Mike Ghouse Jan 14, 2007
Taslima Nasrin’s article has appeared in Outlook India magazine and is produced below. I have been inundated with requests to comment on the article.
Taslima is a rebellious writer and raises her voice when something appears unjust to her, and that is the right thing to do, to speak up. As a civilized society, we must be open to new ideas and thoughts raised by members of society.
When Passion of the Christ was released, members of the Jewish community were wary of the release, fearing an increase in anti-Semitism. A Swedish newspaper printed cartoons viewed by some as disparaging of the Prophet Muhammad in their newspapers, causing a disruptive few to create havoc around the globe in the name of Islam. When the movie Water was released, Deepa Mehta was criticized for her portrayal of widowed girls going into prostitution. In fact, the movie was shot in Sri Lanka as the cast and crew was vandalized by a few in the name of Hindu faith in Varnasi. President Carter has released a book linking apartheid to the treatment of Palestinians in Israel. This stance has caused outrage as well.
No society or a culture is ever perfect. These are the dynamic values constantly changing with interaction within and without the various societies and sub-cultures. Screaming at Taslima, Deepa, Mel or President Carter will not make the problem go away.
There is always another point of view. Taslima has raised some legitimate points, while some of the items she has mentioned have no basis for it.
Modesty is part of every culture be it Indian, Middle Eastern, Hindu, Muslim, Christian or American… any way you cut it, modesty is always a part of a persons life and culture. No matter how liberal a family is, an Indian Hindu girl or an American teen would be asked (or told) by her parents to show a modicum in her dress when in public.
The American public has no qualms in showing kissing and close encounters in the movies, whereas the Indian threshold does not allow that. If Aishwariya Roy kissed every hero in her movies, she will be treated as a slut by all Indians, and most likely Abhishek Bachan’s family would not have consented to his marrying her.
Each society has a threshold, a level of acceptance within. A Punjabi girl (Hindu, Sikh or any one) would be reluctant to show off her belly and bosom than a girl from other parts of the country. Even living in the United States, how many parents would allow their daughter to wear bare minimum and be in the public?
Within Muslim families, there are different levels of threshold, remember, it has to do with culture, more so than religion (I will attend to it below). You might relate with different levels of thresholds within your own traditions be it Parsee, Jain, Buddh, Sikh, Christian, Jew or Hindu. In my family, we hugged every time some one is happy or sad, in some families they just don’t do that, there is nothing wrong or right about it, it is just a different practice and how members of the families respond to and accept it. The customs and rituals with your own in-laws differ.
Taslima has few qualities of a reformer and I admire that. Two years ago, when I was responding to her, I asked myself, how would my mentors have handled it? Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa understood that people just don’t change because you tell them to. Mahatma Gandhi did not order around people to change, instead he became a part of the people whom he wanted to bring the change. He gave up his western clothing, and luxurious lifestyle. He took to wearing the simple clothing, stitched out of homespun cloth, so that the masses could relate to him. He ate the simplest food, so that even the poorest of poor people could feel on par with him. Mother Teresa did not order the volunteers to go take care of the lepers; she became part of the leper colony and brought about the change. Neither Mother Teresa, nor Mahatma Gandhi wanted publicity; they simply went about doing things that brought the results.
Taslima bombs herself out with her approach. She “tells” the women to drop or burn the Burqa as it is an instrument of oppression. No woman (no matter what faith) will reduce down the amount of clothing on her body because some one tells them to. My sister would not wear a mini-skirt even if I asked her to –even my daughter who was born and raised here would not do that, they are not comfortable with it. I can assure you, it is the same case with your own family. A woman who has worn the Burqa will not drop it or burn it – she will feel bare. If I tell you that I don’t like the way you eat and you must change, what are the chances of happening that?
Change has to come gradually, little by little. One must be comfortable with it; you just cannot give up what is part of you. Taslima fails to understand that or she is simply seeking fame by attacking other people’s practices. If she really wants change, she ought to consider becoming a part of the society and effecting the changes drip by drip.
Qur’aan does prescribe modesty for both men and women, which is not the same as Purdah understood by Taslima. I don’t blame her for her misunderstandings; the entire Muslim community is waking up to the wrong translations of Qur’aan. Please review the power point on APOLOGY at www.WorldMuslimCongress.com . As the Bhagvad Gita say “finding the truth is one’s own responsibility” . To help Taslima understand the Qur’aan better, I will send her the 15 different translations of Qur’aan so she can take the time to learn that it is not the Qur’aan, it is the translation that has the problem.
Taslima challenges Shabana Azmi’s assertion that Burqa is not mentioned in Qur’aan and quotes the following verse. "Tell the faithful women that they must keep their gaze focused below/on the ground and cover their sexual organs. They must not put their beauty and their Jewelry on display. They must hide their breasts behind Purdah. They must not exhibit their beauty to anybody except their husbands, brothers, nephews, womenfolk, servants, eunuch employees and children. They must not move their legs briskly while walking because then much of their bodies can get exposed." (Sura Al Noor 24:31)
I don’t know where she got the above translation, here is another translation of the same verses and I have included a few more at the bottom.
