Book Excerpt: Chapter “I Can Save Myself: Dissent and Feminism in a New Millenium”
The challenging male diktats on morality is extended to conversations around religion. In a lengthy conversation, Essar remarked how men simply assume they are the thekedars of what is right or wrong and she was convinced that one’s understanding of Islam cannot come only from bearded men in pulpits.
She added, ‘I had begun disliking religion but then realized it was because of the way it was being interpreted by some men. My father gifted me the book Rights of Women in Islam by Ayatollah Murtaza Muttaharri that changed my understanding of religion completely.
She realized there was a difference between what Islam, as a religion, said about women and the cultural context within which Islam was practised. ‘So, while Islam says women have property rights, Kashmiri society considers a woman laalchi (greedy) if she protests when her property is usurped.
‘Similarly, Islam grants a woman the right to choose a man—even ask for him—for a marriage contract. But our cultural milieu is such that, far from being encouraged to exercise this right, a woman is made to go along with her parents’ wishes, to please them and protect the family’s izzat when it comes to exercising a choice over whom one is to marry!’
One of the most animated and emotive conversations taking place, not just in Kashmir but throughout the world, revolves around Islam’s injunctions to dress modestly manifested for women through the hijab (head scarf) and the various attires used to cover the body (abaya/burqa and so on). This spurs the question: Is wearing the hijab/abaya then a demonstration of religious obligation? Or does it flow from societal imposition? Or then, is it an assertion of an identity—an act of free will?
The varied and nuanced responses by women in Kashmir on why they choose or then did not choose the hijab /abaya was a fascinating exploration of what female freedom really means.
I learnt that in the nineties there were militant organizations like the Allah Tigers and radical fora like Asiya Andrabi’s Dukhtaran-e-Millat that used coercive tactics to force women to cover up and wear burqa but these groups did not gain much traction in society. They stopped their coercive tactics.
But as young Asma, a teacher in Shopian who wears the hijab, and Uzma Qureishi who wears a burqa told me, many women are now choosing this attire as an affirmation of their faith and that it was an informed decision. Uzma made an interesting observation of how she differed in opinion from men who claimed wearing hijab or burqa could afford some degree of protection.
‘I have argued with men of how elderly women and even babies have been targets of sexual violence. A burqa doesn’t necessarily spell safety. One wears it for a different reason.’
A young student in Shopian told me she was proud of sporting the hijab as a way of proclaiming a definite Kashmiri Muslim identity, and as a badge of resistance.
Dress code becomes even more complex when Western sensitivity is used to project the wearing of abaya as regressive and another form of imposition is sought. This inverse imposition became evident in 2016 when a private school sacked a teacher who insisted on wearing the abaya. A former pupil defended the school’s action saying a school had to be seen as progressive and liberal.
Farhana, participating in a social media debate, countered this by saying that the choice of dress is a personal one and is highly influenced by the culture of a place and, in the context of Kashmir, by its religious practices. By not allowing her to wear the abaya wasn’t the state guilty of interfering in her religious rights? She also explained that many women found it easier in their families to be able to work outside the home if they wore the abaya and valued this economic independence. ’We need to respect these choices,’ she added.
Farhana, who chooses to wear the hijab, says it became part of her understanding of identity politics when she travelled extensively in India. ‘People from various sides of the political spectrum—far right and left—-were making all kinds of assumptions of me being oppressed.’
Essar says the notion that one has become radicalised because one chooses to wear a certain kind of attire is naïve. ‘You just can’t assume that a Muslim woman who wears the hijab is being subjected to patriarchal rules or is dumb. Just because I cover my head doesn’t mean that I am covering my brains as well, or that I am submissive. Maybe, I just want to break the stereotypes perpetuated by Islamophobes and people from the western world,’ she added
She is equally scathing about Muslim men who choose to impose their notions of modesty on women. ‘Islam has standards of modesty for women and men. But men sexualise a woman’s body just to maintain their hegemony. Here, let us also talk about the obnoxious way in which some of the men dress. They believe that they can wear low-waisted jeans that reveal their butts, or scratch their balls in public, and people like me will not get offended?’
The assertion of a strong statement by choosing or then not wearing the hijab is evident when someone like Rubaina told me that she has abandoned the headscarf because she sees it as being submissive in society. ‘I’m not a good girl any more,’ she told me.
And both Munawara and Zamruda questioned me when I wrapped a duppatta around my head wanting to know if it had been at the behest of a man.
Those women in Kashmir are increasingly making choices became evident in this humorous post on Facebook by a young woman. :
‘Some want to put the hijab on me and save me. Some want to take the hijab off me and save me. Just give me a break, man! I can save myself.’
Freny Manecksha has worked as a journalist for some 20 years in publications like The Daily, BLITZ, The Times of India, Indian Express and Mid-day. She has been an independent journalist and writer for the past 10 years, contributing to Infochangeindia.org , India Together, The Crest, Himal Southasian and Economic and Political Weekly. Her areas of interest include human rights, developmental issues , and the environment. Find her at Frenym@gmail.com
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