The Pur­dah of the Mind

Rakhshanda Jalil (Lit­er­ary his­to­rian and au­thor of Lik­ing Progress, Lov­ing Change: A Lit­er­ary His­tory of the Pro­gres­sive Writ­ers’ Move­ment in Urdu)

India Today - - COVER STORY -

Born a Mus­lim and raised a momin, a be­liever, I am struck each time peo­ple link deen or faith with ex­ter­nals—be it beard or burqa. I am struck also by our propen­sity to not want a de­bate on any­thing that ques­tions this en­tirely spe­cious link be­tween true faith and the ob­ser­vance of cer­tain prac­tices. Is it, I ask my­self, be­cause some­where Mus­lims are afraid of the de­bate and the real is­sues it might raise?

I was re­minded of this while reread­ing The Col­lected Works of Ma­hatma Gandhi. The sub­ject of pur­dah and its ob­ser­vance crops up in many frag­ments. In a pub­lic ad­dress at Fateh­pur in May 1947, Gandhi said: “True pur­dah should be of the heart. What is the value of the outer veil? I go so far as to say that even the Qu­ran Sharif does not men­tion out­ward pur­dah. How rapidly the times we are in are mov­ing... In such times what is the point in con­tin­u­ing the worth­less cus­tom of pur­dah?”

We have in­deed moved ahead tem­po­rar­ily but the cus­tom con­tin­ues. What is worse, from a largely so­cial cus­tom it has ac­quired a re­li­gious moor­ing. As Gandhi rightly pointed out, the burqa/ pur­dah finds no di­rect men­tion in the Holy Qu­ran. This needs to be stressed; yet for rea­sons best known to them, those for and against burqa/ pur­dah both refuse to dis­en­gage the gar­ment, and the prac­tice it breeds, from its imag­i­nary re­li­gious an­chor. The Qu­ranic in­junc­tion for pre­serv­ing mod­esty and guard­ing chastity—an in­junc­tion ap­pli­ca­ble to both men and women—some­how over the years, has come to mean head-to-toe veil­ing for women and with veil­ing seclu­sion and en­forced seg­re­ga­tion. To link the need for pre­serv­ing mod­esty to the need to have or es­tab­lish a re­li­gious iden­tity seems an es­sen­tially flawed po­si­tion.

Equally, to dis­trust or shun those Mus­lims, es­pe­cially women, who dis­avow the burqa, by claim­ing that they are ir­re­li­gious, is an even more er­ro­neous po­si­tion. The truth per­haps is that the re­li­gious zealots adopt these in­tractable po­si­tions not be­cause they have sub­stan­ti­ated proof for their be­lief—ei­ther in the Holy Qu­ran or in the Sharia—but sim­ply be­cause they fear that those who ask for de­bate will chal­lenge their hege­mony. Who are these up­hold­ers of the faith who want to re­tain hege­monic con­trol over Mus­lim man­ners and mores, not to say re­li­gious be­liefs and prac­tises? In the com­plete ab­sence of lead­er­ship at the na­tional level in In­dia and the ab­sence of or­dained clergy or priests in Is­lam per se, the so-called rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Mus­lims are semi-lit­er­ate maul­vis and imams who have lit­tle or no un­der­stand­ing of the mod­ern world. The Mus­lim mid­dle class—in­dif­fer­ent to com­mu­nity is­sues, en­grossed in their pur­suit of ma­te­rial ac­qui­si­tions or sim­ply too scared to speak out against the mul­lahs’ ob­scu­ran­tist views—al­low them to re­main the undis­puted up­hold­ers of the faith. As a re­sult, many of their po­si­tions, such as on women, women’s ed­u­ca­tion, the na­ture of syl­labus for women, the need for girls to study in seg­re­gated schools upon reach­ing pu­berty, etc. re­main un­chal­lenged.

Gandhi’s words are as true to­day as they were then. The out­ward pur­dah is bad enough; what is worse is the pur­dah of minds. My own ex­pe­ri­ence of en­forced burqa has strength­ened my an­tipa­thy to the no­tion of veil­ing and the ‘vi­o­la­tion’ and ‘sub­servience’ that in­evitably fol­low. I have come to be­lieve in the ax­iom: that which is sep­a­rate is in­her­ently un­equal.


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