Thursday, December 08, 2005

Today, I sat in the same auto with a very young girl in a burqa. I was waiting for an auto near my house in the morning, and there were these two girls waiting at the same corner - one wearing a school uniform and the other, a classic all-covering burqa with a veil across her face, leaving just her bright and rather fine eyes uncovered. Autos being scarce, and they having caught one just before me, I asked if I could share it, as it looked like we were headed in the same direction.

I fell into conversation with them - both were chirpy and very school-girlishly curious. Shyly asked my name and what I did and everything. I found out that they were Class 8 students at a Muslim girl's school nearby. The one in the burqa was the chirpier of the two, staring at me in a very friendly manner, and, I am shamed to admit this, I was completely fascinated by her. I tried not to stare too rudely back at her as I tried to understand what was going on in her mind - rather difficult, as I couldn't read her expressions.

The burqa has always fascinated me. I don't completely understand its dynamics, I don't know anybody who wears it regularly and I would really like to know. This is not about the politics of the burqa at all -- I don't think I could add anything coherent to that discussion - but I do sometimes wonder how these girls of 13 react to it, and how these reactions change by the time they are 21, 25, 30. I see a lot of young women in burqas near my house in Bangalore. We live in a locality that's almost equally shared by Muslims, Hindus and Christians, and every day, I see a large number of women going about their business, apparently unconcerned about the black garment that covers every square inch of their bodies. Some of the burqas are quite stylishly cut, some are embroidered and sequinned.. I find myself wondering if that is just a little touch of defiance. I could be completely wrong, honestly.

Anyway, so in the beginning, I was surprised by the sheer number of burqa-clad women I saw on the streets of Bangalore. I remember wondering if the city's Muslims were more conservative than the ones in Jamshedpur (where I grew up) and in Delhi. It took me some time to realize that if anything, they were much less conservative. The reason I hadn't seen so many burqa-clad women in the other places was simply because they lived in very compartmentalised little societies - one could almost call them ghettoes -- didn't venture out so much, didn't really attend mainstream schools, colleges and jobs (and the few who did didn't wear burqas). Whereas in Bangalore, they are everywhere. From the high heels and confident strides and smart handbags of some, I can make out they work at regular jobs, some zip around in two wheelers, walk away hand in hand with friends from school and college, eat out at restaurants. Most are economically and socially on a higher step of the ladder than their counterparts in Delhi.

And it makes me wonder, how do they get used to the burqa? Do they see themselves as different in any way from their friends whose cultures or families don't ask them to cover themselves up? Do they ever feel rebellious, at least in the beginning when it is decided that they too must now wear it? Do they feel jealous of friends who don't have to wear it? Do they sometimes wish they could show off the pretty dress they are wearing underneath? This young girl I met in the auto today, did she dislike it, or was it a given fact to her, something she had accepted calmly as part of her identity? Sometimes, I wonder if any of these smart, confident women ever wonder why they are wearing it, and ask if they can do without it?

Sometimes, I want to tear it off them.


At December 08, 2005 5:40 PM, Blogger Gamesmaster G9 said...

I used to think like you did, until recently. The thing is - we decide that the burqa is a symbol of oppression and post about it. But many of these women think nothing of the sort. To them, the burqa is a statement of their beliefs, which brings me to ask whether we truly have the right to decry it. I actually have met women - modern, educated women - even feminists - who choose the burqa. To them the act of wearing a burqa is as much a statement as wearing a miniskirt is in a country like India - statements of rebellion against a society that typifies people based on what they wear.

At December 08, 2005 8:34 PM, Blogger the still dancer said...

