November  2001 
Gender Justice

Politics behind the purdah

Women have become a pawn in the hands of fundamentalists where only men rule.


The imposition of a dress code on Muslim women in Kashmir valley is an ‘act of desperation’ of the terrorists who have miserably failed in their mission to capture Kashmir. It is a desperate act of taking control over the citizens of the Valley, in the name of religion and culture, while the decades of militancy has failed to achieve their goal. But sadly, the purdah threat is understood only as women’s issue or as an issue of religious practices. It is needed a political issue, a political agenda of the terrorists.

The Kashmir issue has been fought on war fields, across tables and against the innocent citizens of the Valley by the militants, for several decades now. But the result has been disappointing for the terrorists and their supporters. The desperation has led to the act of controlling the people in the name of religion.

It was a moment of shock when the terrorists announced that the Kashmir Muslim women should cover themselves with burqa and no woman should be publicly seen without the burqa or a veil. Initially not many took this seriously. But when the terrorists attacked a young girl in Srinagar and tried to disfigure her face with acid for not adhering to the dress code, it sent a signal of terror to all the women in the Valley.

The sale of burqas shot up and prices, too, followed. Shamefully, businessmen were competing to sell the burqa. The role of the media in this issue has been far from satisfactory. Indeed the deadline of September 10 to adhere to the dress code was being watched closely by many across the country. But the media, totally engrossed with the terrorist attack on America, fully ignored the plight of Kashmiri women.

The media did little to show that terrorism, nurtured by America, will one day destabilize the social structure by imposing restrictions on the innocent people of the land. It failed to consolidate the resistance to the dress code; it did little to strengthen the hands of the Kashmiri women to oppose the threat to their freedom.

Worse is the silence on the part of the state and central governments in this issue. It is months since the purdah threat has been issued and women have unwillingly retreated behind the burqa but there is not a single statement from the establishment in support of the fundamental rights of these Kashmiri Women. This shows that the government’s understanding of terrorism is limited to the language of guns and bombs. Restricting the freedom of people through fatwas is a much worse kind of terrorism, which unless annihilated in the initial stage, will destabilize the very social structure of society.

Unlike in 1990, when people across the land fought similar restrictions with strong opposition, the reaction this time is scattered and feeble thanks to the growing fundamentalism in the country. The condemnation by a few religious organizations have been more on religious grounds.

Burqa was never a part of the Muslim women’s attire in Kashmir. But of late from Kashmir to Kerala, purdah is widely seen. The religious minorities see burqa, as a tool of defence, a symbol of identity and a sign of cultural heritage in the face of majority fundamentalism.

What started as a defence mechanism has grown into a forced religious practice. And women have become the prey for the defence, for the identity and to uphold the cultural ethnos of a community. It has been the women across the globe and in the entire history that have been shouldering these responsibilities because these rules are always framed by the men.
The dress code curtails the mobility of women and their development. If the religious fundamentalists impose it in the name of religion, the conservatives do it to preserve culture and the terrorists to achieve their political goal. We have been witnessing it in our own country. Hindu fundamentalists are using the college and university campuses to impose dress codes. Women have become a pawn in the hands of fundamentalists where only men rule.

It is to be realized that this is not an issue confined to women. If we do not come out strongly against this imposition now, tomorrow it will engulf one and all. We already have several such examples in the country. In Manipur a terrorist group has declared similar dress code for women according to media reports. It has threatened to shoot down those who do not abide by the code. This is an example enough to understand the seriousness of the issue.

(The writer is a freelance journalist).


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