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Must it be a burqa?

Updated August 25, 2013

I HAVE been witnessing the debate on the social media caused by the attire of Pakistan’s new cartoon female superhero (or superheroine, if I may say) with great interest. The costume of the superheroine, Burqa Avenger, is a burqa.

The lady uses the burqa as a camouflage to hide her identity as she battles local goons attempting to shut down girls’ schools.

Although the effort to promote women’s education is worth appreciating, the use of a burqa as a disguise does not seem becoming.

Proponents of the costume argue that a ‘piece of cloth’ does not limit freedom. Is it really that simple? There is nothing simplistic about a symbolic article. And a burqa symbolises fear of women’s sexuality!

A black burqa is far worse as it endorses men’s longstanding dogma that women’s bodies could lead them (i.e., men) to sin, and ultimately shame. Instead of working on curbing their lust, they strive to evade the dishonour by controlling women. And what better way could there be to achieve this other than hiding them away in a black cloak and shattering their self-confidence? Why can’t men just blindfold themselves if they cannot control their sexual desires?

The edict by the clerics in KP banning women from leaving their homes without a male relative is a classic example of our obsession with controlling women.

Burqa is a remnant of Arab imperialism in our lands. It is not a part of Pakistani culture. There is nothing even Islamic about it. Moreover, the burqa was not worn by most Pakistani women until Ziaul Haq’s ‘Islamisation’ of the country. Therefore, we could conclude from history that the burqa was imposed on our women by foreign invaders and military dictators. It was never a part of our culture!

The makers of the cartoon could have used a simple shalwar-kameez and a mask as a costume. Or they could have just done away with the black colour and dressed the superheroine in colourful drapes -– even if it was still a burqa. But no! They chose to shroud her in the apparel emblematic of misogyny and gynophobia!

I wonder if supporters of the cartoon ponder over what the founder of the country, Jinnah, would have had to say about it. Let me narrate an incident of Jinnah’s life that not many people are aware of.

The Governor of Bombay, Lord Willingdon, invited Jinnah and his wife, Rattanbai ‘Ruttie’ Petit Jinnah, to supper. Mrs Jinnah wore a low-cut evening gown. Here I will quote, Hector Bolitho, a close associate of Jinnah: “Mrs Jinnah wore a low-cut dress that did not please her hostess, Lady Willingdon, who asked an ADC to bring a wrap for Mrs Jinnah, in case she felt cold. Jinnah rose, and said: “When Mrs Jinnah feels cold, she will say so, and ask for a wrap herself.” Then he led his wife from the dining room; and, from that time, he refused to go to Government House again. ' (Source: “Chronicling Ruttie Jinnah” by Mamun M. Adil published in Dawn on 22nd Feb, 2009)

It is ironic that a Westerner disapproved of Mrs Jinnah’s dressing, and Jinnah, a man of the subcontinent, defended his wife’s right to wear a low-cut dress if she so chose. Would Jinnah have approved of a burqa-clad superheroine? I guess not.