A lurking prejudice unveiled
Literary references abound describing the stifled plight of 19th-century upper-caste women who lived encaged in sprawling havelis.
“AND underneath her wimple/She has curlers in her hair/ I even heard her singing in the abbey.” The Maria song from Sound of Music — way before historian Ramachandra Guha unveiled his lurking contempt for the Muslim burqa — described one of several ways a woman could deal with impositions inflicted by religion and tradition, both conjured by men.
The title of the pseudo-iconoclastic movie Lipstick Under My Burqa was inspired by, if not bodily lifted from, the Maria song.
Then there are the Pakistani women — not all Pakistani women, but certainly those who go to watch cricket matches in stadiums. Khushwant Singh wrote of a Vajpayee-era India-Pakistan match at Lahore’s Gaddafi Stadium that to everyone’s relief followed a crescendo of war drums. There were beautiful women in their colourful attire, and they had virtually taken over the stadium. The only woman in a burqa had come from across the border, cricketer Irfan Pathan’s mother. But that may not be the accurate picture of a woman’s lot in Pakistan. There is the pervasive tragedy too of oppressed and abused wives, daughters, sisters and other assorted women.
Qandeel Baloch was allegedly strangled to death by her brother for questioning sexual hypocrisies that the dominant orthodoxy in Pakistan thrives on. She was not the first to experience fatal violence. Elsewhere and in a different era, Joan of Arc riled the clergy by dressing like a man.
Literary references abound, from Bengal primarily, but also from elsewhere in India, describing the stifled plight of 19th-century bhadralok or upper-caste women who lived encaged in sprawling havelis. Many such stories have been interpreted cinematically. Never allowed to be seen by the outside world, they seldom needed the veil. Satyajit Ray’s Charulata observed the busy street below her window through binoculars. If the women dared to defy the silent fiat, they would be dealt with appropriately. The chhoti bahu — the younger daughter-in-law — in Guru Dutt’s Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam was murdered by her husband’s elder brother when she innocently drove out in a closed horse-carriage with an outsider.
And where shall we suppose they were heading? They were travelling in search of an elusive talisman that would mellow her husband’s weakness for courtesans.
Widows could only come out in the open with their heads shaved, as many still do. A movie about their plight had to be filmed in Sri Lanka instead of the ghats on the River Ganga, where the women belong, following protests by right-wing moralists.
India’s first president Babu Rajendra Prasad gives details in his autobiography about how he was never allowed by tradition to see the face of his wife in Bihar for years, sleeping with her only in a pitch-dark room. A maidservant from the haveli would escort Babuji to his bedroom guided by a lantern. She would return from the door without entering the windowless boudoir. Prasad had to find his way to the wife in the dark, only to return to his own bed in the men’s quarter before daybreak.
If Ramchandra Guha had his way there would be no movie called Mere Mehboob. It begins and ends with the hero falling in love with a woman in a burqa and reciting poetry throughout, pleading for a glimpse of her face he once sighted accidentally. Urdu and Persian poetry would be bereft of a key trigger for romance and mystery. True, Majaaz wanted his sweetheart to make a flag of revolution out of the head cover she wore, but he didn’t say he didn’t like the cover.
And what about the public that cheered the 1950s movie song and still does — the heroine in Mother India refusing to lift her veil to her husband. “Ghoonghat nahi kholoongi saiyan torey aagey.” Is that something to worry about when the plate is full of issues threatening life and limb?
Guha comes closest in his anti-burqa tirade to the qawwali-singing hero in Amar Akbar Anthony who threatens to rip the ‘purdah’ off the woman he is wooing, much to her Muslim father’s chagrin. However, even actor Rishi Kapoor, desperate though he sounded, never thought of comparing the burqa to the trishul.
If Guha were to travel into India’s rural heartland or also to smaller semi-urban enclaves, he would find that the Hindu renaissance he believes has rescued women from male barbarism has only scratched the surface. It has largely left the entrenched Hindu order untouched everywhere.
The Congress party’s first president W.C. Bonerjee ranted against the British government — “Hindu dharma is in danger” — for increasing the age of consent for conjugal rights with a 10-year-old girl by a mere two years. The Brahminical outrage echoed through the Bombay Presidency where Bal Gangadhar Tilak fought even more violently to restore the lower age for conjugal relations with a child bride.
It may be useful to remember that the British government had raised the age of consent to 12 years from 10 after a young bride died of wounds suffered on the nuptial night. However, even till this day the government of India can do no more than tell the courts that if the institution of child marriage were abolished there would be chaos in the country. The government is, instead, looking for ways around the tricky challenge.
So, yes, the institution of burqa is an imposition of South Asian women, albeit on a smaller number than Guha would grant, but it is hardly anything to compare with trishuls that fanatics carry to harm their quarries with. The fact of the matter is that the clerical hold is gaining ground among Muslims and Hindus alike in India. And ‘liberals’ like Ramchandra Guha, not unlike Sonia Gandhi, whose recent less-than-sympathetic utterances about Muslims has triggered the controversy, seem ill equipped to bring about the change they seek.