Dear Ram Guha, Muslim Women Don’t Need Your ‘Liberal’ Validation

A young Muslim woman responds to historian Ramachandra Guha’s recent articles on minorities in The Indian Express.

5 min read
A Muslim woman in Old Delhi offers prayers. Image used for representational purposes.

Hello Sir,

As a young Muslim girl studying history, I would enjoy reading your books. However, reading your recent articles in “The Minority Space” series in The Indian Express made me cringe. Suddenly, your liberalism has made me the ‘other’, and has become too much for me to accept.

I disagree with you, but I don’t disregard you or your choices. But you Sir, you already have an opinion of me because of the hijab I wear even before I open my mouth. I don’t know how fair it is to me and all those other women who consciously and willingly wear the hijab/niqab.

I write this also because of a larger disenchantment many other practising Muslim women, including myself, feel with this ‘liberal’ onslaught by the so-called ‘crusaders of freedom’.

The question that arises in my mind is: What is the yardstick of acceptance? Can liberals ever accept a practising Muslim in the public sphere for what they are, or only accept a Muslim when they speak the same liberal rhetoric of disdain towards fellow Muslims? I ask this because your article appears to be prejudice cloaked in the veil of goodwill towards Muslims.

Dear Ram Guha, Muslim Women Don’t Need Your ‘Liberal’ Validation
(Photo: iStock)

After your prejudiced had been called out, your ‘acceptance’ of your ‘ill-chosen’ comparison looks like a favour to my community, when you write, “...the burqa is a mark of suppression, of women from men, and also of separation, of Muslims from non-Muslims. If you hide your face from me, how can we be partners in a shared political project?”

Stop Policing Muslim Women!

How can an item of clothing be a mark of suppression or liberation in vacuum? This is similar to the argument I hear from my conservative friends about how it is the bikini-clad women who are truly oppressed.

This is because they have to give in to the standards of unrealistic body images set by the media and society at large. I think it is time we move past the false binary of women wearing burqas/hijabs as oppressed and women wearing bikinis as liberated.

By creating this distinction, we like Orientalist scholars of the past, fall into the trap of creating the binary of Good Muslim versus Bad Muslim. The former, with their religious identity and the liberal disdain, while the latter with their unacceptable levels of Muslim-ness.

What is the point of policing and shaming women’s choices? It is hard not to miss the holier-than-thou attitude in your entire article without making any effort to understand the reasoning and value system through which one might be taking a decision to don the hijab/niqab. The absolute non-engagement with the various facets of Muslim-ness, and the denial to acknowledge the myriad ways of living within the Muslim community, is in itself a very restrictive understanding of how Muslims in India live and want to live.

Time to Acknowledge Muslim Women’s Agency

Is it too difficult to engage with the possibility that wearing a hijab/niqab may not have anything to do with women being separated from men, but rather to create an enabling environment for women to come out in the public sphere, work alongside with men without being subjected to the male gaze?

Or that one is trying to reclaim their body by claiming that they are more than their physical self and won’t allow their body to be reduced solely to objects of desire as one can overwhelmingly see in advertisements.

To cover or not to cover should be a woman’s choice, and men like you are making it difficult to express this choice by reducing women who willingly express this choice, as bodies with no agency.

What if a woman claims that she chooses to wear the hijab/niqab because she believes in a certain value system, and has accepted it using her rational mind?

Representational image of a woman wearing a hijab. 
Representational image of a woman wearing a hijab. 
(Photo: iStock)

Move Beyond the Burqa

Is this reasoning not good enough to not be at the receiving end of the disdain of self-righteous liberals? The engagement of the liberals with the question of Muslims in the public-political sphere, Muslim social reform and its relationship with Muslim politics and Muslim representation can never truly begin unless there is acceptance of such choices without the usual contempt of categorising them as beings devoid of the ‘proper’ way of thinking.

I believe if answers at all must be sought on Muslim women’s clothing, it should be from those who embrace it, rather than those who have had little engagement with women who wear the hijab / niqab.

As a woman who wears the hijab, I am tired of giving explanations to the right and the left of every shade of political discourse because they already have a loaded opinion, which I dare say is extremely prejudiced.

A veiled Muslim woman shows her ink-marked finger after voting outside a polling station in Doda district, north of Jammu.
A veiled Muslim woman shows her ink-marked finger after voting outside a polling station in Doda district, north of Jammu.
(Photo: Reuters)
Like you said, let’s definitely move beyond the burqa. I agree that there is much more scope for discussion on the issues of Muslim marginalisation, identity and politics rather than hanging on to clothing.

However, let us make a conscious effort to not let this “shared political project” become a tool to demean and downplay the choices of a section of Muslim women. What must stop is cultural hegemony and neo-colonial shaming and blaming.

(The author is a graduate in history from Indraprastha College for Women, Delhi University, and is currently pursuing her post-graduation in social work from Tata Institute of Social Sciences. She is interested in politics, slam poetry and human rights advocacy. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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