Music legend AR Rahman recently found himself at the receiving end after pictures of his daughter Khatija wearing a niqab were shared widely on social media. The composer’s daughter made an appearance as he was celebrating ten years of his winning the Oscar for Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionnaire. Soon social media trolls were condemning him for being conservative, and the maestro, trying to clear his stand on the matter, tweeted a photo of his daughters with wife Saira, where only Khatija was seen wearing a niqab.
In a social media post, Khatija too asserted her choice: “The veil has been my personal choice with complete acceptance and honour. I’m a sane mature adult who knows to make my choices in life. Any human being has a choice to wear or do what he/she wants and that’s what I’ve been doing. Hence, kindly don’t make your own judgements without understanding the exact situation.”
— A.R.Rahman (@arrahman) February 6, 2019
It wasn’t perhaps as much as the image of a woman wearing a veil that provoked the mass anger. The furore, rather, was directed at the musician, who, it seemed, with all his worldwide fame, failed the liberals by “forcing” his daughter to wear what she did. “This video really angered me. I mean how can someone raise his or her daughter to be covered up completely. This is regressive and slave mentality. She’s a woman, make her free and let her live her life like a free bird. Don’t make her a prisoner of stupid regressive mindset,” read one of the tweets.
Assuming that “covering a woman completely” automatically robs her of her free will or agency is not a singular reading. In fact, it is predicated on the idea that what a woman wears determines how powerful or powerless she is.
Scholar of Religious studies Bahar Davary, in her article Miss Elsa and the Veil: Honor, Shame, and Identity Negotiations, echoes similar sentiments. “For women, shame and honour are often closely related to their dress and display of hair and eyes…[W]e are still defined by our bodies.”
Seen from such a lens, those women who wear the niqab, or the hijab, seem to be the obvious victims of patriarchy, the helpless third world cousin of their progressive, first-world counterparts. Islam’s insistence that its women followers don it overwhelms all the other narratives and their decision to wear it is viewed as an act of surrender, of giving in to the patriarchal norms. It is this that rattled, even angered, those who saw Khatija under the veil. Her apparent conforming to the societal norms was seen as an act of subservience, a product of “stupid, regressive mindset”.
Such a reading not only assumes that she has no agency whatsoever and is a “prisoner” in the shackles of patriarchy but also looks at the idea of freedom and progress as homogeneous concepts. Davary, an Iranian herself, reasons against this in her article. “One of the conditions for understanding why some women choose the veil is the realisation that it is a potent symbol that can assume multiple meanings.”
“In the mind of a particular Muslim woman, the veil—and whether she wears it or not—may mean a number of different things, which can vary greatly from one phase of her life to the next,” she goes on to write. In such narratives, which are entrenched in the private, the rules of the public cease to operate. Each woman’s decision to wear the veil (or not) differs from another.
Veil: Lending an identity
Contrary to what is generally believed, donning the veil does not necessarily rob one of their identity. Defending the rights of the Turkish women who are choosing to follow the practice, Davary writes, “Returning to the veil is not a step backwards but a commitment to a renewed meaning, one rooted in their desire to redefine one’s identity as a Turkish woman. Veiling represents a conflation of both the old and the new.”
A fitting example of the veil lending an identity, rather than robbing one off it, can be seen in the 2017 film Secret Superstar, where the seemingly restrictive attire liberates the 15-year-old protagonist Insia Malik. Malik (Zaira Wasim), living with her mother Najma (Meher Vij), her grandmother and brother Guddu, dreams of becoming a singer. Her wishes are impeded by her father’s abuse and aversion to the idea. Refusing to give up on her dreams, Malik dons a niqab to disguise her identity and uploads her songs on YouTube under the pseudonym, Secret Superstar. Her videos garner astounding views, and soon the garment that was meant to conceal her identity, ends up providing her with another- she becomes the Secret Superstar.
For many, wearing the hijab or the niqab can be an act of reclaiming their cultural identity, while for others it might mean re-appropriating the attire and infusing it with meanings, starkly different from the connotations it is associated with. “The veil has been my personal choice with complete acceptance and honour,” Khatija writes, entreating one to focus on her story and her personal narrative. It is imperative to remember the private story, or at least be aware of its existence, before dismissing a woman for wearing a veil.
All women might be striving towards freedom, but each has their own personal definitions of it. It is comforting to think all roads lead to freedom, but reductive to assume that the journeys would be similar.