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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.

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