Skip to main content

Hijab centuries old tradition in India? It didn't exist in Jamia before Babri outrage

By Rajiv Shah

On March 27, Counterview carried an article titled “Muslim women of India have held hijab 'as part of their identity for centuries'." I usually refuse it comment on the articles and reports that we publish in Counterview, which I have been editing since 2013. We are an open platform, and take viewpoints from different sections. Currently “holidaying” in the United States, I went to meet one of my bosom friends, Khursheed Latif, who lives in a beautiful area called Pocono, known for its forested peaks, lakes and valleys in the US state of Pennsylvania.
Khursheed is one of the few friends from my childhood days, which I spent in Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi, with whom I continue be in touch even today, talking over phone, exchanging thoughts, and making fun on each other. Jamia is the spot where my parents -- both confirmed Gandhians -- would teach art education, while his father, an Urdu litterateur known to be be close associate of the founders of Jamia Millia Islamia, including Dr Zakir Hussain, who later became India’s President, edited the official "Jamia" magazine.
During my stay at the beautiful residence of Khursheed, on a hillock surrounded by tall trees on one side and gold course on the other, as it would happen, we recalled our “good old days”. The arguments were bound to revert to a large number of topics – including the hot ones which connected us with our past. And, as we were talking over, the hijab controversy raging across the country became a point on which he told me something I knew as an “outsider”, but surely not as an insider about what Jamia Muslims thought about it in 1960s and 1970s.
What I knew for sure was, except for a very few exceptions, most of the Muslim women and girls – including the two sisters of another bosom friend (whom we lovingly called Munna) would tie me rakhi every year – wouldn’t ever put-up hijab or burqa. Munna’s mother, whom we called Apa, a close friend of my mother, who was a hostel warden, too, never observed burqa, though namaz was her regular feature. She would treat me as her child, call me for dinner when my parents would go Ahmedabad, serving me with vegetarian dinner.
I recalled, one of our friends, whom we would tease as Chand (I don’t know the reason why), was perhaps a few years older than us. What we knew for sure that he got married. Was it before the allowed date of marriage? Was it a child marriage?, we would wonder among ourselves, but he wouldn't mind. We would make a team of three-four boys with him and take a walk up to the Okhla dam, our daily evening outing after returning from school, and later college. 
After a few us would gather to go to the dam site, we would knock at Chand’s house to come out and go with us. We had never seen his wife. All of us together would make fun of Chand for keeping her hiding from us, in burqa. A little uncouth, though a simpleton, he alone would justify his wife being kept in burqa. Ironically, I was part of the team which made fun of him, yet the Muslim friends never said why was I doing it despite being a Hindu!
I told these incidents to Khursheed, and he started talking about his experiences in Jamia. He told me, as an insider, how he also knew very few Muslim women wearing burqa, pointing out, there was no hijab then as we know it. What he said was revealing to me: During informal gatherings of Muslim families, they would make fun of those who kept their wives in burqa (there was no hijab, as we know it today, in Jamia). These, he said, were isolated cased, and could be counted on fingers. In fact, he said, even devout Muslim families would detest burqa as something obsolete, not part of their tradition and culture.
Even as we were talking, Khursheed told me an interesting detail about Jamia's co-education school where he studied: "Though it was called Jamia Millia Islamia, girls, most of them Muslims, would act in plays, and took part in NCC, in which forget burqa, they would not even have dupatta, as NCC dress code did not allow it. Not only my sister and mother did not wear any burqa, my mother detested the practice."
In Jamia Millia Islamia, during informal gatherings of Muslim families, they would make fun of those who kept their wives in burqa
"One of the persons who used to participate in NCC when in Jamia school was my sister", Khursheed said, regretting, "But see now: The same person wears burqa today. She started this practice after the birth of her first child. My mother used to often tell me to ask my sister to give up this practice.", According to him, "This assertion of Muslim identity became strong after the complications of Babri Masjid."
Khursheed Latif
He continued, "Some the Muslims whose wives wore burqa never stopped their daughter from coming on the stage and performing, be it plays, singing nazam, ghazal, the National Anthem, the Jamia anthem or bait baazi (elocution contest), In 1969 our small group consisting of girls and boys went to Mumbai to participate in the Ghalib centenary celebrations with male teachers."
He further told me, "Some girls who used to come from old Delhi in burqa. However, they would remove it before attending the classes. They were doing it on their own, as they apparently found most girls were coming to the school without burqa and they shouldn't be any different. After getting down from the bus would quietly first go to the school peon Jumman’s house to remove burqa. Many of us were not even aware that they wore burqa before reaching Jumman’s house."
Ironically, most of the Muslim families I knew were devout Muslim. Namaz, Ramzan (now turned into Ramadan!) fast, and other Islamic rites (including the “manzoor hai” consent of the bride and bridegroom and meher during marriage) were part of their life. Vising their families – my every day affair – I clearly saw all this. A few of them who called themselves “progressive” would also observe some of these rites as part of their culture, if not by conviction. However, none of the women or girls, not even during marriage functions, or vising us on Holi and Diwali, would ever put-up hijab, not to talk of burqa.
I was a little astonished when I saw videos of the agitations against the new citizenship law before the pandemic began, in which many Muslim girls from the Jamia area, participating in large numbers, had put up hijab. Some educated Muslim girls, who gave strong speeches, were in hijab. What a change, I wondered. I don’t know if any expert has cared to look into this change and sociological reasons behind it. However, I do remember doing a story for the Times of India, Ahmedabad, in 1990s – I don’t know which year it was, as I don’t seem to have kept its clipping.
The story was based on a report prepared by a well-known women’s rights organization in Ahmedabad, Ahmedabad Women’s Action Group (AWAG), which was very active till its leader Ilaben Pathak, was alive. I didn’t know Ilaben much, but would sometimes interact with one of its important members, Sophia Khan, now a well-known NGO name in Ahmedabad. She gave me the report – I don’t know whether I have still preserved it in my large number of files.
The report, which was based on a primary survey of Muslim women, found that, following the riots which took place in 1992-93 in Ahmedabad during the Sangh Parivar’s Ram Janmabhoomi agitation, there was a sharp increase in the number of Muslim women coming out of their homes wearing burqa – it didn’t talk of hijab. Even the number of Muslim men with the scalp cap has also gone up drastically after the riots, I have been told by independent observes. The report said, rise in the incidence of burqa was part of the Muslim assertion of identity.
I personally appear to agree with the view that the state is nobody to decide whether to wear hijab or not, and barring Muslim women from educational institutions only because of hijab would debar them of education, pushing them further into the conservative hands of the Muslim clergy. However, I am left wondering, did Muslim women consider hijab a part of Muslim women’s identity for “centuries”, as the People's Front of India (PFI) leader, who wrote the Counterview article, seeks to argue? There was no hijab, little burqa, in Jamia in 1960s and 1970s, the time I spent my childhood.

