To Burqa Or Not To Burqa?

This last week has been exciting. Finally, we had a global political conundrum and a diabolic threat to democracy, stemming from the results of the personality tests we flaunted on our Facebook walls as teenagers. And this was while innocently poking and throwing virtual sheep at one another. Finally, we were discussing 21st-century problems like data analytics, voting pattern and trends, and electoral engineering. But lo and behold, social media timelines were yet again rife with arguments over religion, clothing, and symbolism. Yet again, the burqa was in fashion because of an Op-Ed in a national daily.

One can legitimately say that the arguments against the burqa are nothing but reiterating truisms. And thanks to the last four years, reiterating truisms on most matters, especially stemming from principles which were addressed in the Indian Constitution decades ago (Secular, Democratic, Republic, Justice, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity) makes one the most revolutionary, progressive and profound being.

The arguments over the burqa, in India and abroad, have been debated for posterity. What the garment means, what it symbolises, whether it is cultural norms or religious tenets that dictate its existence, and why women should (or should not) wear it. This piece is not arguing the historical, religious or cultural significance of the burqa. Rather it is (sadly) stating something obvious.

The fact remains that the burqa when forced on a woman, makes her disappear as a physical entity, shrouded within the folds of cloth, covering not just her body, but her very identity and physical existence. Coercing the burqa (or any piece of clothing for that matter) impinges on personal liberty and is a demonstration of the most repressive elements of a state or a society.

On the contrary, (and not getting into the arguments for wearing the burqa) when the burqa is forbidden on a woman, it represents a patronising attitude that attempts to define what a woman should or should not wear, while reducing her body to the symbolism of what she wears to cover (or bare) it. Moreover, it places value judgements on a religious practice, while restricting the freedom to follow it, as deemed fit by an individual.

Neither position is correct, and neither should be espoused by a progressive and liberal state or a society. The fact is that ‘reform’ in any community needs to ideally move beyond symbols and clothing along with the acts of banning or allowing it. It should ideally be only about the choice and autonomy of individuals.

Often it is argued that this choice and autonomy can be a repercussion of systemic indoctrination or unquestioned obedience towards a culture, religion, mindset, or attitude. The point then is to not question a practice or a culture but to build a society that allows the members of any community, to question and assess its ways for themselves. Instead of pressing value judgements, a society should be one which allows citizens to be thinking individuals, free to define and choose their own poison or ambrosia.

The logic is not that hard. Take the example of “informed medical consent”, where any patient undergoing treatment for even the most aggressive of diseases, is informed about the treatment plan, along with the options available, after which the final decision is left to the patient based on her best judgement. The idea here is that the patient has been strongly advised, but the final decision of the treatment plan, with the risks and consequences in the open, is not imposed by the doctor. The choice, autonomy, and dignity of an individual are at the highest value.

An ideal situation then is not one where the state forbids or graciously allows for a way of life, or a type of clothing. An ideal situation is one, where the state or a society, instead of deciding for women, or assuming them to be victims of culture and religion, protects their right to choose what they want.

If free women want to wear the burqa, the burqini or the bikini, follow karva chauth, or convert to atheism – they should be able to do so, while also retaining the right and the unimpeded choice to not do so. The crux of the matter is that the burqa as a personal or as a political statement is not oppressive. The choice to not freely wear the burqa as a personal or as a political statement is oppressive. 

A truly progressive society cannot and should not attempt to change the contours of a religion or a community. Instead, the state should enable every framework or device for the flow of information, exposure, and education towards the different choices available for its citizens. It should then enfranchise and enable them to freely choose, reject, reshape, or reimagine the contours without dire consequences from within or outside the community.

Paternalistic notions of saving a section of poor oppressed Indian citizens from their regressive way of life, is akin to the colonialist narratives of the saviour white man, saving poor oppressed Indian citizens from their regressive way of life. Instead, the Indian state and society should constantly reassure every citizen that any and every way of life they choose, which does not harm or impinge on the rights of another citizen, is indeed protected.

Yes, it’s not rocket science but yet another reiterated, regurgitated truism, blatantly lifted out of the founding principles of the Indian Republic.

Sarah Farooqui is an independent writer. She tweets at @sarahfarooqui20

Regurgitating Truisms. Because Yet Again, The Burqa Is The New Black