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Beyond the Burqa: The Muslim Woman You Can’t See

‘Rebel’, ‘westernised’, ‘open-minded’, ‘not a typical Muslim’, were some of the tags that Fatema was labelled with.

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A veiled Muslim woman shows her ink-marked finger after voting outside a polling station in Doda district, north of Jammu.
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Everyone knows the Muslim man, he may or may not be in a skull cap and beard but he is visible, and familiar. The Muslim woman, on the other hand, seems to be a distant object, hidden behind this strange black curtain meant to hide all That Must Not Be Seen. The Muslim woman that is seen is not Muslim, not according to her own community nor to the ‘other’. She really belongs nowhere; most of the times not knowing herself with whom must she assimilate. And why.

The Muslim Woman You Can’t See

The significance of my identity as a woman and a Muslim woman dawned upon me, or rather was thrust upon me, at puberty, on the occasion of my Misaaq, a baptism-like ritual of the Dawoodi Bohra community (to which I belong). It involves taking a vow of allegiance to your faith and a promise to follow all community strictures. From then on, age 14 roughly, boys are ritualistically meant to wear the traditional cap and beard, and girls the rida. The rida is the Bohri equivalent of the burqa; without veil, decorative and colourful.

Smoke rises from burning incense sticks as a woman prays inside the shrine of Muslim Sufi Saint Nizamuddin Auliya in New Delhi.
Smoke rises from burning incense sticks as a woman prays inside the shrine of Muslim Sufi Saint Nizamuddin Auliya in New Delhi.
(Photo: Reuters)
Rejecting the rida/burqa is so symbolic and powerful a gesture that it sort of leaves the entire male (and female) world unsure of how to react to this act by someone who was a non-entity until now. The outside world looks at her as a brave symbol of all they already knew was wrong with her community, slightly patronising. The inside world offers anger, pity, scorn and sometimes, a condescending silence one would give a wayward child.

This leaves her torn between having to stand up for her community and against it, while all she really wants to do is emerge from behind the burqa and tell people she exists. And that she can very well save herself.

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The Binaries of the Burqa

When I rejected the rida I was not only rejecting a directive but an entire worldview that sees woman as dispensable. This brought problems I had not bargained for. In trying to remove the tag of an object I had to now bear the tag of progressive, brave and on the ‘right’ side (pun unintended). In rejecting one binary I found myself caught in another.

Because you see, the young Muslim, boy or girl, is a bit like the colonised Indian or African, bred to be ashamed of his or her own community while not empowered enough by it to stand up for its own sake.

I was no different. It wasn’t an act of abandonment, but an effort to free myself from the unhealthy popular perception of a Muslim so that I could carve an independent identity for myself. I did that by stepping out and by assimilating in the larger ‘whole’ while clinging to the same binaries.

A Muslim girl takes picture with a mobile phone before having her Iftar (breaking of fast) meal during the holy month of Ramadan inside the shrine of Muslim Sufi Saint Nizamuddin Auliya in New Delhi.
A Muslim girl takes picture with a mobile phone before having her Iftar (breaking of fast) meal during the holy month of Ramadan inside the shrine of Muslim Sufi Saint Nizamuddin Auliya in New Delhi.
(Photo: Reuters)

From outside, I saw the binaries much better. A rebellious Muslim, a non-‘Muslim’ Muslim and a progressive Muslim woman is seen as something of a celebration, one more who has joined ‘our’ side, wherever that is. She is also seen as someone who has gone over to ‘their’ side, wherever that is. No longer was I really a ‘part’ of anything, this side or that, even though I was perceived to be and I wasn’t sure if I had left or I had been left.

My real need for liberation came from having to choose sides in order to be seen. Nowhere around me were men called to do that if they refused the skull cap or beard.

People around me struggled to put me in categories to understand me better. ‘Rebel’, ‘tomboy’, ‘westernised’, ‘open-minded’, ‘amoral’, ‘not a typical Muslim’, some of the labels whispered, from inside and outside. At the same time, I met burqa-wearing, very progressive and liberal Muslim women (some of them became my role models) automatically tagged as ‘traditional’ or ‘conservative’. The outside world I was hankering after, I was in it and I felt as alienated as I did in my community, measuring the distance between ‘not Muslim enough’ and ‘a Muslim, after all’.

The writer, Fatema, at work during her course at FTII.
The writer, Fatema, at work during her course at FTII.
(Photo Courtesy: Facebook)

Over time, I began to understand how rejecting the burqa could be as much a compulsion as choosing it could be a choice. Then I knew why the Muslim woman, even though very visible, is not seen. She stays with us but lives in the no-man’s lands between alienation and assimilation because our society cannot find the right tag for her.

(Fatema is a decade-long moonlighter as fiction/non-fiction writer, reviewer and currently enrolled in an adventure sports course called film editing at FTII. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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