Comments

ysaeed said…
I don't dispute what the author says - I grew up in Jamia in 1970s and 80s. Girls definitely didn't wear hijab or burqa, but they represented only a small percentage of liberal families. Jamia was definitely a liberal campus - no doubt about it, but it didn't represent the entire community. Today when we see many girls wearing hijab in Jamia (or other institutions) we assume they are becoming more orthodox. But in reality, if you remember, all girls in those days covered their heads with a dupatta. Am I right or not? (In NCC, they wore a cap). White dupatta was part of the Jamia school uniform. At home or in campus, there was no way they would keep their head uncovered. The sewn hijab which is in fashion today wasn't there at all - it came recently from Arab or southeast Asia (just like skullcap). But in past, the dupatta did the same job which hijab does, and didn't look odd. Now, if you say more girls are wearing hijab today, I believe it's a good thing because many more Muslims girls are able to attend college (statistics prove that). Earlier, they weren't allowed to go out without a burqa. Secondly, hijab today is not a sign of orthodoxy only. Things have changed drastically in Jamia. Today's Muslim girls are much more confident and empowered - that is why you saw so many of them in the anti-CAA protest making fiery speeches and slogans. Okhla's women and girl students literally organized and maintained an entire political movement for over 3 months that shook India. Could you imagine Muslim girls in 1960s and 70s doing that?
Tariq said…
I think it identity politics more than religious conviction.

