And below is my original, lengthier piece.
What is it about burqa-clad/veiled Muslim women that gets so many people’s goats? Such condescension, such disdain! Especially from women, and surprisingly to me, from Muslim women who choose not to wear the veil. Note: None of condescending/disdainful/disapproving women’s voices come from ladies who actually choose to wear the hijab/burqa. Like myself. Or so many other fantastic Muslimahs [female Muslims] I have interacted with in real life and online. Like regular girls, we like our share of laughs, our silly (oftentimes risqué) jokes, our music, our sports, our books and what have you. The only difference is we have chosen to wear the hijab, others haven’t. I don’t hold it against you that you don’t want to wear something, why must you hold it against us if we do? Or rather, and this is what I’m getting at, what gives anyone the right?
I recall the hue and cry from not so long ago regarding France’s ban on the full face veil. The intense debates online, especially on the worst forum for having any debate: the 140-characters-a-time-restricted Twitter. What a waste. To me, the debate was not about man’s gross injustices upon womankind over the ages, nor forcing women to cover up, nor was it about culture-over-religion, nor about a misreading of religious texts [‘It doesn’t say hijab anywhere in the Qur’an!’]. These were beside the point, which was: a matter of choice. Anyway, what happens in France can stay in France. The good thing is it opens up a very interesting subject for discussion.
One of the most endearing lines of the Qur’an to me, is the beginning of verse 2:256: ‘Let there be no compulsion in religion.’ I read it in the broader sense of ‘I cannot impose my religious will/practices/dictates on you, and you will kindly return the favour to me.’ Please note, it works both ways. This verse tells hardliners not to enforce their strict, often unreasonable rules, on others. It also demands that the other extreme not judge and rail against those who choose a certain way of life, dress and conduct. A more conservative way of life, if you will. No compulsion either which way.
I read two newly published books recently, both with their focus on female Muslim characters and Islam, both primarily set in the Indian [or South Asian] subcontinent. One was a biography by Deborah Baker, The Convert, and the other, a work of fiction by Tahmima Anam, titled The Good Muslim. I am not going to discuss the literary or factual merits of either work. I’ll pick up certain points that struck me in their reading, as a young Muslimah with a decent grasp of my religion.
Both works convey a slight puzzlement at conservative Islam. Maryam Jameelah in ‘The Convert’ and Maya’s brother Sohail in ‘The Good Muslim’ are individuals who go the whole hog in terms of Islamic convention. In the former, Maryam opts for complete seclusion, full burqa, no physical contact with the outside world etc. In the novel, Sohail undergoes a transformation beginning with a change to ‘the garb of the faithful’, and eventually he moves to the strictest Islamic lifestyle [or his interpretation of it], and a severance with even his family and friends. In both cases, the author/narrator’s reaction is perplexed. Why this change? HOW can anyone think and choose this voluntarily? This here then is my grouse. While I may not agree with many points of someone else’s religious practices, I must always understand that it is after all their personal choice and I cannot compel them otherwise. Non-religious, liberal voices have a particularly self-righteous way of holding up the faithful to scrutiny. Why? In your minds, are you better than us for the choices we make inside our hijabs and burqas and with our long beards and short trousers? Is it my clothes that bother you, my overt display of my religion? Or does it peg me in your mind as someone that thinks a certain ‘dhakyanoosi’ way? [I am sorry I cannot come up with a proper English translation for that word – unfashionable, outmoded, backward?]
Again, this works both ways. I might let the extremely conservative be, but will he/she kindly stop asking me to become a better Muslim by covering up, not going out, not doing this, that and the other? To stop haranguing against the ‘kuffaar’ and spreading negativity? Is my mullah going to answer for me on the Day of Judgment? *insert sound of the Last Trumpet* I think not. So, to the religious conservative, kindly pass on your words of wisdom and guidance to me, and then let me do my thing. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work this way in real life.
What is visible in both stories are the kernels of an unsavoury truth that we see all around us – that religion is hijacked by the narrow, often baseless interpretations of a few ‘scholars’ - those ‘deemed’ religious people, who eventually gain huge popularity as stalwarts of Islam versus the evil, decadent West. It is always a case of one-upmanship with these voices – our religion is superior, yours is inferior because of so and so. Unfortunately, this formula seems to be very popular with most. It is also responsible for most of the religious diatribe which taints what is essentially pure.
What is also visible is this other judgmental voice I speak of. The aghast-at-religious-conservatism section which really irritates me. Maya’s character in ‘The Good Muslim’ is clearly outraged at the ‘Islamisation’ of her brother. She despises any show of religiousness [for example a spat she has with a vegetable vendor who replies ‘Allah Hafiz’ instead of ‘Khuda Hafiz’]. In the novel, we see a possible justification for her feeling this way [the horrors of the Bangladesh war for independence are telling], but even so it irks. Other characters are also depicted realistically, always ready to mock religion. This is very common, we see it every day. I see this attitude online in well-read, well-educated people.
Religious judgement works both ways. The flag-bearers of ‘complete freedom and no rules’ versus the flag-bearers of closeted, narrow religious notions – neither are in the right. At the end of the day, ‘Let there be no compulsion in religion.’ Please.