The Last Straw

When Jack Straw the other day encountered  a muslim woman, face veiled in niqab, it spelt in his mind the  last straw for white-dominated multiculturalism in Britain.

Surely and soon enough the post-9/11 discourse centring on  the ostensibly uncomplicated opposition between the benign forces of ‘modernity’ on one hand and of medievalist ‘orthodoxy’ on the other received fresh impetus. What doubt could there be that it was unambiguously the muslim community that was obstinately obstructing the march of reason, nowhere more apparent than in the way they brainwash their womenfolk.  Never mind that to this day most men, white or not, tend to be ‘modern’ when it comes to other women and ‘medieval’ in relation to their own!

There are of course those who raise questions.  For instance, if the essence of ‘modernity’ resides in the march of reason and the regime of inalienable human rights, how self-evidently do the claimants of ‘modernity’ pass the test.  Were one to cast an objective and non-racist eye on the record of the fair-skinned agents of world history since the Enlightenment, a pretty picture may not emerge.  Nor indeed, were one to consider the record of religions, may the Church score a great deal higher than barbarisms of the non-christian kind.

The strong possibility then is that ‘modernity’ may, after all, find a referent only in the march of technology and money-circulation; and who doesn’t know to what ends these continue to be deployed by the proponents of ‘modernity.’

Furthermore, whereas it may seem on the face of it that women other than the muslim ones exercise a wider range of life-choices, including sartorial ones, please let us not pretend that male-dominated power-structures among Jews,Christians, even Hindus have thought any differently about their women than have muslim patriarchs. Upon scrutiny it may turn out that, in theory, there is rather little that sets them apart, although differential aspects of community histories in various regions and epochs have perhaps contributed to degrees of freedom or unfreedom which then are peddled as ontological judgements. 

Having placed those queries on record, let us return to the subject of women’s hair and apparel.  A remarkable uniformity of injunction and purpose meets us here through the history of culture.  First the Judaic past:
 â€œIt is not like the daughters of Israel to walk out with heads uncovered”
 â€œcursed be the man who lets the hair of his wife be seen.”

 â€œDuring the Tannaitic period the Jewish woman’s failure to cover her head was considered an affront to her modesty.”

The subject of ‘modesty’ as we know crops up everywhere; and, as we also know, Frederick Engels in 1884 was to make a definitive linkage between this overbearing concern with women’s sexuality and the emergence of private property. More of that later.  For now the ingenuous precursor of that argument is cutely contained in this further gem from ancient Rabbinical teaching on the subject:
 â€œA woman who exposes her hair for self-adornment brings poverty.”(1)

Next, this from the redoubtable St.Paul, as we enter the evangelical Christian era:
 â€œNow I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of woman is man. . .”
 â€œEvery man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonours his head.  And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head.”

Should you ask why, a more explicit answer is provided:

 â€œA man ought not to cover his head since he is the image and glory of God, but a woman is the glory of  man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. For this reason the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head.”

Were you still in some confusion, here is the clincher:

 â€œThe head covering is a symbol of woman’s subjection to the man and to God.”(2)

As is well-known, what may be called Hinduism is a vast and diverse set of practices drawn from an equally vast and diverse spectrum of texts, beginning from Vedic times (usually placed back to 1500 B.C.) with no single text occupying an undisputed canonical position.  Yet, barring a few traditions—chiefly the Shaivite cults—there is a fairly constant refrain that the chief duty of the woman is to her man, and chastity her highest virtue.  Indeed, as in the case of Ram’s consort, Sita, even the highest of women could risk abandonment no matter how guiltless if a sufficiently strong suspicion was floated.

In the Mahabharta, especially in the Anusasna Parva, there are episodes where such teachings are drilled home in direct or narratively ingenious ways.

In one protracted interchange between Narada and the apsara Panchachuda, the latter acknowledges in great detail how women are frail, inconstant, sinful, and prone to ‘transgress’ at the slightest.

In another section, the sage Ashtavakra is heard to declaim:

 â€œwomen can never be their own mistresses.  This is the opinion of the Creator himself,viz, that a woman never deserves to be independent.”

Text after text, it is unmistakeably enjoined that through her three phases of life, the woman’s duty is to serve father, husband, son in return for protection  by the male of the species, nowhere more authoritatively inscribed than in the Laws of Manu (Manusmriti).

What sets Hindu enunciations of these edicts apart, often, is the more evolved quality of tale-telling, as within sophisticated dramatic skeins voices are manipulated to carry a greater persuasive charge.  Thus, for example, in another section of the Anusasna Parva, Sandili is made to detail proudly the qualities that reward her with entry into heaven:

 â€œVerily during the absence of my husband, I never used collyrium, or ornaments, I never washed myself properly or used garlands or unguents, or decked my feet with lac-dye. . .”(3)

In more recent times, explicit connections are made between the woman’s purity and the purity of the ‘race’:

 â€œIf a woman is pure she can save and purify man. She can purify the race. Hindu women have been the custodians of the Hindu race. . . . Hindu civilization has survived on account of the purity of Hindu women.”(4)

Now, believe it or not, what the Quran has to say on the subject seems a pittance in contrast to the aforesaid.  Remarkably, when it speaks of the desirability of “modesty” it does so for both sexes:

 â€œsay to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty. . ..And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty.”

