Oppression of the veil

For me, the troubling question about the veil—Islamic, Hindu or whatever kind—is the issue of choice

Heena Sidhu. Photo: Hindustan Times
Heena Sidhu. Photo: Hindustan Times

I am not sure if shooter Heena Sidhu is aware of the tiny revolution underway in Haryana where a few brave women have decided to cast off their ghoonghats, that ubiquitous veil intended to guard the modesty of married women. Sidhu won my support when she declared last week that she would not compete in Iran because “making it mandatory for even a sportsperson to wear hijab is not in the spirit of a sport”. How can you disagree with an adult woman exercising her choice of conscience?

It’s the same choice of conscience that a few women from the village of Mirzapur in Haryana, 85km away from Delhi, have exercised with their declaration that they will not allow the veil to “determine their character”, reports Himanshi Dhawan in The Times of India. Despite taunts from the villagers and threats to break off social ties, the women say they will not cover their faces any longer.

In Haryana, the ghoonghat shrouds everything. On assignment to cover the panchayat elections earlier this year, where 33% of seats are reserved for women, my colleague Priyanka Parashar faced quite a challenge in getting female candidates to pose with their faces visible. At one village, we ran into a group of women going from house to house to canvas for votes, heads bent in submission, veils pulled well over their faces; the candidate for sarpanch, a graduate, among them.

What applies to the ghoonghat should apply to the hijab as well. But the feminist response to the hijab has been confusing. Everyone agrees that insisting that a woman dresses ‘modestly’—especially when that insistence comes from patriarchy—is oppressive. And then come the qualifiers. What if a woman chooses the veil? What if her insistence on a headscarf or hijab is, in fact, a political statement that asserts her right to stand by the symbols of her religion? What do we make of a nation like France which insists that the sight of veiled women is inimical to its concept of secularism? And finally, the fourth question: why is the burkini a symbol of oppression but a bikini the symbol of emancipation?

There are no easy answers and my own response has often been confused and contradictory. But if we are to applaud the women of Haryana for refusing to cover their faces, how do we applaud the right of women to adopt the hijab?

It would be easy to just condemn the hijab as a garment of oppression. But, legislation introduced by France and Belgium to ban it carries with it not the fervor of women’s rights but the whiff of xenophobia. This summer’s horrific sight of French police in bulletproof vests asking a woman on a beach to take off her burkini was disturbing on so many counts, not the least of which was the implication of a forced disrobing of a woman by armed men.

For me, the troubling question about the veil—Islamic, Hindu or whatever kind—is the issue of choice. What does choice mean when we live in a patriarchy? Some like Heena Sidhu or the veil-defying women of Haryana might indeed have a choice, but let’s recognize that they are a privileged minority. For most women living under social pressure, living under the rules written by men, hijab or ghoonghat is not a matter of choice at all.

Sidhu has a choice to not attend an event whose dress code is offensive to her. But what was the choice placed before the women of Iran’s football team, disqualified in 2011 for wearing headscarves in violation of Fifa’s dress code; the organization that was headed by a man who once asked female athletes to wear tighter shorts for a more “feminine aesthetic”? And did the world speak up for them?

Let’s not forget, Heena Sidhu comes from a country where pretty much everyone from khap panchayats to the heads of universities frequently (and loudly) weigh in on what women should and should not wear. Iran’s imposition of a dress code must have been galling to her and her boycott has the power to influence other athletes to take a stand. But perhaps, it might be time also for her, and us, to make a point closer home and express solidarity with all those aspiring athletes emerging from the state of Haryana where the ghoonghat still rules.

Perhaps it’s time to recognize that the oppression of the veil cuts across borders, geography and religion. Perhaps it’s time to tell men that they no longer get to tell us how to dress.

Namita Bhandare is gender editor of Mint.

Her Twitter handle is @namitabhandare

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