SEVERAL years ago, when I started working as a lawyer in Karachi, as I was walking to my office inside a large building, which housed several offices, a man from an adjacent office, who looked like he could be my father’s age, stopped me and said, “Beta, dupatta kidhar hai?”
“It’s none of your business whether I wear a dupatta or not,” I retorted, and he backed down apologising. However, the incident stuck with me. The idea that a complete stranger could tell me what to wear wasn’t alien to me. I had grown up in Saudi Arabia, where an entire brigade of men called the mutawa, were tasked with going around town to check how many strands of hair were showing from women’s hijabs and admonish them and their next-of-kin males accordingly.
However, when I am told that women choose to wear a hijab, niqab or burqa, I find the notion completely fanciful. Some may certainly be choosing it, but a large number are not. Particularly those who live in Muslim-majority countries, where free choice has never been part of our ethos.
In Pakistan, for instance, isn’t it quite common for parents to decide who their children should marry or which profession they should pursue?
Free choice has never been part of our ethos.
One hundred per cent free choice doesn’t exist anywhere in the world, as there are always some norms and bounds that society dictates. For instance, nudity isn’t considered acceptable in public places and a University of California, Berkeley, student who attempted it back in 1992 was promptly arrested. Nevertheless, the amount of leeway one is given in choosing one’s life path, activities, and indeed dress is far more restrictive in our societies than it is in Western ones.
A cousin who moved from the US to UAE once told me that she had more freedom organising and attending Islamic religious lectures (dars) in the US than she did in the UAE, where the subject was strictly regulated by the state.
One only has to compare university campuses in Western countries with those in Pakistan to find how much freedom young adults have in terms of how freely they can come and go from campus or organise for a political cause. Many girls will tell you their dads do not allow them to wear sleeveless shirts or dance at functions where both men and women are present, while boys may be told that they need to marry off their sisters before they can think of marrying themselves.
So free choice plays very little role in our culture and society. This then brings us to the question — why do women wear the hijab, niqab or burqa? Primarily, it is because they are told that this is what their religion requires of them. But also, some young girls have told me that wearing a hijab leads to less familial constraint on their comings and goings, as male family members feel they have become religious and hence doubt them less. Others feel the extra clothing may fend off unwanted stares and advances.
One girl I recently spoke to told me that she wore a burqa when she went to study in China, thinking that it will make her safer as this is what she had been conditioned to believe in Pakistan. However, after a while she realised that the burqa was attracting undue attention in China and yet not serving the purpose it was supposed to. She said she soon realised that women in China were generally safe without wearing the burqa so she too took it off.
So the crux of the matter is making women feel safe in a public space. The questions to ask are: in societies where a large number of women are veiling, are women safe to walk on the streets alone? Are they safe at bus stops or driving cars alone or are they participating fully in public life? Or are they holding back, still fearful of unwanted advances from men, and yet not realising their potential?
I must add here that the hijab, a head covering alone, does not constrain women from doing most things that women without a hijab can do, but a niqab and burqa certainly do. They make public interface much more difficult. How many of us would be comfortable with a doctor or a nurse or a lawyer who veils her face? The idea of the face veil is to relegate women to a position where they have minimal public space.
This is not only detrimental for women but society at large. Emphasis on veiling often leads to calls for segregation of the sexes, which simply isn’t feasible in most real-life work situations. Saudi Arabia has learned this as it tries to diversify its economy and has reversed stricter veiling policies it promoted earlier.
As the Taliban take hold of Afghanistan and impose harsh conditions on women, it is more important than ever for other Muslim countries to speak out against such regressive interpretations of our religion, which are incompatible with modernity.
The writer is a lawyer based in London.
Published in Dawn, September 26th, 2021