TRENDING

Swami Vivekananda's views on caste and sexuality were 'painfully' regressive

By Bhaskar Sur* Swami Vivekananda now belongs more to the modern Hindu mythology than reality. It makes a daunting job to discover the real human being who knew unemployment, humiliation of losing a teaching job for 'incompetence', longed in vain for the bliss of a happy conjugal life only to suffer the consequent frustration.

Savarkar 'criminally betrayed' Netaji and his INA by siding with the British rulers

By Shamsul Islam* RSS-BJP rulers of India have been trying to show off as great fans of Netaji. But Indians must know what role ideological parents of today's RSS/BJP played against Netaji and Indian National Army (INA). The Hindu Mahasabha and RSS which always had prominent lawyers on their rolls made no attempt to defend the INA accused at Red Fort trials.

Union budget 'mum' on relief to marginalised communities facing climate change impact

Counterview Desk  ActionAid, an international advocacy group which claims to work for a world without poverty, patriarchy and injustice, has wondered if the Union budget 2023-24, which is being acclaimed for providing succour to the middle classes, has anything to offer to the India's poor. In a statement, it said, while the budget may have "prioritised inclusive development", the financial outlay for ensuring it "does not show the zeal as hoped." Stating that the Finance Minister said Rs 35,000 crore revenue would have to be "forgone" due to a reduction in personal income taxes, "fiscal prudence is not enough to expand public employment, social security, welfare, education and health expenditures considerably." "The need of the hour is to raise revenues through the reduction of revenues forgone and innovative mechanisms such as wealth tax on super accumulation of wealth", it added. Text: The Union Budget 2023 has given significant

Buddhist shrines were 'massively destroyed' by Brahmanical rulers: Historian DN Jha

Nalanda mahavihara By Our Representative Prominent historian DN Jha, an expert in India's ancient and medieval past, in his new book , "Against the Grain: Notes on Identity, Intolerance and History", in a sharp critique of "Hindutva ideologues", who look at the ancient period of Indian history as "a golden age marked by social harmony, devoid of any religious violence", has said, "Demolition and desecration of rival religious establishments, and the appropriation of their idols, was not uncommon in India before the advent of Islam".

How lead petitioner was rendered homeless when GM mustard matter came up in SC

By Rosamma Thomas*  On January 5, 2023, the Supreme Court stayed a December 20, 2022 direction of the Uttarakhand High Court to the Indian Railways and the district administration of Haldwani to use paramilitary forces to evict thousands of poor families occupying land that belonged to the railways.  Justice AS Oka remarked that it was not right to order the bringing in of paramilitary forces. The SC held that even those who had no rights, but were living there for years, needed to be rehabilitated. On December 21, 2022, just as she was getting ready to celebrate Christmas, researcher Aruna Rodrigues was abruptly evicted from her home in Mhow Cantonment, Madhya Pradesh – no eviction notice was served, and nearly 30 Indian Army soldiers bearing arms were part of the eviction process. What is noteworthy in this case is that the records establishing possession of the house date back to 1892 – the title deed with the name of Dr VP Cardoza, Rodrigues’ great grandfather, is dated November 14

Why no information with Assam state agency about female rhino poaching for a year?

