Headscarves and Me

The Other Press (Douglas College)

NEW WESTMINSTER, B.C. (CUP) — When I was living in Bangladesh, I would not, for most of the time, have thought of putting on a veil, not even when I was going through my devout reformist Muslim phase. There would be certain occasions when I would willingly wear the hijab, such as when praying, or when the azan (Islamic call to prayer) was being said, or when I was at a milad (Bengali Muslim religious gathering). But I never felt any compulsion to wear the veil all the time.

The only time my mother and her sisters ever wore burkhas was when they were riding the rickshaws to university. Once they got there they would take the burkhas off. My late grandfather was a maulana (Islamic scholar) with relatively liberal tendencies, and while he was not strict about purdah, he wanted to avoid the disapproving looks of the neighbours.

My mother is a devout Muslim, but she has always looked upon the veil as a form of religious ostentatiousness; her attitude was that you do not need to cover your head to lead a virtuous life. Her attitude is not uncommon among other Bangladeshi middle-upper class Muslim women, who are content simply to wear the dupatta (salwar kameez scarf) or aachol (loose end of sari) so that it covers the breast.

Even when Bangladeshi women do cover their heads, it is more often with the dupatta and aachol rather than with a burkha or a separate shawl. A favourite pastime of liberal Bangladeshi Muslim women is to sneer at Saudi Arabian rich girls who wear miniskirts under their burkhas. There was much merriment in my family over an aunt of ours who had purchased a couple of fashionable burkhas with lots of embroidery and sequins, which she at the end was unable to wear due to allergies to the nylon from which they were made. Which is not to say that there isn’t a vocal segment of the Muslim populace who pay too much attention to women’s supposed need for modest dress. They look longingly to the example in garment legislation set by Saudia Arabia and Iran (although which of the two they admire varies). Some of these people are Muslim women, often college-educated and working outside the home, who believe that the hijab protects the female body from the tyranny of the male gaze. They point to the scarcely utopian state of the West, with its body-image disorders and hypersexualization of teenage girls.

I strongly disagree with this “? any study of women’s magazines and popular fiction and film in Bangladesh (I cannot speak for the rest of the Muslim world) will show women concerned that they are too dark-skinned, among other possible flaws. Skin color is a major factor in the deshi marriage market. And it is not necessarily the case that the more Islamicist the girl’s family, the less concerned with beauty they are (although the reverse is not invariably true, either). But while I wouldn’t want to wear a burkha myself, except as maybe a postmodern-situational-identifiable gesture of irony during a performance of highly erotically charged feminist songs, I do strongly oppose the steps that the governments of Western Europe are taking to ban the hijab.

Yes, parents are forcing their daughters to wear clothes they do not want to wear. The question people should be asking themselves is, “Is this a domestic dispute that the state has grounds to intervene in?” After all, since the 1960s “? actually, probably since earlier than that “? teenagers and young adults all over the world have disagreed with their parents and guardians over what clothes they want to wear, and until now the state has rarely stepped in on the side of youth. I realize that there have been serious cases of family abuse over the wearing of the hijab, but these should be dealt with by the social services and the police, not by banning the hijab altogether.

And yet… I would not want to live in a country of compulsory veiling. The practice sexualizes the female body every bit as much as lingerie ads on billboards. The practice promotes the notion that women have only themselves to blame if they are harassed, abused, or raped. Plus, I rather like walking around in shorts during hot spells.

I will fight for women’s freedom to wear the veil, but how many of them will fight for my freedom to not wear the veil?

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