Still in Seclusion
My Silence is Your Comfort
Recently, I have been noticing more and more women wearing veils in Dhaka city. Many young, educated, totally confident and modern women wear burqas. The other night I had a dream that I myself was putting one on. Why is there this desire in us women to cover ourselves up? Whereas we are comfortable watching literally half naked women on television, why do we startle to see a woman in jeans? Why do we see women corned inside a CNG or hunched in a hooded rickshaw, while men sit like king--hands on knee, confident posture, hair blowing in the wind? Why do working women very carefully maintain their attires: how it must be loose, how her orna must come down to her belly, each part of her feminine self must be covered, as if it was the source of all evil.
Are women evil?
Are their feminine body parts like breasts and hips unholy?
Why then, must we think that Allah chose human beings to enter this world via those very body parts and be nourished on mother's milk? Isn't it time that we called for some more respect to be given to us as women? Isn't it time for us at least to believe that there is nothing wrong with our bodies, and we shouldn't have to worry about reducing its visibility at all times? Mustn't we remember that we were created to enjoy equal rights as the males of our society?
Wrapping up a person in a black burqa is one way of enforcing restrictions on the visibility and individuality of that woman. The social institution of extreme purdah or seclusion denies women personhood with the logic that: if she is given a persona it would automatically carry the aura of her sexuality, which would contaminate the masculine realm of the public, and ultimately question the superiority of their authority. However, purdah is variable from society to society, from family to family. To some, purdah could mean wearing a burqa with a peeping hole, for others, it would be wearing a big orna to completely cover her torso. To people like me, it may mean dressing up in a decent manner. Looked through a feminist lens, the otherwise transparency of purdah as a social institution and its complicated effects on women's lives become visible.
At the core of purdah are two key concepts a)males and females must be separated for the greater good, and b) female sexuality carries an inherent evil element, which could potentially cause chaos in the masculine public realm, thus it must be silenced. Female sexuality in this context must be understood within the following framework: male sexuality is the normative, female sexuality is the deviated, therefore, the males must control female sexuality for everybody's benefit. Writers like Hanna Papanek argues that, purdah erases women's individual identities in public. She further argues that purdah accentuates women as primarily sexual beings whose sexuality must be kept hidden for the greater good of society. The question of honour is also deeply linked with purdah. The deeper a woman lives in purdah, the higher the man's honour is. It demonstrates the man's capability to control and harness the woman's sexuality. Abul A'la Maududi, a strong supporter of purdah in South Asia, expressed the exact same idea in his first piece on purdah in 1939. According to his dualist vision, the mixing of male and female sexualities could end in disaster. Thus, it is not only important to keep women invisible from the public, but it is also important to separate males and females as widely as possible. Lila Abu-Lughod's interpretation of honour and veiling in the Egyptian Bedouins comes relevant to our current value system regarding female sexuality in Bangladesh, "sexuality is the most potent threat to the patrilineal, patricentred system and to the authority of those who uphold it and women are the most closely identified with sexuality through their reproductive activities. Therefore, to show respect to the social order and the people who represent it, women must deny their sexuality." Following Maududi's views and Abu-Lughod's analysis, we may conclude once again that, the key concept behind the social institution of purdah is: female sexuality is evil, and it must be rendered invisible. Since Maududi wrote his first pro-purdah piece in 1939, the table has turned quite a bit. Purdah among women is not as prevalent in Bangladesh as it used to be in colonial Bengal. We see fewer women covering their bodies up in a dark cloak or submitting into seclusion. But the key question to ask is: have we reached the level of comfortability we desire in order to be visible in the public?
Each and every woman in Dhaka city has been harassed with dirty looks and comments on the street. This harassments carries a strong sexual overtone. It makes travelling and getting things done in Dhaka city a nightmare for females. For example, it is not rare to catch men on the street shamelessly looking at women's breasts. These men have no clue that women are also human beings, and staring at their sensitive body parts is a direct violation of their human rights. Sexually harassing women comes normal and natural in our country. It is not considered a crime. There are no laws preventing it. Moreover, many NGOs report that, rape victims are verbally raped over again at the police station and in court. We women know that the state authority will not do anything about this particular problem of ours. Now the question is, what do we women want to do about it?
The answer is not simple, and I certainly don't have one. But I do have some clues. The first one is to revisit Begum Rokeya's words all over again. What this amazingly brilliant woman wrote almost a hundred years ago is still very relevant to what we must do as women to gain our rights: "Why do you allow yourselves to be shut up? You have neglected the duty you owe to yourselves and you have lost your natural rights by shutting your eyes to your own interests." By being shut up I don't mean putting on a burqa, but submitting into the system that may force women to wear one. Many women may wear burqas because they simply feel comfortable that way. But the key question is: is purdah the problem or the social system that allows men to sexually harass women in public without any lawful intervention?
The other day, I was travelling in a car with my family. We were stuck in a traffic jam in front of Hotel Sonargaon, and a huge CNG bus pulled in right in front of us. At the back of the bus were a few schools boys and they immediately started making indecent kissing gestures. I wanted to stick my head out of the window and scream at them. But my parents didn't think it would be safe. So I sat there feeling totally furious and vulnerable. I muttered a slogan I a had learned at a workshop on sexual harassment as college student: My Silence is Your Comfort! I repeated to my self: My Silence is Your Comfort! My silence to speak up against sexual harassment on the street and my silence in having to reduce the visibility of my female body is the comfort of the patriarchal framework of our time. That night I came home and read Begum Rokeya over again, especially Sultana's Dream (a feminist utopian novel) and Oborodhbashini.
Begum Rokeya published Oborodhbashini (Secluded Ones) a collection of 47 anecdotes documenting the inhuman purdah practices of both Bangali Muslims and Hindus all over North India after serialising it in the Monthly Mohammadi in 1929. It was the first attack, at least in South Asia, on the social institution of purdah by a Muslim woman. Rokeya argued that being in purdah did not mean being secluded, rather, it meant being decently dressed, to be more precise, in her own words, "veiling is not natural, it is ethical. Animals have no veils…by purdah I mean covering the body well, not staying confined…we shall keep necessary and moderate purdah." Rokeya worked till her last breath for the betterment of women while remaining in purdah. She was not against purdah, but she was against the unnatural purdah measures that restricted women's mobility. She was against the patriarchal understanding of female sexuality as the deviated one. In fact, Rokeya's feminist utopian novel Sultana's Dream depicts a Lady Land where instead of women, men are shut into the inner quarters--the "mardana"--women moved around freely and worked as scientists, gardeners, teachers, and queens. What Rokeya was trying to say in Sultana's Dream is that the problems regarding the social institution of purdah could be obliterated if men could be shut out from looking at women, in other words, women would not need purdah if men would become half way decent and stop staring at them relentlessly. Covering our bodies up to completely erase our sexuality is a necessity that rises from men's complete control over the social ambience to walk around as the normative sex, while we walk hunched backs as the problematic sex. Begum Rokeya inspired women to come out of seclusion. Almost a hundred years down the road, are we out of seclusion yet? The carbon monoxide of women's seclusion may be somewhat cleared out, but are we out of the transparent veil of the male gaze that imposes restrictions on our mobility as women?
(R) thedailystar.net 2005