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On International Women’s Day, The Leaflet presents an international — and internationalist — perspective on the issue of hijab, veil, jilbab and the other iterations of Muslim women’s clothing.

MY mother wears a burqa. It is in the style popular in Kashmir and the contiguous Central Asian regions of northern Pakistan and Afghanistan. A style a former boss in India described as “one that makes women look like horses with bridles and blinkers” (he did not know my mother wore one).

Mother started to wear the burqa when she joined a college in the 1970s, and it has been a faithful companion to her ever since. Though I have never asked her about it in clear terms, because I did not need to, I know that there are the religious and the cultural reasons for wearing it, but they occupy the background. The overwhelming reason, the foreground, or, if I am allowed a little French because we are also going to talk about the situation in France, the raison d’être for my mother to wear the burqa, is good old convenience.

Allow me to explain.

Most of the travel my mother does is from a private space (such as our home or a hotel room) — let us call this Point A — to another private space (such as the house of a relative) or a familiar public space (such as the school she used to teach at or one of her favourite Mughal gardens in the neighbourhood) — let us term all these places Point B. Obviously, she does not wear the burqa in a private space, and she does not wear a burqa in a familiar public space, but the transit from Point A to Point B, or the cul de sac journey from Point A to a bank, hospital or any other public place which is only an occasional visit, necessity or emergency, and back to Point A, is a burqa-zone for her.

The reason is simple. With her burqa on, she does not have to worry about what she is wearing underneath it or how she looks during this transit. She does not need to comb her hair. She does not even have to wash her face. She can just don her burqa and be ready for the world in ten seconds flat.

I cannot tell you the number of times my mother has complained that my father takes too long to get ready!

After an insurgency erupted in Kashmir in 1989 against Indian rule, and the Valley was militarised with tens of thousands of soldiers, occasions of emergency and necessity increased as my mother had to be at ready to leave home if a siege (called a ‘crackdown’ in the 1990s and ‘cordon-and-search operation’ or CASO nowadays) was imminent; or to visit someone who had been shot or beaten up at the hospital or their home; or literally run after soldiers if they had taken a relative, neighbour or student of hers into custody, for fear that they might be ‘disappeared’. The burqa became her activist sister, who would follow her everywhere, without fear, and allow her the luxury of forgetting about her personal appearance when she was going out into public spaces.

So when I first came face-to-face with the kind of narratives people in other parts of the world hold and propagate about the burqa, and the related Islamic dresses of niqab, hijab, jilbab, and so many more, I was surprised and amused in equal measure. In particular, I found narratives describing the veil as an unredeemable sign of oppression difficult to grasp, given my experience at home and homeland.

But I have come to appreciate that there are as many opinions about dress codes as there are clothes in the world, and one should window-shop as much as one can to find a perspective that looks best on us.

Since the shenanigans of right-wing Hindu groups in Karnataka last year, the judgment of the Karnataka High Court on the issue, and the subsequent split decision by the Supreme Court of India, these questions have no longer remained one of personal choice, but have become a legal matter in India (though the court may yet decide to make them a matter of personal choice once again).

Therefore, The Leaflet thought what better opportunity than International Women’s Day to present an international — and internationalist — perspective on the issue.

For women wearing a burqa might look like horses with bridles and blinkers to some, but an ignorant person is a universal ass.

About the issue

Türkiye is unique because the number of hijabi women in the country is almost equal to the number of women who don’t wear the hijab. The country has followed a strict version of laicism that has been developed since the abolition of caliphate in the 1920s, and headscarves have remained banned in public institutions and schools for a long time, though the ban has been relaxed in recent years. We spoke to Turkish academic Dr. Seyma Akin on the political and legal history of hijab in the country.

France, obviously, has been more in the news, because of the ban on the veil and the chequered history of Islam in the country. We spoke to French entrepreneur and activist Amina S., who was forced to move out of the country because of the discrimination she faced for wearing the hijab. She was reluctant to even share her identity for fear that France might put her on the fiche S, a list of those whom the State has designated as potential terrorist threats. The ‘S’ stands for Sûreté de l’État (‘State security’), and we would like to think that the S in Amina’s name also stands for the same, because Sûreté de l’État, c’est moi!

We have two pieces from India, one an excerpted selection by academics Sana Aziz and P.K. Yasser Arafath from the excellent anthology The Hijab: Islam, Women and Politics of Clothing, edited by Yasser and academic G. Arunima; and the other a heartfelt personal account by the feminist activist Hasina Khan.

We have a piece by Gaisu Yari, an Afghan human rights and women’s rights activist, writer, blogger and speaker, tracing the veiling, unveiling and then re-veiling of Afghan women in the last two decades, as Taliban went out of power and has now returned.

We will also have a piece by Malak Shalabi, an Arab–American attorney, on the legal and social attitude in the United States on hijab, especially in the context of the anxiety about Islam in a post-9/11 world.

Some common themes run through all the pieces: The desire to regulate women’s clothing more than men’s clothing. The confusion on what constitutes freedom of choice. The confusion about whether choices themselves are free or subscribe to what Buddhists might call dependent origination. The role of the society and the private sector in regulating women’s clothing in a country, over and above what the law states. The ownership of the public sphere and the place of minorities and outliers in it. The authority of educational institutions, and whether one is allowed to question what is an ‘essential practice of education’ in such institutions — and here I am thinking of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s exploration of how the basic function of educational institutions is to reproduce social order and ensure that inequalities persist across generations.

To end with an editorial note, there was a moment while we were editing one of these pieces that we came across the words ‘hijab ban’ and how that had negatively affected women, and it did not immediately register with us if it meant a ban on wearing the hijab or a ban on not wearing them. Call it a momentary lapse of editorial judgment, but that fleeting veil of ignorance could have been an epiphanic occasion.

The Leaflet