see a lot of women accepting it. They have all been speaking but have you been listening? Have you been hearing the shouts from the burqa? Have you been staring at those rebellious eyes? They have been protesting behind the veil, beneath the burqa.

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