This is a cross-post by Ananya Jahanara Kabir
A Muslim woman living in Europe talks of her experiences with markers of Islam and her reasons for affiliating herself with Muslimness alongside equally powerful reasons for distancing herself from its overt expressions in the public sphere.
In January 2001, prompted by an image published in the Telegraph (Calcutta), of Asiya Andrabi, the fully-veiled leader of the radical Kashmiri outfit Dukhtaran-e-Millat, I wrote an article for that same paper in which I discussed the visual politics of the woman who veils and those who reproduce her images. My basic observation concerned the ways in which the Kashmir problem was obfuscated, if not simplified, by conflating that issue with images that stoked barely-subliminal fears of an atavistic, resurgent Islam. I elaborated how, as a student in the prestigious universities of the United Kingdom, arrived from India that had yet to witness the repercussions of the Babri masjid’s demolition, I had been struck by instances of women from different Muslim societies across the world choosing to wear the hijab, indeed, while the mothers of many of these women went about their business heads uncovered.
This was still a world before 9/11, and my article generated a lengthy, if unclear, counter-response in the Telegraph on the folly of my position – the writer, a prominent academic, assumed that this position was one of supporting the practice of veiling. My mother, reading both articles, made a perspicacious comment: that, having witnessed first hand the abuses of the pir system in a rural Bengali Muslim ashraf household, she could not understand what the fuss was all about: the burqa was, in her opinion, firmly a practice that degraded and entrapped women within patriarchy’s collusion with religion. Educated as a doctor in Calcutta, and married into what would be called a “highly progressive” Muslim family in which, for three generations, there had not been a veil in sight, she found it absurd that any woman would want to regress in this manner, especially if she had had the benefits of education.
1992-2010: Personal Experiments with Muslimness
Looking back to that moment a decade later, when the burqa ban in France brought the issue of women’s veiling back on the Liberal agenda, I am struck by two things. First, the ease with which one could open oneself to misunderstanding and rebuke from the Indian left if as a self-identified Muslim woman, I chose to analyse the choices other Muslim women were making in local and global spheres, rather than take overt sides. This would be even more so, if I chose to interrogate the responses of the so-called Indian “mainstream” to images of the veiled woman. Second, I realise how much more clearly I understand today my mother’s position and how much I appreciate being the legatee of the Nehruvian secularism that she was a beneficiary of and that my parents found the most congenial dogma to raise a family in post-Partition India. This benefit of hindsight has been enabled by a change, however, cosmetic, in the ideologies emanating from those that rule at the Indian Centre: through the 1990s and the 2000s, I had found myself, as a secularised Indian Muslim, thrown into epistemological and philosophical confusion about how I felt about markers of “Islam”.
During that period, I became a barometer that responded to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) aggressions by becoming a defender of practices and beliefs that were otherwise alien to me. Searching for ways to protect myself psychologically from daily polemical assaults on people like me – secular, middle class Indians who happened to be Muslims – I tried even to import practices of a Muslim habitus into my daily life – experimenting with fasting, praying namaaz, and reading the Qur’an every morning. But the truth was that, without food and coffee, I could not teach; I could not remember the motions of the wazu without reading my mother’s notes on the matter; and I found I would rather spend early mornings writing 500 words than struggle through Arabic script. I knew what those practices meant, but no one had forced them on me in childhood and as an adult I could not import them into my lifestyle willy-nilly. Close to veritable despair, I found anchor in a sense of humour, in the shared confusions felt by other Indian Muslim friends, and in the powerful spiritual energies of Sufi music and shrines, especially Ajmer, that called to me and somehow transmitted what the qawwals termed sukoon (peace of mind).
I still remember the day when my late father telephoned from Calcutta to tell me triumphantly that the BJP had lost the national elections. As we rejoiced together in some disbelief (I had gone to bed in Manchester listening to the NDTV psephologists prognosticating the BJP’s victory), I felt a burden physically slipping away from me. No longer, I realised in a flash, would I have to respond defensively to the BJP’s Hindutva agenda that had been pushing me ideologically into an ever-tighter corner. I emerged through that period when the BJP government went out of power, able to regain a sense of self again, of being strict about the principles of Nehruvian secularism that had shaped me as an individual and that, although old-fashioned, I realise I hold dear to me and are, paradoxically, akin to a religious affiliation. Now that the question of the veil has once more taken the global centre stage, I feel able to stare the issue squarely in the face and say with conviction, “I do not support the practice of full face covering, call it burqa or niqab, particularly when it comes in the form of a black, shapeless garment (however luxurious its material may be) and the extent of my distaste is such that I find myself fine with the French government’s ban on it.”
Cultural Relativism vs Humanism
This position is relatively rare amongst my friends, colleagues and acquaintances, whether in India, south Asia at large, or Europe. Indeed, it opened up a bizarre situation where I, of Muslim heritage, was expressing my lack of sympathy for those crying hoarse about the French ban, while colleagues with no such connections but with self-declared liberal affiliations all but rebuked me for my stance. What is this liberalism that goes about supporting the right of women to cover completely their faces and wander around beshrouded in shapeless black garments? Such is the topsy-turvy, post-postmodern, post-postcolonial world we live in, where Left and Right have totally interchanged positions that one might intuitively associate with them. Caught in the quagmire of argumentation, we inadvertently support stances we would normally distance ourselves from. We do not like the reactionary shades the French call for “laicité” seems to have taken on, and so we argue against their banning of the burqa, just as we might have rejected the idea of a uniform civil code when it was the BJP that called for it.