“And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husband's fathers, their sons, their husbands' sons, their brothers or their brothers' sons, or their sisters' sons, or their women, or the slaves whom their right hands possess, or male servants free of physical needs, or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex; and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. And O ye Believers! Turn ye all together towards Allah, that ye may attain Bliss.”
Shabana Azmi is right in her assertion that “Burqa” in its present form was not in Qur’aan. However it has become a part of the Culture, as Taslima pointed out that it was practiced before Islam. Modesty is preached by all religions – each family decides its own threshold. My sister or my daughter will never wear clothing of Karishma Kapoor and most likely your family follows the same guidelines whether you are a Hindu, Muslim, Christian, and Sikh, or any faith.
The origins of Burqa she has quoted comes from a source that I am not familiar with. There are plenty of magazines and secret books written by people to demean customs and religions, you will find those books maligning every faith and religion.
Burqa as it is worn today is not prescribed in Qur’aan. Modesty is prescribed as any culture and society would. However, the practice has been around for a long time and for some women it is forced upon by their parents or husbands, but for most, it is their comfort zone and the women wear it of their own volition. We should resist and condemn any thing that is forced upon a people. However, if a woman is comfortable in a Burqa or Bikini, let it be her choice. It is neither backward nor forward; it is just their comfort zone.
Mike Ghouse is a thinker, speaker and a writer. He is president of the Foundation for Pluralism and is a frequent guest on talk radio, discussing interfaith issues. He has appeared on the local affiliates of CBS, NBC, ABC, PBS and FOX. He founded the World Muslim Congress on the belief we all have to live together and we might as well enjoy living it. He believes if people can learn to accept and respect the God given uniqueness of each one of the 7 billion of us, conflicst fade and solutions emerge. His articles can be found at http://www.foundationforpluralism.com/ , and http://mikeghouse.blogspot.com/
Mike can be reached at MikeGhouse@gmail.com.
© Copyright 2007 by Mike Ghouse
BURN THE BURQA
By Taslima Nasrin
My mother used purdah. She wore a burqa with a net cover in front of the face. It reminded me of the meatsafes in my grandmother's house. One had a net door made of cloth, the other of metal. But the objective was the same: keeping the meat safe. My mother was put under a burqa by her conservative family. They told her that wearing a burqa would mean obeying Allah. And if you obey Allah, He would be happy with you and not let you burn in hellfire. My mother was afraid of Allah and also of her own father. He would threaten her with grave consequences if she didn't wear the burqa. She was also afraid of the men in the neighbourhood, who could have shamed her. Even her husband was a source of fear, for he could do anything to her if she disobeyed him. As a young girl, I used to nag her: Ma, don't you suffocate in this veil? Don't you feel all dark inside? Don't you feel breathless? Don't you feel angry? Don't you ever feel like throwing it off? My mother kept mum. She couldn't do anything about it. But I did.
When I was sixteen, I was presented a burqa by one of my relatives. I threw it away. The custom of purdah is not new. It dates back to 300 BC. The women of aristocratic Assyrian families used purdah. Ordinary women and prostitutes were not allowed purdah. In the middle ages, even Anglo-Saxon women used to cover their hair and chin and hide their faces behind a cloth or similar object. This purdah system was obviously not religious. The religious purdah is used by Catholic nuns and Mormons, though for the latter only during religious ceremonies and rituals. For Muslim women, however, such religious purdah is not limited to specific rituals but mandatory for their daily life outside the purview of religion.
A couple of months ago, at the height of the purdah controversy, Shabana Azmi asserted that the Quran doesn't say anything about wearing the burqa. She's mistaken. This is what the Quran says:
"Tell the faithful women that they must keep their gaze focused below/on the ground and cover their sexual organs. They must not put their beauty and their jewellery on display. They must hide their breasts behind a purdah. They must not exhibit their beauty to anybody except their husbands, brothers, nephews, womenfolk, servants, eunuch employees and children. They must not move their legs briskly while walking because then much of their bodies can get exposed." (Sura Al Noor 24:31) "Oh nabi, please tell your wives and daughters and faithful women to wear a covering dress on their bodies. That would be good. Then nobody can recognise them and harrass them. Allah is merciful and kind." (Sura Al Hijaab 33: 59)
Even the Hadis?a collection of the words of Prophet Mohammed, his opinion on various subjects and also about his work, written by those close to him?talks extensively of the purdah for women. Women must cover their whole body before going out, they should not go before unknown men, they should not go to the mosque to read the namaaz, they should not go for any funeral.
There are many views on why and how the Islamic purdah started. One view has it that Prophet Mohammed became very poor after spending all the wealth of his first wife. At that time, in Arabia , the poor had to go to the open desert and plains for relieving themselves and even their sexual needs. The Prophet's wives too had to do the same. He had told his wives that "I give you permission to go out and carry out your natural work". (Bukhari Hadis first volume book 4 No. 149). And this is what his wives started doing accordingly. One day, Prophet Mohammed's disciple Uman complained to him that these women were very uncomfortable because they were instantly recognisable while relieving themselves. Umar proposed a cover but Prophet Mohammed ignored it. Then the Prophet asked Allah for advice and he laid down the Ayat (33:59) (Bukhari Hadis Book 026 No. 5397).
