Saturday, May 05, 2007

On the hijab, in Desh and Phoren

Anyone returning to the major European (and some American or Australian) cities after a decade or so would notice that there are many more women with the hijab in the streets. This is partly because of migration. Thousands of Muslims from the Middle East and Africa as well Desh enter these cities every year, and there are many more Muslims today than a decade earlier. If the proportion of the hijab-wearing women remained same, then there would still be many more hijabs in the streets. Plus, the proportion of the hijab‑wearing women in these cities probably has actually risen in the past five years so.

Part of the reason for the rise in this proportion is that there are relatively more practising Muslim women among the immigrants. This might be because of a rise in the share of older women — mothers of the younger men who had arrived years earlier and have acquired citizenship recently. But there is another reason for the rise in the proportion. Many younger women are wearing the hijab too. Many of these younger women have grown up in these cities, and some of them are not all that religious either.

For many, the hijab is a badge of identity, and wearing it is a sort of a political fashion statement. Say it up, say it loud, I am a sister from name-the-country and I am proud, f… you I won’t do what you tell me, I’ll wear the hijab and kick your white arse to hell — you get the point. Now identity is important, and in the human jungles of the phoren cities, beleaguered by the majoritarian pressures and cultural clashes with the older generation, the hijab can be an important political symbol for many. I see where the sisters are coming from, and I used to applaud their choice to express themselves.

I used to, but I don’t any more. A trip to Desh and a Salman Rushdie interview have changed my mind.

Because of family reasons, I visited a small town a hundred mile or so north of Dhaka in January. This was my first visit in about five years. I saw a lot of women wearing the hijab/burqa in the streets of this town. But then again, there were many more women in the street. In a small town in a conservative Muslim society, if there are more women in the street then there would be more hijabs too. That there were more women in the street is the thing to applaud.

But then, what about choice? Did all those women wear the hijab because they wanted to? No one in my immediate family wears the hijab. My long deceased grandmother used to wear a burqa. She was a religious woman. But when I asked around I found that for many in the small town as well as the big city Desh, the hijab has little to do with the choice to express one’s faith or identity and a lot to do with avoiding unwelcome male attention or good-old social pressure.

Then I saw an interview of Rushdie on television. Asked about the identity politics of wearing a hijab in phoren, he noted the lack of choice for many women in Desh.

I agree with Rushdie. I have nothing to say to the sisters who wear the hijab because of their faith. But those of you who are making a political statement against cultural imperialism, please think about your sisters back in Desh who don’t have the choice that you have.