Clothes don't make the man or woman

The custom of Muslim women covering their heads was actually borrowed from the Greeks, Byzantines and the Persian Sassanian empires.

Published: 12th March 2022 01:38 AM  |   Last Updated: 12th March 2022 01:38 AM   |  A+A-

Hijab Row

For representational purposes (Photo | EPS)

The hijab controversy is sad. We have a group of modern young women who want to dress in what they believe was worn in the 7th century. And they would rather sacrifice their education for it. It was never worn in the 7th century, nor was it ordained back then.

South Indian Muslim women did not cover themselves with either a hijab or burkha. Older women covered their heads with saris or a white cloth worn over the sari. Young girls dressed like their Hindu peers in a pavadai chokka and later a pavadai davani. The burkha was worn by Hyderabadi Muslim women and those in central and north India. It was only with the migration of people to the Middle East in search of jobs that the south Indian Muslim men learned about the hijab and burkha and started making their wives and daughters cover themselves in black veils, which came as a shock in the liberal atmosphere of the south.

Initially, we did not have uniforms in our schools. Then we started noticing the difference between boys and girls who came in Levi’s jeans and others who bought their clothes off the racks in Mylapore. To avoid this obvious discrimination, we introduced a uniform, including black socks and shoes that don’t have to be polished every day. Occasionally, a student would wear a hijab over her head and we ignored it. But we definitely banned the all-covering burkha. After all, the teacher must be able to see the face of the student.

I went through Quranic injunctions about women’s clothes. Nothing in the Quran tells women to cover their heads or hair. The Quran does not order wearing the veil.

The word hijab in the Quran is used (a) as a screen in the Prophet’s house that separated his wives from those who would be visiting him, to ensure their privacy; (b) as a veil through which God speaks to human beings; and (c) as a veil that God erects to separate non-believers from believers.

The only dress mandate in the Quran is for women to cover their chests with their coverings (khimar): “And say to the believing women to lower their gaze and to guard their private parts and not to show their beauty spots except that of it which is normally shown. They shall also cover their chests with their khimar” (Quran 24:31). The Quran only orders women to draw the khimar over the chest and this was because many women at that time were topless in the hot desert sun. The words ‘hair’ and ‘head’ are not found in 24:31.

The custom of Muslim women covering their heads was actually borrowed from the Greeks, Byzantines and the Persian Sassanian empires. This custom started in the 8th century during the rule of the Abbasids. Covering one’s hair became a sign of nobility. Thereafter, religious scholars started equating covering the head with religious obligation, despite there being no such command in the Quran. It was an ideal opportunity for patriarchy to rear its head.

I do believe a uniform is essential in schools so that all children are equal in the eyes of their teachers. I would recommend it for colleges too because some girls follow the latest fashion while others can barely afford a change of clothes. However, college students are women with voting rights and must learn to cope with difficult situations.

Is the current controversy necessary? Ban the burkha, but the hijab is an uncomfortable yet harmless addition that, when given freedom, a woman will herself discard.

I would like to see our traditional clothes that are disappearing in the onrush of Western dresses. How many girls wear a pavadai chokka or davani? How many boys wear a veshti? Our boys and men have adopted the ubiquitous trousers and our women the sari. Each state and community in India once had its own way of tying a sari. The six-yard sari we wear today was ‘invented’ by Jnanadanandini Devi (1850–1941), Rabindranath Tagore’s sister-in-law. Her husband Satyendranath Tagore (Rabindranath Tagore’s elder brother) was the first Indian officer of the Indian Civil Services who was posted to Bombay province. Getting permission to travel with her husband and deciding what she should wear were big challenges for her, but her Satyendranath was very supportive. “If you have to change your mode of dress,” he wrote, “please do not hesitate.” Jnanadanandini observed English blouses with sleeves, ribbons and brooches, and the Parsi blouses and petticoats under their embroidered Chinese silk garas. She adopted the Gujarati style of tying the sari by bringing the pallu around her body. She brought the pallu forward and threw it over her chest and left shoulder instead since she was right-handed. She added frontal pleats, a brooch, the petticoat—a novelty—and the style became known as modern, educated, privileged, Thakurbari, etc.

In fact, in the early 20th century, the sign of an educated woman was this modern sari. My late grandmother Saraswathi Pattabhiraman, who studied at the University of Cambridge, was constantly subjected to Rukmini Devi Arundale’s disapproval as to why she wore a nine-yard Aiyar sari (and diamond nose rings) when she was an educated woman. But my grandmother refused to change, saying that her education had nothing to do with her clothes.

Clothes don’t make the man or woman. But education does. My grandmother educated her four daughters and let them take up jobs in their chosen fields, believing that it was important for all girls to study. They voluntarily gave up the traditional nine-yard sari. Maybe education will make Muslim women discard the hijab.

Nanditha Krishna

Historian, environmentalist and writer based in Chennai



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