By Nava Thakuria   According to official claims, incidents of poaching related to rhinoceros in various forest reserves of Assam in northeast India have decreased drastically. Brutal laws against the poachers, strengthening of ground staff inside the protected forest areas and increasing public awareness in the fringe localities of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries across the State are the reasons cited for positively impacting the mission to save the one-horned rhinos. Officials records suggest, only two rhinos were poached in Kaziranga National Park and Tiger Reserve since 1 January 2021 till date. The last incident took place probably in the last week of December 2021, as a decomposed carcass of a fully-grown (around 30 years old) female rhino was recovered inside the world-famous forest reserve next month. As the precious horn was missing, for which the gigantic animal was apparently hunted down, it could not be a natural death. Ironically, however, it was not confirmed when

Civil rights leaders allege corporate loot of resources, suppression of democratic rights

By Our Representative  Civil rights activists have alleged, quoting top intelligence officers as also multiple international forensic reports, that recent developments with regard to the Bhima Koregaon and the Citizenship Amendment Act-National Register of Citizens (CAA-NRC) cases suggest, there was "no connection between the Elgaar Parishad event and the Bhima Koregaon violence." Activists of the Campaign Against State Repression (CASR) told a media event at the HKS Surjeet Bhawan, New Delhi, that, despite this, several political prisoners continue to be behind bars on being accused under the anti-terror the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Addressed by family members of the political prisoners, academics, as well as social activists, it was highlighted how cases were sought to be fabricated against progressive individuals, democratic activists and intellectuals, who spoke out against "corporate loot of Indian resources, suppression of basic democratic

Kerala natural rubber producers 'squeezed', attend to their plight: Govt of India told

By Rosamma Thomas   Babu Joseph, general secretary of the National Federation of Rubber Producers Societies (NFRPS) at a recent discussion at Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, explained that it is high time the Union government paid greater heed to the troubles plaguing the rubber production sector in India – rubber is a strategic product, important for the military establishment and for industry, since natural rubber is still used in the manufacture of tyres for large vehicles and aeroplanes. Synthetic rubber is now quite widespread, but styrene, which is used in making synthetic rubber and plastics, and also butadiene, another major constituent of synthetic rubber, are both hazardous. Prolonged exposure to these even in recycled rubber can cause neurological damage. Kerala produces the bulk of India’s natural rubber. In 2019-20, Kerala’s share in the national production of rubber was over 74%. Over 20% of the gross cropped area in the state is under rubber cultivation, with total

Lack of welfare schemes, BSF curbs force West Bengal farmers to migrate far away

Counteview Desk  In a representation to the National Human Rights Commission chairperson, a senior West Bengal based activist has complained that villagers living near the border with Bangladesh are forced to migrate to as far away as Mumbai and Kerala because of lack of government sensitivity towards their welfare in original villages. Giving specific instances, Kirity Roy, secretary, Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM), said, if the Border Security Force (BSF) had not put any restriction on agricultural activities, and if villages had properly implemented welfare schemes, these people would never migrate to other States. Text: I want to attract your immediate attention to the inhumane condition of the migrated workers of Gobra village, Swarupnagar Block in North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal to seek your urgent intervention to protect the rights of these people. Gobra is a village situated near the Indo-Bangladesh Border where the border fencing is about 500 meters i

Bangladesh 'rights violations': US softens stance, fears increased clout of China, India

By Tilottama Rani Charulata*  In December 2021, in addition to the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), the United States imposed sanctions on seven former and current officers of the force, alleging serious human rights violations. Benazir Ahmed and former RAB-7 commander Miftah Uddin Ahmed were banned from entering the US. RAB as an institution was also canceled the support it was getting from the US and its allies. At the same time, those under the ban have been notified of confiscation of assets held abroad. The anti-crime and anti-terrorism unit of the Bangladesh Police, RAB is the elite force consisting of members of the Bangladesh Army, Bangladesh Police, Bangladesh Navy, Bangladesh Air Force, Border Guard Bangladesh, Bangladesh Civil Service and Bangladesh Ansar, and has been criticized by rights groups for its use of extrajudicial killings and is accused of forced disappearances. The government of Bangladesh has been insisting about lifting the ban on RAB, but the US had till recen