Child rights

`Your wife is naked’

A socially conscious friend who has been a lecturer in a Christian college for women in Hyderabad for over 20 years says it is heartening that 75 per cent of her students now are Muslims girls. “More and more of them are also wearing the burqa,” she added.

For people like her and me, specially because we don’t belong to the `community’, it is difficult to make a value judgment. It is a personal, religious and political choice and statement when a woman chooses to wear it. More youngsters wearing it is a social trend, alright. But whether it is to be interpreted as regressive, repressive or a renewed reiteration of religious values, belief and identity or simply a reaction to religious intolerance, one can’t really say.

“It is too sensitive. I know I have no business to ask them not to wear it but I do feel in the congested, stuffy classrooms, they would presumably feel hot and uncomfortable in those dresses, so I suggest they take it off. Some oblige, many others don’t. One of them told me she feels naked without it.”

You can dismiss it as cultural and social conditioning. But that phrase brought to me memories of my friend Irushaada Abdul Sattar, a dusky, petite, quietly rebellious and bright 30-year-old journalist from Maldives. That phrase of `being naked’ is thrown at women like her all the time in her Islamic country. Dubbed `naked’ for not dressing the way the religious fundamentalists insist women should dress, covered from head to toe.

Irushaada told me of when she had gone with her camera to cover a religious sermon by Jamiyyathul Salaf, a Wahabi sect religious NGO. She had taken care to dress `appropriately’, wearing long sleeves and a full dress, so that no portion of her body would be exposed. Yet she was denied entry.

“Because you are naked” is what she was told. Because she had not covered her head and face.

Things got worse, post-tsunami, Irushaada’s other Maldivian friends told me. What’s the connection, I wondered. Apparently, some mullahs had openly declared on national televlsion, TV Maldives, that the sea had shown its wrath because women did not dress `properly’.

“They sinned, had committed haraam, inviting the wrath of the Gods and that is why the sea `swallowed’ them.”

The propaganda was carried to the many islands that comprise Maldives. To show the supremacy of religious dogma, they pointed to the mosque on the island, often the only structures that withstood the onslaught of the tsunami, to say, God has saved the mosque and the quran. Another matter that the mosque was probably the only sturdy structure on the island to begin with.

The tsunami had left at least seven islands uninhabitable, 13 were badly damaged and needed massive rehabilitation work. Over 100 went missing or were dead. Most were elders, children and women, because they couldn’t swim. But the mullahs on TV and those visiting every village pointed out that the women in the village who were said to have had a “bad or loose character” were killed.

“What of the men who died? Surely they were men, who `sinned’ along with the women?” I asked, laughing out aloud, since what they told me seemed beyond basic rational reasoning.

“Do you know, what you just did, to laugh out aloud, is also considered haraam? Women are meant to maintain decorum, not laugh out aloud.”

So in the first year after the tsunami, more money was reportedly used to spread Islam and on propaganda asking women to `cover up’ rather than on relief and rehabilitation. Sabina says now more and more women wear the buruga (as it is called in Maldives) and hijab and necessarily cover their head on the street. Even if they happen to be wearing skintight jeans underneath.

And if you happen to board a taxi without your headscarf, the taxi driver would apparently be ready to tune you into the `scary’ voice of a man who will swear that women who don’t dress `properly’ would burn in hell. That it is a sin for men to shake hands with women or how a man can get influenced because of the way women dressed. So scary the warning would be that many women would prefer to fall in line.

Some, like my friend, who showed the cheek to ask the taxi driver to shut off the radio have faced threatening calls. Her husband got phone calls asking why he was letting his wife run around in Male `naked’ and that it was not good either for her or the rest of her family. Booklets on wearing the niqab and the women’s place being in the house appeared at the doorstep. There were threats to kill in the name of peaceful religion Islam.

“Personally I would love to see the day when all Maldivians discard the veil. The Iranians once did it, so why not us? It’s not a part of our culture, incompatible with the climate here, and an insult to our women.

No wonder most women here treat it as an accessory,” was the comment of one Maldivian. “I have a dream where all the Maldivian women will be liberated and have a mass buruga burning slumber pyjama party!!” says another.

Last week, Irushaada wrote to me, drawing attention to the visit of Dr Zakir Naik, tele-evangelist of Mumbai-based Peace TV. The so-called Islamic scholar was invited by the Maldivian Ministry for Islamic Affairs to address one of the biggest gatherings ever in the country. At that gathering, a young man Mohd Nazim declared he was a Maldivian, born to religious, Islamic parents but he did not consider himself a Muslim. He called himself an atheist. The young man was promptly arrested. Certain Islamic groups called for his execution.

