Isha khan’s Weblog


What clothes a Muslim woman should wear
July 8, 2009, 9:52 am
Filed under: Religion

What clothes a Muslim woman should wear

By Maswood Alam Khan


Inspired by a self-imposed success of the French government, in spite of protests, in banning the Muslim headscarf in public schools in 2004 Nicolas Sarkozy in his recent speech in the French parliament was agog shedding crocodile tears for Muslim women terming the ‘burqa’ a walking prison, a sign of subjugation, a signature of debasement, and an instrument of torture not tolerable on French territory. What a great Frenchman empathizing with the pains of the hapless women, a male Sarkozy deciding what female Muslims should wear and should not!

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The first cultural shock I had on the first day of my arrival at Kuala Lumpur back in 1995 was how conventional Malaysian Muslim women conserve their body exposure. They insulate their head with headscarf so that head-hairs are not visible, but they don’t wear any sash or any extension of their costumes that could additionally cover their basic dress contouring their breasts. On the other hand, Muslim women in Bangladesh, no matter they wear a sari or a frock, are careful first to hide with extra clothing the area of their torso and then their head and other areas of their bodies in accordance with Bangladeshi style and not in gross contravention of Islamic dress codes.

What pleasantly surprised me was the liberty Malaysians enjoyed in ‘dressing as they liked’. You will find Malaysian men and women and foreigners strolling in public places dressed in whatever style they fancy. Liberal attitude to religions and tourist-friendly environment have made Malaysia, a country deemed an ideal Muslim nation, a haven for foreign direct investment.

Nobody will ogle you if like a Chinese damsel you, a Bangladeshi girl or an Iranian lady, wear a bikini while shopping at a mall or move around in public places wearing a ‘burqa’, a head-to-toe Islamic garment. The peaceful coexistence of Malay Muslims, Chinese Buddhists, Indian Hindus and tourists of different colors, creeds and religions enjoying complete freedom in pursuing their individual dress and culture in Malaysia should be a tutorial President of the French Republic Nicolas Sarkozy can study and implement the lessons in his own country.

Inspired by a self-imposed success of the French government, in spite of protests, in banning the Muslim headscarf in public schools in 2004 Nicolas Sarkozy in his recent speech in the French parliament was agog shedding crocodile tears for Muslim women terming the ‘burqa’ a walking prison, a sign of subjugation, a signature of debasement, and an instrument of torture not tolerable on French territory. What a great Frenchman empathizing with the pains of the hapless women, a male Sarkozy deciding what female Muslims should wear and should not!

The French President spending precious time in his parliamentary lecture on sartorial details of Muslim burqa is a clear indication that he was perhaps running out of ideas on how to solve economic and social ills of his country.

The French parliament is soon going to enact laws that will further embolden the 2004 law to ban everything from headscarf to burqa to anything else that Islam had prescribed to conserve woman’s body exposure. Such a ban applicable in all public places would be a veritable French display of secularist fundamentalism entrenched by their law since 1905—to keep religion firmly out of the state sphere.

The 2004 headscarf ban in France was supposed to outlaw conspicuous religious symbols of all faiths. We don’t know whether Israelis wearing Jewish yarmulkes or Americans wearing Christian crosses or Indians with clipped beards wearing their Sheikh turbans to cover their uncut hairs or Muslim imams with their uncut long beards wearing their Muslim turbans are debarred from entering the French territories. If not, such a French policy barring headscarf and burqa should be construed as a discriminatory principle to pick only on Islam and to constrain religious freedom of only Muslims.

Religion should be practiced privately. No religion—Islam or Judaism or Christianity or Hinduism—advocates that religious identities have to be flaunted in public places. We wear caps while praying inside mosques, but there is no compulsion that we have to cover our heads day and night, at workplace and at bedroom. But if someone wishes to keep his or her head covered round the clock there is no right for anybody, let alone the government, to veto the practice.

In fact, very few men and women nowadays wear the garments that are ordained by their religions. There was a time in the first half of the last century when our Muslim ladies not only had to wear burqa under compulsion but also had to move in a rickshaw or a ‘palki’ (a wheel-less and human-powered litter vehicle) tightly wound around by long pieces of clothes so that neither the female passenger inside the litter vehicle can see the outside world nor can a passerby peek into who is sitting inside the manpowered vehicle.

Time has changed. A Hindu priest while moving in public places hesitates to wrap around his waist and legs a long piece of unstitched cloth what in Bangla we call ‘dhuti’, a traditional men’s garment in our country Hindus and Muslims alike would love to wear as a fashion only a few decades back.

We hardly find in our country Muslim women attending their schools, colleges, universities or offices wearing burqa. There are ladies of course who still wear burqa and who are highly esteemed in our society; nobody frowns eyebrows at them. There are girls as well who dress themselves in western styles and nobody ogles them unless they are overly nude.

For convenience most of our Muslim women in our country wear pajamas or jeans in both their homes and offices; our modern girls wear with élan extra clothes tailored in the latest fashion to cover their head and torso. There can hardly a Muslim lady be found who does not wear sari, which is a dress evolved in our Bengali culture based on Hindu religion, not at all a Muslim dress. Have saris made our women less devout compared to those who wear burqa? Have the women lost their liberty for the reason that they had to wear burqa?

It is fascinating that people who raise their voices and complain about their liberty have no such regards when it comes to other people’s freedom, no matter it is freedom of religion or freedom of secularism. For them it is a one-way affair—they want you to obey them or else you risk your social status.

There are groups who may call the burqa ‘a coffin that kills individual liberties’ and there are people who may call the necktie ‘a rope that gags a man’. There are groups who say ‘Muslim women are treated like disposable items’ and there are also people who will say ‘women are worshipped by men when they are nude and abhorred when they are clothed’.

Some groups may say that ‘Muslim women are forced to wear burqa’ while the opposing groups will say that ‘women in the West are forced to get plastic breasts in order to get more acceptances in the society’. Some groups may wish to find their women wearing burqa that covers up the whole body but not the eyes; some groups might wish to find their ladies wearing only sunglasses that cover their eyes only in order to expose the rest of their whole body on a sea-beach under the sun.

Let citizens hear voices of both the groups and choose for themselves what fit them best. But an official ban on headscarf and on burqa the French parliamentarians are now contemplating to impose as a law, reportedly within six months, will be a despotic move on a democratic land and may be interpreted as a ploy to stigmatize Islam. The French should never give in to the blackmail neither of Muslim Fundamentalists nor of Secular Fundamentalists.

In his recent speech in Cairo, Barack Obama has rightly said: “It is important for the Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit—for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear”.

Maswood Alam Khan is a banker. His e-address: maswood@hotmail.com

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