My mother used to wear a burqa with a net over her face. It reminded me of the meat safes in my grandmother’s house. Meat safe’s net was made of metal, my mother’s net was made of linen. But the objective was the same: keeping the meat safe. My mother was put under a burqa by her family. They told her that wearing a burqa would mean obeying Allah. If you obeyed Allah, He would be happy with you and not let you burn in hellfire. My mother was afraid of Allah and also of her father. He would threaten her with grave consequences if she did not wear the burqa.
My mother was also afraid of the men in the neighborhood; even her husband was a source of fear, for he could do anything to her if she disobeyed him.
As a young girl, I used to nag her: ‘Mother, don’t you suffocate in this? Don’t you feel all dark inside? Don’t you feel breathless? Don’t you ever feel like throwing it off?’ My mother kept quite. She couldn’t do anything about it. But I could. When I was sixteen, I was presented a burqa by one of my relatives. I threw it out.
The custom of veil is not new. It goes as far back as 13th century B.C.E in Assyria. The women of aristocratic Assyrian families used veil. Ordinary women and prostitutes were not allowed to wear veil. In the middle ages, even Anglo-Saxon women used to cover their hair and chin and hide their faces behind a curtain. This veil system was not religious. The religious veil was used by Catholic nuns and Mormons, though for the latter only during religious ceremonies and rituals. For Muslim women, however, such religious veil is not limited to rituals, but mandatory for their daily lives.
There are people who say that the Quran doesn’t say anything about wearing a burqa. They are mistaken. This is what the Quran says:
‘And command the Muslim women to keep their gaze low and to protect their chastity, and not to reveal their adornment except what is apparent, and to keep the cover wrapped over their bosoms; and not to reveal their adornment except to their own husbands or fathers or husbands’ fathers, or their sons or their husbands’ sons, or their brothers or their brothers’ sons or sisters’ sons, or women of their religion, or the bondwomen they possess, or male servants provided they do not have manliness, or such children who do not know of women’s nakedness, and not to stamp their feet on the ground in order that their hidden adornment be known; and O Muslims, all of you turn in repentance together towards Allah, in the hope of attaining success. (It is incumbent upon women to cover themselves properly.)’
[Sura Al Noor 24:31]
‘O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves [part] of their outer garments. That is more suitable that they will be known and not be abused. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful.’
[Surah Al Ahzab 33:59]
Even the Hadith– a collection of the words of Prophet Muhammed, his opinion on various subjects and words about his work, written by those close to him– speaks extensively of the veil. Women must cover their body before going out, they should not go before strangers, they should not go to the mosque to pray, they should not attend any funeral, they should not go to the graveyards!
There are many views on why and how the Islamic veil started. One view has it that Prophet Muhammed became very poor after spending all the wealth of Khadija, his first wife. At that time, in Arabia, the poor had to go to the open desert for relieving themselves, and even for sexual needs. The Prophet’s wives, too, had to do the same. He had told his wives ‘You are allowed to go out to answer the call of nature.’ [Bukhari Hadith first volume book 4 No. 149]. Accordingly, this is what his wives started doing. One day, Prophet Muhammed’s disciple, Umar, complained that these women were very uncomfortable because they were instantly recognizable while relieving themselves. Umar proposed a cover but Prophet Muhammed ignored it. Then the Prophet asked Allah for advice and he laid down the verse (33:59) [Sahih Muslim Book 026 No. 5397].
This is the history of the veil, according to the Hadith. But the question is: as Arab men, too, relieved themselves in the open, why didn’t Allah start the veil for men? Clearly, Allah doesn’t treat men and women as equals, else there would be veil for both! Men are considered superior to women. So women have to be made walking prisons.
Another view is that the veil was introduced to separate women from slaves. This originates from stories in the Hadith. One story in the Hadith goes thus: After the fall of Khyber, people described the beauty of Safia Bint Hui, the new bride of a slain enemy soldier. The Prophet chose her for himself. On the way to Madina he stopped and had intercourse with her. His companions did not know if she was a wife or a concubine/slave. Later, a veil was drawn between her and the men-folk and they came to know that she was a wife [Bukhari, Book of Sales and Book of Nikah 3:59].
The third view comes from this story. Prophet Muhammed’s wife Ayesha was very beautiful. His friends were often found staring at her with admiration. This clearly upset the Prophet. So the Quran has an verse that says, ‘Oh friends of the prophet, never go to the prophet’s house without an invitation. And if you do go, don’t look at his wives or ask them for any favour.’ It was to resist friends, and disciples that the veil system came into being. First it was applicable to only the wives of the prophet, and later it was extended to all Muslim women. Now, some women practice the veil by only covering their hair. That is not what is written in the Quran and in the Hadith: covering just the hair is not Islamic veil.
Why are women covered? Because they are objects for sex. Because when men see unveiled women, they are aroused. But men are not covered for this. Why should women have to be penalized for men’s sexual problems? Women also have sexual urges! But men are not penalized for it. In no religion created by men are women thought of as human beings. The rules of veil humiliate not only women but also men. If women walk about without veil, it’s as if men will look at them with lustful eyes, or pounce on them, or rape them. Do men lose all their senses when they see any women without a burqa?
My question to people who argue that the Quran says nothing about veil is: If the Quran advises women to wear veil, should they do so? Really, No. Irrespective of which book says it, which person advises it, whoever commands it, women should not wear veil, no veil, no chador, no hijab, no burqa, no headscarf, not any of them! They are instruments of no respect. These are symbols of women’s imprisonment. Through them, women are told that they are but the property of men and society: things. These coverings are used to keep women passive, submissive. Women are told to wear them so that they cannot exist with their honor, confidence, separate identity, respect – with their own opinions and ideals – intact; and so that they cannot stand with their heads held high and their spines strong and erect.
Some 1,500 years ago, it was decided for an individual’s personal reasons that women should wear veil, since then millions of Muslim women have had to suffer it. So many old customs have died a natural death, but not veil. Instead, of late, there has been a mad craze to revive it. Covering a woman’s head means covering her brain to ensure that it will not work. If women were not massively brainwashed or their brains worked properly, they would have long ago thrown off these veils imposed on them by a religious and patriarchal regime.
What should women do? They should proclaim a war against the ill-treatment meted out to them. They should snatch back from the men their freedom and their rights; they should throw their head-scarves out. They should take off their burqas and burn them.
Taslima Nasreen is an award-winning internationally acclaimed Bengali author. Her writings have been translated in 20 languages. She has faced various fatwas, and an 18-year long exile from her country because of her writings.