This is the history of the purdah, according to the Hadis. But the question is: since Arab men too relieved themselves in the open, why didn't Allah start the purdah for men? Clearly, Allah doesn't treat men and women as equals, else there would be purdah for both! Men are higher than women. So women have to be made walking prisons and men can remain free birds.
Another view is that the purdah was introduced to separate women from servants. This originates from stories in the Hadis. One story in the Bukhari Hadis goes thus: After winning the Khyber War, Prophet Mohammed took over all the properties of the enemy, including their women. One of these women was called Safia. One of the Prophet's disciples sought to know her status. He replied: "If tomorrow you see that Safia is going around covered, under purdah, then she is going to be a wife. If you see her uncovered, that means I've decided to make her my servant."The third view comes from this story. Prophet Mohammed's wife Ayesha was very beautiful. His friends were often found staring at her with fascination. This clearly upset the Prophet. So the Quran has an Ayat that says, "Oh friends of the prophet or holy men, never go to your friend's house without an invitation. And if you do go, don't go and ask anything of their wives". It is to resist the greedy eyes of friends, disciples or male guests that the purdah system came into being. First it was applicable to only the wives of the holy men, and later it was extended to all Muslim women.
Purdah means covering the entire body except for the eyes, wrist and feet. Nowadays, some women practise the purdah by only covering their hair. That is not what is written in the Hadis Quran. Frankly, covering just the hair is not Islamic purdah in the strict sense.In the early Islamic period, Prophet Mohammed started the practice of covering the feet of women. Within 100 years of his death, purdah spread across the entire Middle East . Women were covered by an extra layer of clothing. They were forbidden to go out of the house, or in front of unknown men. Their lives were hemmed into a tight regime: stay at home, cook, clean the house, bear children and bring them up. In this way, one section of the people was separated by purdah, quarantined and covered.
Why are women covered? Because they are sex objects. Because when men see them, they are roused. Why should women have to be penalised for men's sexual problems? Even women have sexual urges. But men are not covered for that. In no religion formulated by men are women considered to have a separate existence, or as human beings having desires and opinions separate from men's. The purdah rules humiliate not only women but men too. If women walk about without purdah, it's as if men will look at them with lustful eyes, or pounce on them, or rape them. Do they lose all their senses when they see any woman without burqa?
My question to Shabana and her supporters, who argue that the Quran says nothing about purdah is: If the Quran advises women to use purdah, should they do so? My answer is, No. Irrespective of which book says it, which person advises, whoever commands, women should not have purdah. No veil, no chador, no hijab, no burqa, no headscarf. Women should not use any of these things because all these are instruments of disrespect.
These are symbols of women's oppression. Through them, women are told that they are but the property of men, objects for their use. These coverings are used to keep women passive and submissive. Women are told to wear them so that they cannot exist with their self-respect, honour, confidence, separate identity, own opinion and ideals intact. So that they cannot stand on their own two feet and live with their head held high and their spine strong and erect.
Some 1,500 years ago, it was decided for an individual's personal reasons that women should have purdah and since then millions of Muslim women all over the world have had to suffer it. So many old customs have died a natural death, but not purdah. Instead, of late, there has been a mad craze to revive it. Covering a woman's head means covering her brain and ensuring that it doesn't work. If women's brains worked properly, they'd have long ago thrown off these veils and burqas imposed on them by a religious and patriarchal regime.
What should women do? They should protest against this discrimination. They should proclaim a war against the wrongs and ill-treatment meted out to them for hundreds of years. They should snatch from the men their freedom and their rights. They should throw away this apparel of discrimination and burn their burqas.
(Nasrin, a Bangladeshi writer, currently lives in Calcutta )
A few more translations:
Sarwar : Tell the believing woman to cast down their eyes, guard their chastity, and not to show off their beauty except what is permitted by the law. Let them cover their breasts with their veils. They must not show off their beauty to anyone other than their husbands, father, father-in-laws, sons, step-sons, brothers, sons of brothers and sisters, women of their kind, their slaves, immature male servants, or immature boys. They must not stamp their feet to show off their hidden ornaments. All of you believers, turn to God in repentance so that perhaps you will have everlasting happiness.
Free Mind : And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and keep covered their private parts, and that they should not show-off their beauty except what is apparent, and let them cast their shawls over their cleavage. And let them not show-off their beauty except to their husbands, or their fathers, or fathers of their husbands, or their sons, or the sons of their husbands, or their brothers, or the sons of their brothers, or the sons of their sisters, or their children that come after them, or those who are still their dependants, or the male servants who are without need, or the child who has not yet understood the composition of women. And let them not strike with their feet in a manner that reveals what they are keeping hidden of their beauty. And repent to God, all of you believers, that you may succeed.
Yusuf Ali : And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husband's fathers, their sons, their husbands' sons, their brothers or their brothers' sons, or their sisters' sons, or their women, or the slaves whom their right hands possess, or male servants free of physical needs, or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex; and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. And O ye Believers! turn ye all together towards Allah, that ye may attain Bliss.