As to the veil:

 â€œthat they should drape their veils over their bosoms.”

Muslim history of the period explains that these counsels were given in response to a situation where many complained of harassment, so that something like the following sounds like mere commonsense, however childish or unsustainable in the context of women’s historical experience world-wide; “modesty” is recommended inorder to prevent molestation—something we hear about every single day from diverse Hindu gurus and dharmacharies:

 â€œ. . . that they should cast their outer garments over their bodies(when abroad)so that they should be known and not molested.”(5)

Nowhere in the Quran can one find a text that says women should cover their faces.

The fact of the matter, as Engles was to point out, is that “monogamous marriage comes on the scene as the subjugation of the one sex by the other; it announces a struggle between the sexes unknown throughout the previous prehistoric period.”  And at the heart of the struggle has been the “express purpose. . .to produce children of undisputed paternity (who) could later come into the father’s property as his natural heirs.”

Thus, “the right of conjugal infidelity also remains secured to him”; and, “should his wife recall the old form of sexual life and attempt to revive it, she is punished more severely than ever.”(6)

According to this highly plausible reading, then, the economies of surplus produced not only monogamous marriage but the male necessity and prerogative to police female sexuality if the political economy of surplus appropriation was to be consolidated.  And in that process, the female hair, as indeed, female laughter, came to represent an unruly reminder of threats that lurked within the female to secure male possession of her.

If anything, it might seem a credit then that within muslim social practice, marriage does not come accompanied with the baggage of sanctimonious authorisations and injunctions that obtain in Hinduism, for instance, or in Christianity, but is regarded as a ‘contract’ between equals wherein the terms are explicitly laid out.  And either party is given the right to dissolve the marriage should it not work.

The whole troubled business of  what women may or may not wear must then be seen with some informed attention to larger histories across religious communities that have spawned these conformisms.

Nor can the disparate data that obtains as to actual cultural use of apparel within one and the same community from place to place and time to time be understood in isolation from the imperatives of local histories of power.  If, for example, during the Algerian or the more recent Iranian revolution women took up the veil as a revolutionary assertion against colonial/imperialist domination, they are obliged to wear it in southern parts of contemporary Afghanistan as a purely self-protective mechanism.  Jack Straw would not have forgotten how  expatriate Sikhs were to fight for recognition of their right to wear the turban, the beard, and the kirpan during the 1960s and then again the 1980s in Britain, until they succeeded in obtaining recognition as one of Britains’ “ethnic” communities, a recognition that brought concomitant policy rewards.  Same was the story in Canada.  So that may be the muslim lady teacher who insisted on wearing her niqab was not so much succumbing to male brainwash as declaring a stance of defiance against a hegemonic denial of choice.

Let me conclude with a snippet from the cultural/political career of Mahatma Gandhi, since he seems again very much a point of reference for our chattering classes.  Do recall that when he went to London to meet King George during the Round Table Conference, the King, infuriated,  at having to meet a man who barely wore any clothes, (Jack Straw infuriated that the lady wore too many), sent his refusal to meet Gandhi unless the man agreed to dress “properly’.  We know what Gandhi’s answer  to that was, not too different from the muslim woman teacher in the veil.

The question relating to ‘modernity’ then has to be settled on  a terrain far more intricate, analytic, and totalized than merely on the basis of what women wear from time to time.  For example, one real battle for ‘modernity’ in culture is currently underway in India, as a new institution called the Muslim Women’s Personal Law Board defies the male-dominated All India Muslim Personal Law Board on the question of what a married women (Imrana), raped by her father-in-law (now sentenced under criminal law  to ten years in prison), should do—renounce her husband, who, according to the decrepit AIMPLB has now become her son, or go resume her life with him—something that both she and her husband want to do.  Does it then matter whether or not the women who sit on that Board wear the veil or not?

1. See Rabbi Menachem M.Brayer, The Jewish Woman in Rabbanical Literature, cited in Sherif Abdul Azim, Women in Islam versus in the Judaeo-Christian Tradition:The Myth and the Reality, Part 15—The Veil, pp.77-78. 

2. 1.Corinthians 11: 3-10

3. Sections xxxviii, xx, cxxiii, trans., Sri Kisari Mohan Ganguli).

4. Swami Shivananda, Divine Life Mission, Rishikesh

5. Quran, 24: 30,31,4.

6. Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Ch.ii, The Family, 1884.

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