As a Muslim woman living in Europe, I experience powerful reasons for affiliating myself with Muslimness alongside equally powerful reasons for distancing myself from its overt expressions in the public sphere. The former arise from that grey zone where “religion” and “culture” intermingle. I feel a strange, almost romantic affinity with those who know what words like wazu and sehri imply, but a similar feeling resurges when I am in the company of someone who knows what a kofta or a dolma is. By that token, I feel that affinity with anyone belonging, say, to a one-time Ottomanised cultural sphere, such as my Bulgarian friend who knows what a shelwar is, and knows that I know too. The more I work through this instinctive affiliation, the more strongly I realise that what I am responding to is historical membership of an Islamicate heritage that was shaped by and shaped the forces of modernity. The kofta becomes a version of a Masonic handshake. On the other hand, the roots of my disaffiliation to veils of any kind, or to dietary restrictions imposed by religion, lie in the fact that my strongest ideological affiliations are to principles of secularism, socialism, and humanism.
This realisation has helped me arrive at a situation of no compromise over some fundamental issues that include veiling practices, although I can tolerate the headscarf (for reasons I explain below). I admit I may seem full of contradictions as I try to work my way through a mesh of local, global and national politics that once again draws sustenance through the Muslim woman’s veiling practices. It is only superficially paradoxical, however, that I feel strongly the need to retain for myself the label of “Muslim” precisely while being as far away from any kind of head covering as can be: ironically, those who want to seek out the “moderate Muslim” do not seem to want to acknowledge that in the existence of such a strange creature, a self-declared Muslim woman who has no truck with veiling practices, may lie that Holy Grail they are so fervently searching.
An Anti-Veiling Rationale
But there is another reason why I cling to the label “Muslim”. Attached to the adjectives “Indian” and “Bengali”, it encapsulates for me a political, ideological and affective heritage that is no less than a specific trajectory of south Asian modernity. This is my inheritance, and the very rejection of the burqa and niqab that I feel able to articulate is predicated on it. It is no contradiction to my mind, that along with the Sufi music of Ajmer and Nizamuddin Aulia, and the Baul music of Bengal, I appreciate the local vernacular practices of my Bengali Muslim world where grandmothers, mother, aunts and even I can discreetly draw the end of a sari across the head if occasion calls for it – which can range from visiting a graveyard to protecting oneself from the sun’s rays – and equally seamlessly let it drop once the moment is over. This was the very spirit celebrated (and its disappearance mourned) in Sabiha Sumar’s fine film Khamosh Pani, through the juxtaposition, in particular, of two distinct scenes.
The first was a wedding scene where men and women singing traditional songs were separated by a flimsy and translucent curtain that, at the height of merriment, was playfully breached; the second was one where young men of the village sought earnestly to erect a brick wall around the girls’ school to protect the “modesty” of their female counterparts. Separating the two scenes is the gradual radicalisation of those youth by Islamic fundamentalist preachers from Lahore (the film retrospectively explores the Islamicisation of Pakistan under Zia-ul-Haq). It is no coincidence that those Muslim women whose views on veiling resonate most closely with mine are from Bangladesh and Pakistan as well as India (rather than second or third generation Europeans). The visual contrast between the flexibility of the curtain and the rigidity of the brick wall is the same that distinguishes the flexibility of the pallu/aanchol and the rigidity of the burqa and niqab, which renders problematic even the basic act of eating in public.
At the heart of my objections to this practice, is, finally, a very simple matter – the intrinsic humanism of conducting person-to-person contact by allowing your interlocutor to see your face. Whether we like it or not, those of us conducting this conversation about full veiling move in a modernised public sphere, at the basis of which is the assumption that we speak to each other, face to face. This is not merely an aspect of humanism but an aesthetics of the face, where aesthetics stands not for elite privilege but is akin to rasa – the ability to enjoy and savour life in heightened form, to adorn and to express oneself. The amassing of sequins and encrustations of embroidery on a burqa renders it not a whit more aesthetic to me, but rather makes it more sinister, more counter-aesthetic in this fundamental sense that I am proposing. This is a practice that signals to me sullen joylessness, a declaration of shutting out the world.
How to Spot the Moderate Muslim
This interpretation also furnishes me with the reason why I do not condemn the headscarf (though I do not like it): it does not necessarily breach my framework of humanism and a rasa-driven aesthetics. It can also explain why I can find unreasonable the French government’s ban on the turban, which does not obscure the face of the wearer and in whose colour-coordinated care I locate a true note of rasa. I appreciate that Sarkozy’s government is driven by bigotry and arrogance, and that expounding freely about the anti-humanism of full veiling can easily be misinterpreted as support of that bigotry and arrogance. But on balance, the dangers of keeping quiet about one’s objections to full veiling cedes ground to the forces within Islam that have been attempting to seize control over what “Islam” can and must mean. The biggest problem is that the liberal, leftist position all over the world seems determined to accept their definitions, while hunting high and low for where the moderate Muslim might lurk, and for ways to coax him or her out of hiding.
Ananya Jahanara Kabir (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches at the School of English, University of Leeds, UK.