Beauty and the hijab: a sociological reading

by Devika Mittal

“Mariam had never before worn a burqa. Rasheed had to help her put it on. The padded headpiece felt tight and heavy on her skull, and it was strange seeing the world through a mesh screen. She practiced walking around her room in it and kept stepping on the hem and stumbling. The loss of peripheral vision was unnerving, and she did not like the suffocating way the pleated cloth kept pressing against her mouth.

You’ll get used to it,” Rasheed said. “With time, I bet you’ll even like it.”” (Extract from “a thousand splendid suns” by Khaleed Hosseini)

As a kid, I would always give a second look to a woman clad in burqa. I would always be very curious to see the face beneath.  But more than that, I would always think about her. Not that my own religion does not have such ‘fascinating’ examples but generally purdah is seen to be synonymous with conservatism. I would try to imagine the woman in her household. How she would be ‘forced’ to be confined to her room and would have very little say in her own life.

I would keep on looking at her, staring into her eyes as they say that the eyes can give one all the answers.  But there was something that again, I always managed to see. I would see beautiful kohl-lined eyes and nose piercing. I would also manage to see a small portion of the jazzy lowers beneath the burqa.

I have always seen them.  I have also always seen a very beautiful face in the hijab. Needless to say, beauty is not very natural. A clear, glowing face, devoid of any unwanted facial hair and complete with kohl-lined eyes is not very natural. I always used to laugh at this, finding it ‘contradictory’. A Muslim woman is fully covered but the most beautiful part which is the face and more particularly, the eyes remain uncovered.

Now from a sociological point of view, i think that maybe these are forms of protest.  Burqa and hijab are as important as the sindoor for a married Hindu woman. In both cases, it is very difficult to do away with these markers. But even sindoor has been undergoing a lot of changes. So instead of the thick layer of sindoor which was to be traditionally applied in the centre parting of the hair, we almost have it now as a formality. It has become another accessory in the make-up.  I feel that this is a form of protest. The significance is diluting (atleast in urban spaces) but not disappearing completely.

In a similar way, I feel that maybe the jazzy lowers and the beautiful face are silent forms of protest. One point can be that the jazzy lowers is for the household when the burqa will be removed. However, this is not very convincing. If they can remove the burqa, they can also change clothes. The purpose of a burqa is to look unattractive. So display of an inch of the attractive clothing beneath the unattractive burqa is not acceptable. I should also mention that my references are generally confined to young women, even though I have also seen kajal in case of older women.  Similarly, the purpose of the hijab is to look unattractive. The ‘uninviting’ burqa is supposed to be a long black garment. However, I often see burqas with embroidery. They are pretty and yes, attractive. The rich bohra community ‘allows’ burqas of different colours.

I am not arguing that this maybe a conscious form of protest. It may be unconscious. People may attribute this to a dozen of external factors but the point is that maybe the protest is happening. Women beneath the burqa are may be struggling to get out. They may be making use of bright colours (the shiny lowers) to shun away the darkness in which they are supposed to confine themselves. They might be speaking. The kohl in their eyes might be speaking. The kohl might be struggling to ask questions to the clerics, to the male counterparts and to the society, as a whole. The kohl might be asking, “Women should cover themselves because men can’t control their sexuality? Women should cease to be human beings because men behave like animals?”

The nose ring might be piercing to ask, “If women are attractive to men, aren’t men attractive to women? Why don’t they wear burqa too?

the jazzy trousers might be questioning, “don’t women in burqa gets raped or molested? People stare at women in burqa too, infact even more closely.

I am also aware of a bunch of feminists who view the burqa and hijab as symbols of liberation as then women are not objectified. But to my dear feminists, I would like to ask if attraction is just a one-way process. Are only women attractive to men? What about men being attractive to women? The fact that it’s the woman who has to cover herself because men can’t control their animalism shows how these feminists are surrendering to the patriarchal order.

I don’t buy this. And maybe as I state above, a lot of women are also not accepting it. They all might be speaking but have you been listening? Have you been hearing their possibly shouts from the burqa? Have you been staring at those possibly rebellious eyes? They all might have been protesting behind the veil, beneath the burqa.

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4 comments

  1. Devika, it was a very interesting read and stirred a couple of things in my mind.
    So far as I understand, kohl/surma is integral to a muslim woman’s beauty paraphernalia. While it maybe attractively applied beneath a burqa, that in itself is no transgression of the apparent boundaries imposed. Similar is the case with the noise pin.
    Also, arguments in favour of burqa have been enunciated as a ‘bunch of feminists’ would think. While that is one position, I am left wanting to know more about those who are actually wearing the burqa. In that, you’ve limited your arguments as an observer who feels a certain way about burqa clad women and who doesn’t have to wear the burqa herself wear a burqa.

  2. thanks for the comment, aparna 🙂 your first part..i should admit i didn’t exactly get… part of beauty paraphernalia?? umm 😐 but i would like to respond to the second part. Yes, i have not included their perspective explicitly in the article. However, i have talked to muslim women about it(and yes, i should have mentioned that). None of them is from the so-called ‘conservative’ family.. they are from urban spaces and none in their generation wear it. They dont wear it coz in their families, it is not ‘compulsary’. One of them said that she finds it unfair. she agrees with the concept, but she does not want to wear it. But an interesting example that i would like to quote is of this facebook contact.. this girl always wears a burqa( as depicted in the pictures) but she is also into drinking and smoking(depicted in the pictures again).
    but this article..it ofcourse is not a definite argument. it is just a speculation. someone on facebook said that the reason for embroidery and different colours may be a part of acceptance, not necessarily a protest. i agree wid that too.. bt what i m trying to say is that because of these, they are consciously/unconsciously challenging the very notions. And in this way, they may be protesting.
    I have tried to understand this contradiction.. trying to read it as a silent form of protest.

  3. Hmmm… There was this girl in college who used to wear the hijab and very proudly so. She appeared in We the People in a show regarding France and Burqa and said that an unwrapped chocolate is more tempting than one in a wrapper – the covering serves not to tempt. She would be classified as being from the preogressive among muslims. This is what spurred me to express myself. That ‘we’ from the outside may misconstrue things for inadeqaute understanding and arriving at conclusions which maybe unwittingly ethnocentric.

    Also, I feel that protest is what it is only if it is consciously done so toward a defined end. What do you say? Would an unconscious act count?

    As for the first part I meant to say that applying kohl is common to muslim women, whether married or otherwise, young or old. Even men wear it. Therein, applying, what is usually applied , if only a little more attractively may not necessarily be defying the norm or protesting against the established rule. How then can we count this as evidence for protest?

  4. i agree wid u n that is why i had written that it “might be”.. it is an interpretation. They may/may not be protesting. I used protest only coz they challenge the notion. this protest may be just a contradiction/hypocrisy. and abt the concept of unconscious protest.. protest is a challenge to the existing notion. unconscious/conscious.

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