Within two days of being “counselled” by the Islamic Ministry officials, Nazim declared on national TV that he is reverting to Islam. What this young man’s `atheist declaration’ had done was to bring up a loophole in the Maldivian constitution that says only Muslims can be Maldivians. The government solved the constitutional crisis by ensuring he did not remain a Maldivian atheist !

Zakir Naik’s wife, Farhath Naik, also addressed an impressive, government-sponsored gathering of women where she said the message given by girls who wear hijab is “We are prohibited” while the message girls who wear skirts give is, “You are invited”. Farhath Naik asked her audience to imagine a world where all women would wear the hijab, implying that then there would be no such crimes as harassment, rape, abuse and so on. Does she really believe harassment, abuse and rape do not occur in communities where women wear hijab? I don’t know.

I was a little sad and disappointed when Irushaada told me that she and her husband want to migrate to New Zealand and were awaiting the papers. Surely a loss to Maldives that someone so passionately concerned about the country and its people and so emotionally bonded to her extended family was talking about going so far, far away. But I don’t blame them. “We don’t want our children to grow up in the shadows of fear from those who threaten to make you imbibe their values of what is wrong and what is right.”

I quote the from the last mail Irushaada sent me on 3rd June :

“This weekend we have some Canadian preacher Bilal Philips who visited Maldives last year same time and called for child marriages to reduce the number of illicit affairs. It’s like we are being bombarded with religious preachers every weekend. I am sorry to tell you that we haven’t been able to get anything done to resist this, because of the backlash caused by the atheist statement. All my anti-extremist blogger friends have shut down their blogs, and most of them have gone underground, and it is just dangerous to say anything against any of these so called Islamic preachers!”

16 replies »

  1. This is a very thought-provoking and informative piece Uma. I can only empathize with your friend. Reading about Maldives makes me think more deeply and worry about the lack of tolerance for religious and cultural diversity in India.

    As an aside, I hope you are feeling better now:)


  2. Uma, U r being Incredibly brave, in Secular India, with freedom of speech. Millions of Hindu women use “Ghunghat”; never ever heard of a man being needed to use one. Honor killings happen, as a means of “Deterrent”. A majority of 1 billion “We The People”, are “Conditioned”, in different ways. My own personal attempt towards having as extended a living as possible, in the Land of opportunities, was cut short by personal problems. I am actually surprised, as to what has ensured, that u havent “fled” like your friend; would not be surprised, if you do.


  3. Dear Uma,

    Its a lovely blog … No doubt !
    Religion is actually a way of life , which the Superior Sex ( as they believe) have changed it to their whims and fancies … Its not only Islam , but the same is in our own religion …. I don’t have much knowledge on Christanity to comment on them …. but don’t we always hear … “Girls should not be heard and should only be seen ” , we shouldn’t laugh loudly …. etc etc …..
    In most cases we are the victims and not half the world will stand up for the cause… dunno how many of us stand up for our own case…. Domestic Violence is also against us … for no fault of ours…. Should all of us try and go where we get peace or together should we fight what truly is ours ” Our way of life “- Our religion


    • Hi Anita, Appreciate Immensely ur comments. Religion, a way of life, thats superb. “dunno how many of us stand up for our own case”… These are the key words….I think, Women in today’ world, especially in the villages and towns, are either silently encouraging the prototype, or , are going into an overdrive, with “feminism”. In the cities, not all manifestations of that, have been beneficial. Ur thoughts, if u have a look at this….


      • Glad u like it …..please do see The girl effect which talks about the things women are doing world around…. Women in villages need education and they need to believe that they are capable of much more than they know and in the cities also there are the prototypes and feminists. I think the prototypes would never accept the way they are and feminists – i think most of us are ……


  4. Much as I dislike the idea of imposing ones ideas on the cultural dress codes or other related aspects of various communities, I feel as much as you do that the veil is indeed a sign of repression. It is unfortunate that though the number of literate people among the muslims is going up the veil does not seem to lose its popularity. If this is the trend in a secular country like India it looks like there is never going to any hope in Islamic countries. It is too much to expect anyone to raise a banner of revolt in such countries. I only hope that there is some peaceful reformist movement to reduce the level of fundementalism in all religions.


