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Gazing at /in/and through the Pardah/Hijab

By Noorunnida M.

This article is a recall of my direct or indirect experiences that I had while wearing a hijab/pardah…Few exceptional flashes which remain branded in my mind. Here, what I mean by pardah/hijab is not just the black colored garment/dress, but all those forms of clothing that project/symbolize Muslim identity. “It seems like she’s got brains and is sensible,” this is a general comment that one hears about a Muslim girl who dresses in a half-sleeve shalwar and doesn’t cover her head. And if the case is contrary, she would be criticized with comments such as “How orthodox! What’s the whole point in wasting time studying? Anyways these people would be married off to some guy working in the gulf after they get a degree. And then would be seen at bus stops bearing children.” Here pardah transcends its existence as a garment and becomes a medium used by the intolerant onlookers to impose their authority upon a Muslim woman.

I still remember the day when I first wore the pardah to college. The conductor of the bus, who until that day used to flirtatiously ask for the ticket, mocked, “Where to thaatha (elderly Muslim lady)?” Until then, I was a ‘normal’ student of my college, but that day I became a girl infected with the epidemic of religious consciousness. Some were anxious that I wore pardah succumbing to compulsion imposed by my family. This meant that a girl, who was educated or qualified with a degree, could never consciously “choose” to wear pardah.

I was at Payyannur pursuing my post-graduation for two years. Including me, we were just two Muslim women in our class. On top of that, because of its communist politics, the campus was known as “the red kingdom”. Soon others started alienating us and treated us as an ‘other’…we were isolated. We were branded as “uncivilized” and “terrorists” and, while trying to explain our faith-based choices, they found it unacceptable and branded us “intolerant”. Some of them even abused us publicly through such labels. Several others, which included the teachers/professors, humiliated us with advisory questions such as: “Why do you have to carry this burden every day? Why not expose yourself to some light and air, like the other students?” Some even suspected that we might turn out to be deaf or have hearing problems due to our covering up.

As a part of my studies, I went for fieldwork to a village at Payyannur. I still remember what a middle-aged non-Muslim woman exclaimed during the visit. It went like this: “Your girls can see our boys through your face veil. But our boys can’t see the faces of your girls.” This is a general attitude of the people in Kerala towards niqabis.

Recently there was a debate on Facebook on a poster of an educational institution. The poster depicts students who passed their intermediate exams with high grade. Most of them are women (only one boy). Most commonly the male/female combination of such academic spaces, in terms of number (15:1), used to catch liberal feminist imagination and appreciations. Instead of appreciation, the poster attracted liberal concerns about logic of face-covered women, because the niqab does not allow them to see the faces of these girls. Thus, the victory of few niqabi women turned into a women’s right issue in the virtual space. Instead of appreciating the success of niqabi girls, people seem frustrated with niqabs of girls. The picture of niqabi women appearing victorious was capable of disrupting the liberal feminists’ association of niqab with oppression.

Pardah is the inevitable part of any media narrative about Muslim women of Kerala. These narratives always invoke scientific/health rhetoric in order to say purda is a bad choice for Kerala women. They even say the black color of pardah may cause some severe disease like cancer (recent news article in Mathrubhumi daily). In a subtle way, media assumes a patronizing tone, “Oh! Such oppressed Muslim women.” Interestingly, they are not bothered about Christian women, who wear dresses which has close similarity to pardah, as a part of their religious practice. Why some people in Kerala are unable to perceive pardah as an integral part of a community’s culture/tradition? Here pardah is always reduced to a frame that is the “other”.

In Hyderabad, I have felt that the attitude towards Muslim attire is much better than is the case in Kerala. Despite the fact that I was the only hijabi woman in my M.Phil./Ph.D. batches, I do not remember a single instance whereupon I was questioned about my attire. Moreover, veiling one’s head is a regular practice here, which is a practice even non-Muslims perform. Here, pardah is an attire/clothing and an integral part of a culture. Once during a discussion on pardah in my Ph.D. classroom, a non-Muslim woman shared that she preferred pardah during her travels by bus at night because it gave her a secure feeling which the rest of the attires couldn’t promise or failed to give. And during the same discussion, the teacher asked a student who opposed pardah, “To what extent can you “open” up/be “open” in order to satisfy the gaze of others?”

That is what even I would like to ask those who oppose pardah: “To what extent would you open up to satisfy the gaze of others?”


Noorunnida M. is pursuing her Doctoral Degree in Gender Studies at the University of Hyderabad.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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