Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy’s remark about girls in hijab being less interactive in classrooms has evoked a massive reaction in Pakistan. Most conservative and many liberal Muslims have taken it as an attack on Islamic traditions and beliefs. Surprisingly, many women are up in arms, too, deeming his remarks judgmental. Some years earlier, the governments of France and Germany were severely criticized by Islamic fundamentalists for banning the hijab for public servants and students.
The desirability, functionality or appropriateness of women’s attire or accessories does not apply to Muslim women alone and needs to be looked at with a broader perspective. Do articles of dress, hair-do, or personal accessories form the crux of religious ethos, or are they anachronisms that have lost their functionality and serve as covert tools to other ends? Across the globe, across cultures and religions, dress modes may be much more about social control and gender discrimination.
Any part of one’s dress or accessories restricting regular social interaction, hampering free movement, endangering the health or causing bodily discomfort must be questioned for both men and women. Communication is not only verbal but includes, to a major extent, facial expressions, eye contact, gestures, body movement and posture. Girl students attending classes in a hijab or ghungat are decidedly at a disadvantage regarding academic interaction and participation in extra-curricular activities. Similarly, a lady teacher delivering a lecture from behind a face or body covering compromises her effectiveness to communicate with students. So, who would like to watch news readers, female actors, or singers perform with their faces and bodies hidden behind veils? If women can function normally and optimally in full-face/body covers, would one like to be operated upon or flown by a female professional in such attire? Or maybe the underlying implication is that they are not expected to take on such roles?
Girl students attending classes in a hijab or ghungat are decidedly at a disadvantage regarding academic interaction and participation in extra-curricular activities. Similarly, a lady teacher delivering a lecture from behind a face or body covering compromises her effectiveness to communicate with students
Whether women wear what they do out of genuine free choice, coercion, or social pressure is a million-dollar question. In the sixteenth century, high-born European women wore tight-laced corsets to achieve the ideal “wasp-waist” of 19-20 inches at the cost of numerous health problems like impaired breathing, fractured ribs, spine distortion, stunted growth damage to internal organs. A nineteenth-century fashion that brought death by fire to many was crinoline dresses with huge, hooped skirts made up of large amounts of inflammable fabric. These oversized dresses also caused accidents by getting caught in wheels of carriages and blowing away women with gusts of wind.
In China, a small three-inch foot known as a golden lotus represented refinement and desirability in brides, no different from the wasp-waist of the Victorian English woman. Foot-binding involved breaking and binding all but the big toes and wrapping them flat against the sole with a ten-foot-long silk strip to turn them into a claw-like extremity. This cruel tradition often caused infections, severe pain and a slow, awkward hobbling gait.
In China, a small three-inch foot known as a golden lotus represented refinement and desirability in brides, no different from the wasp-waist of the Victorian English woman
Which of these practices, which were the norm and perceptibly acceptable to women who suffered them, can be seen as rational and acceptable in today’s world and lifestyle? And yet, most women were conditioned to believe that such restrictive and abnormal measures were not only normal but desirable to ideal womanhood. Mind manipulation or brainwashing can and is often used to control people in various ways. Practices masquerading as free choices may have been planted in the human subconscious for hidden motives that have nothing to do with piety, God or virtue. Down the ages, man has contrived ways to exert control to create and maintain social orders biased in favour of class and gender. Let’s get the blinkers off and make our choices.