  5. I was provoked to read once again Betty Muhammadi’s ‘Not without my daughter’. And, yes, I agree with one of the commentators that Uma was incredibly brave. But I think somewhere someone has to be brave (hope all would agree) and the rest should walk that extra mile if not in fighting the social evils, at least in extending support to those who have the courage to speak out.
    Congrats Uma for making the right noise and righteous too.


  6. This is like some evangelical churches of North America saying that the tsunami happened because of homosexuals! LOL. How conviniently they forget the scum of the earth…..paedophiles, child rapists, murderers and God was concerned about women who did not wear burkhas, gays and leabians??? Wah bhai wah!!


  7. Very thought provoking – where does one draw the line between an individual’s choice to dress as they please and coercion from their community? The line probably becomes very murky as young girls are indoctrinated into believing that hijab= safety or chastity.



  8. Hi Uma,

    What you’ve written is so true and revolting ! I have no doubt in my mind that the veil is neither a culture thing nor a choice made by women, it is solely a tool to repress women, be it in any community. Just leave little muslim girls to grow up with reason , and in the absence of indoctrination or the fear of god or hell or public-lashing, and see how many choose the veil !

    And by the way, which religion has treated its women well or as equal partners of men? Don’t forget, men wrote those rules. Many conveniently say that hindus treat their women like godesses and quietly overlook all that Manu laid down for women ( which is ardently followed till date). All those things about Lakshmi, Saraswati and Durga are forgotten when they show no compunction in burning their brides.

    A Pakistani visitor to Hyderabad recently told me that he saw more women in burqas on our roads that in any Pakistani city. Another well-known and regular visitor from Bombay observed that you find far more burqas in Hyderabad today than 50 years ago. So where are we headed?

    I shall not forget a free-wheeling discussion a few years ago in the old city on “wearing the hijab” with muslim men and women. The men said they did not force their women to wear the hijab, and one could check it out with the women sitting there! Lo and behold, most of them smiled coyly without a word from behind their veils and a couple of them vehemently said it was their choice and not forced upon them – the one who spoke fiercely in favour of the veil to add value also said that she was a recent convert and that she embraced it blissfuly ! She perhaps didn’t know the famous saying about neoconverts.



  9. Very real article and written with great sensitivity, Uma. It makes one count one’s blessings to be able to enjoy at least certain ‘privileges’ – the most precious of them being the freedom/space to speak one’s mind (of course, at one’s own risk).

    The article brings to mind the situation of a majority of women in our country (not necessarily Muslim, even Hindu women), who even today, in the so called 21st century India, live under all kinds of confines caused mainly by their self-designated guardians – i.e. their own ‘community’ or ‘family’.

    One wonders who has given these groups the entitlement to prescribe all these norms that curb a person’s basic rights to live and think freely. And why are women always the target of all domination and control? Would it not work better if the men would put some restrictions on themselves, for a change? And let the most beautiful creation of God i.e. woman free to live her life.


  10. Hey, Uma. Reading this piece, I am scared & at the same time energized. Thanks for highlighting the issues that concern so many of us, and I am quite certain that once those on this side of the Indian Ocean reads this, you would soon have an inkling of the kind of harassment we undergo in silence.. hehe.. Just to stir things up a bit, am gonna link to this on my Facebook..


  11. Of course the mosques were safe. Even in islands suffering from low populations and poverty, the mosques there were built like bunkers.

    And Bilal Phillips?. He’s far worse than a mere terrorist. He was funded by the Saudi Government to recruit terrorists during 1991.


  12. There are plenty of women in Maldives who walk freely without a hijab, they do not face any difficulty at all and the stories about the attitudes of taxi drivers etc. are merely an exaggerated tale of a person who simply wishes to leave the country and uses her not wearing a hijab as an excuse. I would like to add that as a person who wears a hijab and an abaya in the Maldives, I’ve faced many difficulties, especially when walking in the streets , I get comments like “wahhabi”, “handi” ,(i.e. ghost/monster in Maldivian) etc. Furthermore I also am the recipient of judgmental stares and smirks from the so called “democratic” and open minded Maldivian youth. People also tend to take me for an uneducated person who doesn’t speak a word of English just because I dress the way I do. This has been the case for a woman who tries to wear a hijab and fit in to society for many years despite the grand “change” that took place two years ago.


  13. You can talk about your feelings about your own religion. You cannot ridicule Islam, the only true religion. There are plenty of women in Maldives like your journalist friend who have no respect for rules. You must think showing off yourselves is respectable. Well its not. I wear the veil out of respect for myself AND my religion.
    You will see day when you will regret your words.


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