As the burkha controversy deepens with more and more European nations cracking down, it is perhaps time to stand back and take stock.
There is no doubt, a security angle which cannot be ignored. A voluminous coverall with socks and sandals, gloves on the arms and only eyes visible, if the wearer has not worn goggles, it is impossible to differentiate between a male or a female, which is scary in these times of random terrorism, where weapons are whipped out and targets are often innocent civilians.
On the integration front, the recent upsurge in burkha wearers had an equal impact.
Take the example of Ahmedabad, replicated no doubt in dozens of other cities across India. Once upon a time, it was difficult to differentiate Hindu women from Muslim ones in Ahmedabad. If the latter were more prone to wearing flashy silver and gold in their garments, the same held true of many other communities such as the Marwaris and Punjabis, so one was never quite sure. All of a sudden, after the petro dollars start to fuel Islamic identity and later terrorism, Muslim women became much more ‘visible’ than ever before…clad in custom made burkhas, they stood out in crowded bazaars and malls and theatres etc.
In England and across the channel in all parts of Europe, media frenzy accompanying random terrorists attacks after the spectacular 9/11 in New York, whatever may be the actual antecedents of that disaster, wearers of burkhas began to be looked at with suspicion. Was terrorism the only reason?
Not at all. Economics and history are both there. History reveals that when Islam broke out of its Mecca-Medina confines, it roamed east right upto China and west across North Africa, through Spain to the south of France. There are still large Muslim communities in what was earlier Yugoslavia (now split into several states), and in the southeastern republics of the erstwhile USSR.
When Europe fought back with the Crusades, Islam was pushed out of Spain on one side and Turkey on the other. Despite the grandeur of the Turkish Caliphate at time, modern Turkey has since aspired for a European status, rather than the Asian reality its geography binds it to.
Then followed the Colonial rush, when the European nations played ducks and drakes with most of the known world at that time, to further their individual economic interests. Their retreat a fter World War II triggered off emigration drives which saw large populaces of Muslims thrive in France, Germany, Italy, England and other countries. Many of them integrated into the local populations, despite insular tendencies. But some stubbornly clung to their old customs and costumes. Many more did so when the world began to react with horror against terrorism. Is it any wonder that the local populaces are concerned and wary of the new found identity crisis of their emigrants? More so, when they have been putting into place bans on all religious symbols in public spaces for sometime now.
Spain, that stolidly Roman Catholic country infamous for its centuries back Inquisition past, saw Antonio Hardez Gill, the chief of the Cortez remove the crucifix from his office as soon as he took office after the death of the Franco dictatorship which has used religion as its prop for decades. Belgium and France did not see much debate over decisions to ban burkhas in public spaces, but the issue is raging hotly in England as unemployment figures surge and more emigrants take up the low paid jobs and rise up the scale, watched enviously by what is otherwise termed ‘white trash’. That is where economics comes to play a role in the rising antipathy against emigrants, since they have taken pains not to merge with the locals. The question raised is "if we can do away with our religious symbols, why should we allow any others?'
What of India where burkhas have been around for centuries? We amended Hindu laws, but leave those of the Muslims strictly alone to fester in medieval existences. Hindu marriage, divorce, dowry, inheritane and other laws have seen radical changes. But that is all. Laws of other religions have been eft tothe respective populaces to handle.
On the other hand, the very Hindu Bindi has been transformed into an enviable fashion emblem and the burkha transformed into our own version, popularly called ‘ bandh gobi’ (cabbage). Women tie their dupattas or stoles to cover the head and the lower face as shields against tanning and to protect their complexions. The tying is a complex affair but young women quickly become adept at it. With the summer heat persisting till the end of June already, it is a wonder that no entrepreneur has brought out a ready stitched version of the ‘bandh gobi’. Perhaps the burkha as a coverall has its uses. The complexions of the women of the countries where it is regularly worn are peach, cream and roses, the stuff of fairy tales and Mills&Boon, which others would give an arm and a leg for!!