Feminism and the burqa.

I read this essay in Tehelka’s true experiences section […] the story of how the author runs into, in a feminism-studies class at Delhi University, a female clad in a head-to-toe mobile tent […] and how this woman has made feminism her own, and created her own version of feminism.

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I read this essay in Tehelka’s true experiences section over the weekend. The essay is by a feminist who considers herself too ‘orthodox’ in her feminism. The essay is the story of how the author runs into, in a feminism-studies class at Delhi University, a female clad in a head-to-toe mobile tent; and the story of how this woman has made feminism her own, and created her own version of feminism. The essay concludes with a jibe at ‘orthodox western feminism’ (whatever that may be).

The author, who says she became a ‘voluntary critic’ [as opposed to Tourette’s?] of the burqa-clad woman at first, says she came to realise her folly after this masterpiece of reasoning from the latter (I’ve numbered what are put forth as arguments):

[1] “Well, this is my choice in a way. My choice even when I don’t have any other choices.” […] [2] “Why do you always set western feminism as a standard against which every other woman’s feminism is measured? Why a set definition? [3] Isn’t it tiring to put yourself on display all the time? Here, beneath this, there is a sense of serenity, a way which lets me feel free. This shield doesn’t let a stray man scrutinise me as an object. In yours words, that ‘commodifying western gaze’. This is not to say this is the ideal kind of feminism, but this is my kind of feminism. [4] Being a creature of a particular historical context, I don’t want to become so radical that my life is at stake. Isn’t that a choice again? What use is there for uninhibited radicalism if the fanatics of my community almost kill me? Isn’t it great that I’m studying a feminism course and have a friend like you?”

(4) is, by itself, a valid argument. There is no dishonour in saying ‘I find this treatment reprehensible, but if the alternative is death, I’ll go through with it.’ This, however, is about the only bit of sense in the apology for the burqa.

(2) is just plain silly. An expectation of the right of a woman to wear whatever the hell she wants is not the definition of ‘western’ feminism. It’s the definition of basic human decency.

(3) This woman’s definition of feminism includes the stereotyping of all men as pigs, and use of this as a rationale for wearing a tent to school, I guess. Why does everybody’s feminism have to be the same? Indeed.

(1) Making peace with something isn’t the same as making a choice. It is, in fact, quite the definition of not having a choice. Which the speaker says is what has happened with her. Which is known to have happened to others.*

I can think of two alternatives at this point: one, that this woman has indeed been threatened with repercussions if she doesn’t wear a burqa; I fail to see how this situation can be of ‘her choice’. Option two, rather ungenerously, is that this isn’t what has happened with this woman, and that wearing this symbol of oppression in public is a choice this woman has made. Which is her right, in a free society.

That she should choose to exercise her right to wear what she wants by wearing something that symbolises the oppression of half a billion women in the Islamic world is quite disheartening.

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* The story of the woman who was threatened for not wearing a veil is representative of a new trend in Kerala’s society and politics.

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