I have to agree with the gamesmaster here. There is a kind of automatic assumption that the burqua is evil incarnate. Which it is, for the most part. But there is still that other thing called choice. There are women who choose to wear it. Then again, one may ask whether such choices are really voluntary, or whether they are born out of a legacy so deeply entrenched that it has become sub-liminal, and therefore masquarades as conscious choice in their minds. Because, if you think about it, the same question can be applied to, let's say a Benalee married woman- it is only the woman who is required to wear the vermillion. The burqua carries a religious connotation, this, societal. But would you think about forcibly rubbing off the vermillion from a married Hindu Bengali woman's forehead? But there really is no difference, is there?

At December 08, 2005 8:48 PM, Blogger The Marauder's Map said...

Gamemaster, I think you are talking about a totally different social situation. And I really have no strident political views on the burqa, it just intrigues me, it and the women who wear it. They are so removed from my world in some ways, yet, in Bangalore, I realised they really aren't. How similar, and how different, is what I want to find out.

And sometimes, no matter how rational I try to be about it, it does make me angry to see really young girls being turned into adults before their time.

At December 08, 2005 10:36 PM, Blogger Brown Magic said...

I really liked your post. It is the sort of thing that runs through my head. The high heels and the handbags part especially in contrast to a fairly austere garment. I want to ask gils, more than women actuall, when did you start wearing it? Did you like it? hate it? Do you sometimes NOT wear it?

I am not sure its like vermillion, however, because the practise isn't as uniformly followed as the vermillion. This isn't an automatic cultural or religious practise- some people follow, some don't. I really want to know the reasoning behind both.

At December 09, 2005 1:25 AM, Blogger Sue said...

Personally speaking, I think a burqa adds immense mystery to a feminine figure. I don't know that I would care to wear one myself, but the ones who do fascinate me, with their glimpses of exquisitely tailored clothes underneath the black, even sometimes the flash of jeweallery as they move.
Therefore, I have never wanted to remove one off a woman. Help her out of it maybe, if she wanted to, but not if she was comfortable within in. Does that sound very retrogressive?

At December 09, 2005 5:47 PM, Blogger Jabberwock said...

Shrabonti, Ani, Arka, everyone else who's commented here: do read Pamuk's Snow sometime, think you'll find a lot of thought-provoking stuff on the topic in there.

"One may ask whether such choices are really voluntary, or whether they are born out of a legacy so deeply entrenched that it has become sub-liminal..."

Good point Arka, but this would also apply to almost any custom that's come down to us over the generations - including some that even you and I take for granted.

At December 10, 2005 7:25 PM, Blogger wise donkey said...

burqa is just a garment.
well i didnt think earlier.

but i was amused when i saw some women in burqa in beach and in the water. i thought how awful to wear that clingy thing in water.

then realised that those in swimwear would think the same of those in sari:))

i think like other garments, its just a statement, and one need not feel repressed when you wear it.

its funny when i meet some who can understand a woman who wants to wear a mini skirt, but not a woman who wants to wear a burqa. (err i didnt mean you..)

but after all this, got to admit that, not everyone who wears the burqa probably wants to wear them but then that applies for perhaps other garments too.

hate to do this, but still cant resist this since its on this

At December 16, 2005 5:23 PM, Blogger Sheetal said...

Nice post, Marauder.
I used to have a Muslim schoolmate who also went to college with me. Uniforms till 10th and suddenly in Intermediate college, R would turn up in a burkha. Ride in on her two-wheeler, unwrap herself to reveal a very normal salwar kameez, fold her pale blue robes under the seat and go to class. She was rather matter-of-fact about it, and following her lead, so were the rest of us. Didn't think at the time to actually ask her what she made of it.

Lots of burkhas in Hyderabad as well, and it is a shame, you know, because there are some of the loveliest faces under them. They buy trinkets endlessly, match colours exactly, take great pains over anklets especially. I don't know if they resent the burkha, but they work around it.

At February 03, 2006 5:03 AM, Blogger gypsy said...

Nice Post...Hey you must watch this Iranian movie by Makhmalbaf called the "Day I Became a Woman" its beautiful..and answers all the questions you raised..esp about how little girls feel when they get into a burqa...


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