To Veil or not to Veil

Posted on April 24, 2012 in Society

By Shazia Nigar:

NOTE: This article first appeared on and is being reproduced here with the author’s due permission.

I was born Muslim. Not in my practice, but in my understanding of food, dress, humour and in my way of living. My parents though not regular in their practice are believers. My extended family believes and practices. For me, being a non believer, religion and things that come with it, have been a constant negotiation. Living in a Muslim locality, I felt the constant pressure to balance the world of the home with the world outside.

When I attained puberty and started developing breasts I realized I was expected to behave differently from my male cousins. Of course, the distinction in our behavior was always there, but post puberty it had to be more marked. I was no longer allowed to fly kites, wear shorts and play badminton in the lanes. The most important mark of distinction for me was the dupatta. None of my friends wore it, none of the actors and models on television flaunted it and hence it wasn’t cool enough to be part of my teenage wardrobe. I protested by not covering my head everytime the azaan was heard or there was a fatya at home. It created reasonable amounts of tension, spilt tears and fights. I blamed the imposition of wardrobe restrictions on my religion. Another important point of contention was that I wasn’t allowed to swim. Swimming required me to wear a swimsuit and my aunts didn’t like it. So when I reached the 7th standard, I could no longer enjoy a swim with my friends.

It took me several years to understand that my other friends too had to negotiate with pressures of the inside with the outside. While they might not have to restrict their wardrobe to a collection of salwaar kameez with dupatta, they had other, and sometimes more pressing issues to deal with. Some of them got married while they were still twenty, others were not allowed to study away from home.

As I read and interacted more with people from my religion whose way of living in a Islamic way was different from mine, I realized the problem didn’t lie with Islam, but with our interpretation of it. Nowhere in the Quran does it say that women have to wear the burqa or a salwaar kameez. The Quran simply instructs women to be modestly dressed around men.

Even today when I go back home I don’t enjoy the same freedom of dress that I do when I am in Bombay. But that has ceased to matter too much now. I have realized that it is no longer about what I am comfortable with as an individual. It is also about how comfortable others around me are with my way of dressing. I have no right to enter a space that I share with others in a way that seems to them to be inappropriate.

Most of the females in my family cover their heads during the azaan, namaaz and when they greet elders. The males in the family cover their head during namaaz and if they feel like it, on Eid. However, my phupijaan, (father’s sister), wears the burqa and so do my cousins, her daughters. My cousins started wearing the burqa when they attained puberty. My family would often discuss how it wasn’t right for my aunt to make my cousins wear the burqa and often seemed embarrassed about being seen in public with burqa clad women. She is generally considered to be orthodox in her practice of religion and her choosing to wear the burqa has considerably added to that impression.

When I asked my nanima, grandmother, what she felt about the burqa, she replied: “Some people wear it because they don’t want men harassing them and staring at them in the streets.” When I asked her why she didn’t wear the burqa she was quick to add: “The more people are educated, the less they adhere to such practices.” While willing to acknowledge the benefits of the burqa, my grandmother also displayed discomfort with the concept. Even within the Muslim community it has become a symbol for the less educated or the orthodox.

While I was always curious about my cousin’s opinion on the burqa, being a sensitive topic, it took me a long time to bring it up for discussion. When we did have this conversation, Tauseef was 24 years old working as a manager. On being asked if she wore it out of her choice or my aunt asked her to she replied: “When baji (elder sister) started wearing the burqa, I wanted to wear it too. Anything she did I had to do. But now I want to wear it fully understanding what it means. I am wearing it for Allah. Also, now with the designer burqa, one can be as fashionable as they want.” The motivation for her to wear the burqa was ibadat, for the cause of Allah.

However, while Tauseef prays five times a day and wears the burqa, she also applies eye makeup and diets. In this she proves the argument that the burqa prevents the commodification of women’s bodies wrong. While Tauseef doesn’t get to flaunt her body and perform for the male gaze she still derives satisfaction from the knowledge that her body is still comparable to those standards set by the market. It proves that the pressures of the market penetrate even the burqa. However, how much the market can penetrate the burqa is also dependent on the individual and the context. Surrounded by family and friends who do not wear a burqa, for Tauseef this is a way of negotiating the burqa with things other girls her age do. Of course while dressing up she pays most attention to her face, the only other visible part of her body apart from her hands. But one way of looking at it can also be that since she is not dressing up for the male gaze then she is dressing up for her own pleasure. And that to me denotes agency and liberation.

Tauseef says that she wears the burqa out of choice, not force. The question of what constitutes choice was one I have struggled with in my attempt to understand Tauseef. As someone who does not wear the burqa for a long time I felt that what Tauseef understands as choice is actually conditioning. But as I grew up I realized I needed to give her the space to live according to her beliefs, like she gives me the space to live according to mine. Of course, there are also times when she looks down upon what I am wearing if she finds it inappropriate. But we have learnt to negotiate and come to a place where we accept each other without attempting to teach the other about the more superior way of living.

There are several other aspects to a Muslim woman than just the veil. Depositing all her agency in the dress and not willing to recognize other forms of agency is a restricted approach to the issue. At no point am I advocating the veil. As a personal choice I find it constraining. Similarly, veiled women find the need of unveiled women to constantly play up to the male gaze constraining. The negotiation between the veiled and the unveiled lies in accepting differences and stretching our imagination.