Art – Rubya Mehdi
I was forever intrigued by the two-piece black silk burqa, and was unashamedly amused at the one-piece white shuttlecock one. In my childhood, possessing a complete set of black burqa was an invaluable asset, and being in possession of both was actual wealth.
Many of our drama games involved the use of both white and black burqas. In most enactments, black burqa went to the heroin, stylish, young, (often) rich; and, the white to the vamp, awkward, old, (always) poor. The absence of burqas was compensated with ‘borrowed’ white bedsheets and black silk dopattas.
Mothers, aunts and big sisters who owned black burqas, flaunted them like healed shoes and gold jewelery, as a sign and a proof of grownupness and ensuing authority. White burqas had become outdated, and only grandmothers, grand aunts and beggar women were found wearing them.
Growing up, black burqa was often a part of my dreams and daydreams because it allowed me the magic of disappearance and anonymous observation. As a young adult, it was my ticket to go to some of the forbidden places such as the ‘Red Light Area’, and it does sound a bit ironic, the shrines of sufi saints.
But however intrigued i was with the disappearance magic of it, i had never wanted to actually wear it. My family did not require for me to use it unless i was going to certain busy places in the city or to a village or a small town.
Whenever behind the veil, i felt physically contained and imprisoned because of the restrictions it placed on both vision and movement. Continuous use of hijab for a few minutes, produced in me a state of dull suffocation, and a condition of heart palpitation.
Later, in Punjab University, i came to know a couple of women whose health conditions or their participation in life did not seem to be restricted or hindered by the use of burqa in class and on the campus. One of them is a dear friend working as the principle of a girls college near Islamabad.
As a journalist in Lahore in the Seventies, i was able to see aspects of my society through burqa that were not visible to me without it. The laughing face of an ill and aging-at-30 prostitute who was still expected to fend for her numerous children and her equally aging young pimp. Both addicted to heroin and alcohol, both gripped by various lingering health issues. Her children living in the same room of her work. No light in that room. Only window opening in another room. On that street, many rooms of similar description, many women, children and men imprisoned within those walls.
At the shrines of sufis, women in burqas pray, sob, cry, sleep; Offer money, flowers, cloths, garlands. Fulfilling another unacknowledged role where women try to protect their families and related wordly interests by acquiring spiritual help. Many women who do not observe purdah also wear burqas to get to a shrine daily or weekly to seek remedies for the afflictions of the heart such as love, marriage and divorce.
The burqa, time and again, also brought me into contact with affluent women in strict purdah who were not allowed to or given the chance to meet anyone, even a woman, outside of their immediate family. I can recall many experiences where i found myself with women who had hardly ever set foot outside their compounds, and had definitely not met a working-with-men woman who, among other things, clearly professed to not favoring purdah. In such interactions, invariably, i was seen as a novelty illiciting deep interest, and was shown ample hospitality and respect yet in all such interactions i knew to never fully reveal myself as i was the very negation of the values of their life long commitments. I felt that if i was to reveal myself as a person, they would either lynch me to justify their own choices and limitations or they would abandon me in fright to protect themselves from the perceived evil they would see embodied in me. I have experienced similar overt, covert and inherent threats from religious men of varying descriptions; right wing militants, local and national maulvis of different Muslim sects, zealots, followers. But with women, i experience a mellow fear that turns into sadness as i depart, withholding and hiding. That is where i feel my actual and real experience of wearing a burqa takes place when i hide my person behind an invisible burqa in self defence.
In the Eighties, people – or rather – men on the streets of Lahore, Rawalpindi and Quetta began to ask/tell me to wear hijab or burqa. Some would stop me, and ask with indignation or anger as to why i was not observing purdah. I would respond by saying that i don’t want to be in purdah and that i think no woman should be. This would invoke different levels of anger, pity, loathing, abusive words, or prayers for the acceptance of my seemingly sinful yet ignorant soul.
On occasion, i was stopped by a man or a group of men and ‘told’ to go back home. I did go back so that i can find another way out of it.
But the most stunning for me was an incident in a small market outside Peshawar where a young boy, may be eight, stopped me by blocking my way, and told me to wear ‘hijab’. The boy had his hand on a gun protruding from his white-shalwared hip; behind him but further down the verandah, a group of armed men stood staring at me. A retreat was definitely in order.
I nearly forgot about both the burqas when i moved to Canada in the mid Eighties till after 2001 when Islam appeared as the major scarecrow on the world wall, and with that the status of Muslim women began to receive some special focus from the media as one of the propoganda props for the government of the United States. Many jokes surfaced on the Net, this is one, with the caption ‘What’s the poiont?’:
In 2004, i saw a bearded male lead a burqa-clad and hijab-thrown woman at 72nd and 124th in Surrey British Columbia. For some reason, i got transfixed on the couple, and stood watching them till they walked out of my sight. First i tried to be the man to figure out why he would want his wife to be in hijab in a country where most women were showing their faces. What does he think is unique about the face and body of his wife that they must be so hidden. Then i tried to be the woman to see why i would accept an existence where when walking i can barely see the two-and-a-half-feet long road that culminated at the heels of my husband. My imagination was injured by imagining both roles.
