ban in France
(later denounced by the courts) on the grounds of secularism and liberal ethos reveals the oxymoronic nature of both in the country. And further, it represents the State’s patronising approach towards women, and their choice to dress according to their comfort, belief and ideology. We recently saw a similar approach in India, where the Tourism Minister in a welcome kit issued to foreign arrivals, advised tourists to not wear short dresses or skirts, adding that this was for their own safety, because “Indian culture is different from the western”.
If the French want their women in bikinis and not burkinis on the beach, the advisory for tourists in India suggests that women avoid beaches altogether, when unaccompanied. If the French prime minister in the heat of a debate suggested that naked breasts represented the idea of France, more than headscarves, the Indian tourism minister in his innocuous advisory suggests that covered up female legs represent Indian culture. In both cases, cultural norms take precedence and invalidate the choice of a woman to dress out of her own accord, irrespective of the ideological (or any other) strand that influences her choice.
In the recent instance of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board defending the triple talaq before the Supreme Court, the arguments in the Affidavit reek of absurdity. The Board states, that if this practice is discontinued, a man could murder or burn his wife alive to get rid of her. Basically narrowing the two options for an angry man in an unhappy marriage – either divorce through semantics, or “illegal criminal ways” of murdering his wife. Every justification, whether on irrational arguments, religious sentiments, or cultural grounds, ignores the primary stakeholders and their choice in the matter – the women.
Similarly, the proposed anti-surrogacy law calls for a ban on commercial surrogacy and only allows for an altruistic surrogacy, by a close relative. This invalidates a woman’s right to her own body, and the rights of a couple to procreate outside norms defined by the law. Despite the nuances and subjective arguments it rakes up, what strikes out is that even here, women have little agency or choice over their own bodies. And the State only allows certain couplings, which it deems ideal, for a particular choice of procreation. (Single individuals, divorced and judicially separated couples, LGBTs, and live-in couples are not in the ambit of the proposed Bill.)
The notion of agency of women, caught in the tangles of religion, culture, society and politics is intricately explored in Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk’s most political work till date Snow. Set in the sleepy Turkish town of Kars, Snow opens with the protagonist, Ka, visiting his country after years. The larger debate embedded in the novel is on the idea of women being used in a political game by multiple factions, often ignoring their choice and free will. Women across Turkey are committing suicide however the epidemic reaches Kars in a serious manner. Ka travels there to understand the cause driving these women to their deaths, and instead finds himself facing opposing views of secularists, Islamists and the moderates.
The families blame failed love and unhappiness. The officials disagree. When the secular authorities in Turkey started banning headscarves from academic institutions, even the most radical rebels were unable to rise against them. Many girls started to look at the headscarf as a symbol of their religion and hence identity. In some interviews, it emerges that girls commit suicide to demonstrate a larger religious message in their need to wear a headscarf, and hence define their religious and political identity.
The Islamic fundamentalists want to hold back Turkey from the cultural modernisation, which will take place if women abandon headscarves. In a chilling scene, a fundamentalist holds the director of an institute that banned headscarves at gunpoint, interrogating him on religion and women before pulling the trigger. A political Islamist and a wanted terrorist, Blue adds a different dimension. While the headscarf girls are ‘martyrs’ to many, Blue finds nothing heroic in suicide. He says “Girls who commit suicide are not even Muslims… and it’s wrong to say they’re taking a stand over headscarves.” Contradicting him is the liberal and revolutionary couple Sunay Zaim and his wife Funda Eser who perform and stage provocative plays. In a performance of My fatherland or my headscarf Funda takes off her headscarf and burns it on stage creating a furor among the religious fundamentalists and an immediate riot in the theatre.
While there is no simple answer to why women are committing suicide – an act explicitly forbidden in Islam – it is clear that the women are pawns in a broader political game, which blatantly ignores their free will and choice. When headscarves are banned in Turkey, it takes away the choice of women to dress as they like, and to believe in what a headscarf symbolizes, however illiberal, religious or orthodox it may be. On the contrary it also takes away their agency to reject the headscarf out of their free will, because even the denunciation is an outcome of State coercion and not personal choice.
When it comes to women, debates often get tangled in a complex web of religion, morality, culture, traditions and more importantly the broader political impact. Do women have to explain their clothing or the lack of it? Should a form of divorce be justified because men may feel irrational criminal impulses? Should women need permission from the state to procreate on behalf of someone who is not a relative? What rights do women have over their own body and identity? As seen in these questions, and in Snow, debates involving women are often mostly at the crosshair between state forces or religious and fundamentalist groups, which often attempt to define how women should think, dress, behave and address their own bodies. They allow women to become subjects of important debates, however those which often ignore the voice and the choice of women themselves.
Sarah Farooqui is a pathological reader and bibliomaniac currently based in Bangalore. She was previously the Editor of Pragati – The Indian National Interest Review and and ran the Takshashila Institution's flagship Graduate Certificate in Public Policy course. She discusses fiction & non-fiction writing on her blog - The Bookend, a part of Business Standard's platform, Punditry.