The Veiled One
Today the hijab is synonymous with Islam and fundamentalism.
When I was not quite nine, my mother used to take me with her for her nocturnal outings. These were social outings, mostly to her sister's home. I would sit beside her on the rickshaw with the hood drawn and a chador wrapped around the hood and us. It looked more like a closed horse carriage than a rickshaw. Only there were no horses. Sometimes my mother's feet would show from under the chador but these were more by accident then by design. These visits would always be chaperoned by either a male servant who would ride ahead on a bicycle like an outrider or by a matron who would sit on the foot board. As soon as we would reach my aunt's house, the most distinguished compound in Sylhet, the chador would be opened and my mother would alight from the rickshaw to be ushered into the inner quarters. This is the same compound where men, even residents of the inner quarters, would have to loudly announce their arrival and departure so that women who were lazing around on the veranda or in the small gardens of their own homes would seek cover while the male got inside the compound and “seek refuge” in the privacy of their own homes. This was the practice not because the master of the compound was a diehard Muslim rightist but more because it was the socio cultural etiquette that mattered in these aristocratic premises. Respect for the female members of the precinct was uppermost in these practices. In the privacy of their living room, my mother and her sisters discussed everything under the sun from the measles that afflicted children at a local school to the news that made headlines. They practiced together Tagore's poems for my mother to recite at the cultural evening to celebrate his birthday at a local society club. They were avid readers and kept abreast of what was happening around them by listening to the radio and reading everything they could lay their hands on! Parts of the evenings were sometimes spent on “killing the raja and wazirs”.
When my aunt visited us she wore the burkha a black long coat with long sleeves and a head cover which had a niqab made of netted lace, to be dropped over the face or lifted as required. It resembled much the fancy hats of the 19th century aristocratic English women who would not venture out of doors without it. Even with the burkha, my aunt's rickshaw would be wrapped around by the chador.
It was the practice for all women of Sylhet - Muslims, Hindus, and Christians - to cover their head. The nun from the convent who came to teach English to my mother wore long sleeves and a black ankle length dress with a white and black head cover. While my mother showed some hair from the top of her head covered under her aachol, the mother from the convent showed none. Religion was not the primary or the only concern, modesty was. It was the social demand of the time.
Wearing the veil-- the hijab or niqab - and practicing Islam are two separate issues. The true veil of Islam has to come from within and is equally pertinent for women and men in every society at all times. The hijab worn widely today is a far cry from what my mother's generation wore. So also is the niqab. Today's niqab that covers the entire face leaving only the eyes visible did not exist in Sylhet at the time. Sylhet then was as religious as it is today! After all it is Hazrat Shah Jalal's land, the land that matched his fistful of earth where he settled to preach.
I grew up in a religiously conservative family that practiced Islam the best it could. Praying five times a day, fasting during Ramadan, and helping the poor were just as natural as getting up from bed in the morning, eating three meals a day and sleeping. Yet, this is the same family where all six daughters, including myself, were encouraged not only to seek the highest available education but also to seek professions outside of home. This is the same family where daughters and sons were treated equally and blessed equally. My mother, and indeed her burkha clad sisters, went to convents and studied English. They were encouraged to read English story books along with those in Bangla and Sanskrit. My mother read the Quran every morning along with its translation and often repeated these as bed time stories for us. My parents' families were not the exceptions in Sylhet in the early 1900s. Sylhet was proud of its literacy level just as it was of its quality of education. Both men and women had the liberty to be well read and well educated. Education, however, did not only mean obtaining formal degrees but went far beyond. Education meant liberating the minds of its populace from the confines of provincialism and the scourge of fanaticism, for fanaticism existed at all times.
In modern times, the first shock of the hijab came in 1979 when male leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran ordered women to wear the black chador that covers them from head to toe. Today the hijab is synonymous with Islam and fundamentalism. The wearer of hijab is more often then not identified as the one from the extreme right. To many, the Iranian chador is nothing but a sinister piece of cloth that is unwieldy, devoid of any beauty, and something that could serve as a cover for everything from hair to a hand gun. To the wearer it can have, and often has, a completely different meaning. The hijab that elicits such tremendous fear of the unknown unfortunately drowns the debate on whether liberalism of the 19th century can still be a reality of which civilizations can be proud of.
Millions of Muslim women around the world can be seen today wearing the head scarf. In countries like Egypt and Indonesia the hijab is a popular part of the dress. There are special stores that sell hijab with pins and accessories to make it fashionable and attractive. The hijab is as much a social need - a cultural phenomenon - as an Islamic dress code. In Egypt or Indonesia the hijab covers the head and, that is where it ends for many. The tight jeans and fitting tank tops give away the purpose of wearing the hijab for too many young ones who want to look fashionable yet have the social need to wear the headscarf. Unlike in Iran, many in Egypt and Indonesia chose to wear their hijab. Yet, these are two progressive Muslim countries unlikely to be drowned in a rightist takeover any time soon.
Many women wearing the hijab say they cover their head because they feel more “comfortable” “safe” and “secure” and even “liberated” in it. That is, unfortunately, the moot point that so many critics of the hijab tend to overlook. As more and more women step out of the confines of their protected environment and into the world of enlightenment and employment there is a growing need for providing safety them. This is where societies are failing on an everyday basis and this is where societies, and indeed governments, must focus on rather than on the hijab itself. Perhaps for once it is the men on whom societies - and governments - can concentrate to make the world a safer place for women! Societies can help change mindsets of both men and women. Societies can make women feel safer by giving them a greater say in their way of life rather then cowing down to the clamour of those who do not know how to treat all human beings as equals.
In the sixties, my mother made the choice not to veil. In the 21st century give us, once again, the freedom to make our own choice!
Nasir Firdaus is a former ambassador.
(R) thedailystar.net 2009