But my concept of burqa and burqa-wearing women was ‘revolutionized’ in 2007 by the batton-wielding students of Islamabad’s Lal Masjid. Stunning images of hundreds of black-burqa-wearing women praying, patrolling the streets of Islamabad, fighting with batons. Every action being carried out with the precision of Hitlerian armies as represented by Hollywood. I was ‘advised’ and threatened for not observing purdah by the non-burqa-wearing male students of Lal Masjid. Some of it is here in The violent face of religious intolerance . Though it was impossible for me to agree with their religious fascism, violent strategies and their bullying tactics, i was most appreciative of the energy and skill displayed by the women. Very few things have happened to me that i had not imagined. This is one of those. I had never in my wildest dreams imagined an army of women wearing burqas and still being so active and agile. Rubya Mehdi in the painting below, i think, is expressing that same fascination with, and appreciation of, this amazing transformation of burqa.
In 2009, burqa/hijab/purdah hit the Western news stands with intensity because of the controversy generated by the legislated ‘ab-use’ of it by the French government. That provided interesting observations on the phenomena on the Net.
Most recently, and as late as this last winter, i was confronted by a black member of the Muslim brotherhood at Scott Road Station in line for a bus to Newton Exchange. In love with his own voice, the Preacher went on and on about the absolute necessity for women to observe purdah and the unforgiveability of not observing purdah. As an illustration of his preferences, and of an examplery state of a Muslim woman, he pointed out to me a burqa-wearing woman who was also in the same line. The ‘discussion’ became an argument; the woman in burqa did not participate. A few minutes of loud and heated exchange brought out a Translink staff woman who told the Preacher to keep it to himself.
Last month, i spotted a burqa-wearing woman at Broadway skytrain station who later chose to sit beside me while coming to Surrey. She caught my eye because though in burqa, she was standing straight without covering her face. From the fair color of her skin, i assumed she was Iranian or Lebanese. On the skytrain, she made patronizing attempts to converse with me that made me feel suspicious of her intentions. It seemed, she was hoping to convert a chadar-wearing brown woman to stricter disciplines. And then, it came out that she was an Anglo Saxon convert to Islam. I offered her my poetry chapbook that had just come out. She skimmed through it, stopping at ‘My Shariah-Compliant Bra’ and ‘My Drone-Dead Lover’, and then she shut it close producing a sharp noise; ‘I don’t read poetry’ she thurst it back at me. This is one of the rare instances when i was happy to be rejected as a poet. I consider it a compliment to be rejected by an Anglo-Saxon-woman-convert-to-Islam who was using the burqa to gain high moral ground so that she can preach purdah to wayward and ignorant brown Muslim women.
Burqa and purdah hides the body so that the eye can develop a taste for voyeurism – both ways. It tells little girls and boys that women’s body is shamefully erotic and must be hidden in the interest of greater good, it tells them that women must follow their men. To adults, purdah helps to provide a kind of religious eroticism that must exist in all gender-segregated cultures and socities.
In Pakistan, other than the zealots and their families, purdah exists or is an issue of Muslim middle class gentry. For a vast majority of women, may be over 80%, purdah or burqa is not an issue. Women of lower and poor population groups do not wear burqa and they don’t observe purdah. If they do, it is to mock it. I have seen women sitting by the road with their children and selling some small homegrown vegetable or handicraft while the burqa hangs at the back of the head, irrelevant and forgotten. Or a young mother in black burqa, hijab thrown but breasts thrust out, baby on the hip and begging. Like many other things, purdah is a luxury poor women can not afford.
In middle class families, women are kept in varying degrees of subjugation and confinement. In the world of strict purdah, dissent is impossible and inconcievable; the authority of the providing male is absolute and unchallengeable. No room for negotiation. But then, there are households where women observe purdah but they do have considerable power within the household, and often act as consultants to providing males. Decision-making may be shared where a woman works or when she is the main provider.
To me, burqa or purdah in any form is the height of obscenity; the highest level of vulgarity. No woman should have to bear the indignity of being so encaged and surrounded. To visit places, yes. To create fantasies, yes. To wear in style, yes. To snare the French law, yes. But not to hide, submit or obey.
Most recently, i was amazed to see Rubya Mehdi’s set of burqa paintings on her Facebook page. What a beautiful meditation on the subject of purdah.