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)
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.
GANDHI’S WORDS ARE AS TRUE TODAY: THE OUTWARD PURDAH IS BAD ENOUGH; WHAT IS WORSE IS THE PURDAH OF MINDS