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!”