Why wearing the burqa is on the rise in South Asia | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 24.08.2016
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Why wearing the burqa is on the rise in South Asia

For some, the burqa represents a patriarchal subjugation of women while for others, women's clothing is a matter of personal choice. DW looks at the history and evolution of the various kinds of veils in South Asia.

Even the feminists and the liberal sections in the West are divided on whether the burqa, a garment that covers the entire body, or the niqab, the facial veil, represent personal freedom or suppression. While most experts agree that women, like men, should have the right and liberty to decide what to wear, it is debatable whether choosing to don a burqa is actually a personal decision not influenced by religious conditioning.

Perhaps the history and evolution of the veils in South Asia could shed some light on the phenomenon.

Pluralism and inter-faith harmony

South Asia, particularly India, is an excellent example of pluralism and inter-religious harmony. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs have lived together in the region for centuries, and people of all faiths, despite their overlapping cultures and norms, have also maintained their separate identities. Their way of dressing also depicts this amalgamation and distinction.

Hindu women worship the Sun god Surya in the waters of the river Yamuna during the Hindu religious festival of Chatt Puja in New Delhi October 30, 2014 (Photo: REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee)

South Asia, particularly India, is an excellent example of pluralism and inter-religious harmony

The facial veil for women is something that exists in both Muslim and Hindu traditions. To what extent the one has influenced the other is, however, unclear.

"There is no written document stating as to when purdah (cover for the face) reached the Indian subcontinent," Dr. Mubarak Ali, a renowned Pakistani historian, told DW. "When the Turk and Mughal emperors invaded India, their women would not conceal their faces. Historians from those times write that the Mughal and Turk women would ride horses, play polo and even drink wine. They did not enjoy an equal status with men but they also did not wear a niqab," Ali added.

The historian said that purdah is a middle-class phenomenon in South Asia. "The elite and the working class women didn't bother about wearing a burqa or a niqab. It was impossible for the working class women to wear these garments for the simple reason that it was not practical for them to toil in the fields or perform other kinds of chores. A small middle class had emerged during the Mughal era - after the Emperor Akbar's reign in the 16th century - and the women belonging to that economic class began donning veils in the name of leading a pious life," Ali pointed out.

Mushtaq Gaadi, an anthropologist at the Islamabad-based Quaid-i-Azam University, also considers the burqa to be a symbol of patriarchal piety that is dominant in both Hinduism and Islam.

"In patriarchal societies, there is a sense of honor attached to women's bodies and sexuality. In the name of preserving honor, many men do not allow women to show their faces to strangers," Gaadi told DW.

The Wahhabi influence

Barring the South Asian tribal areas, the recent insistence on covering women's faces and an increase in the use of burqas and veils are a result of the rise of political Islam in countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, the scholar underlined.

"The Saudi influence may have prompted more people in South Asia to wear the burqa. The Islamic political parties, too, have played a role in convincing the people that the purdah and piety are synonymous," Ali told DW.

The historian also said that Wahhabism not only affected the polity of South Asia but also damaged its pluralistic culture.

"Wahhabis are against any cultural plurality so they attack shrines, music festivals and other cultural centers that are not Islamic in their view," he said.

Ali asserts that the influence of Wahhabism is not only restricted to women's clothing; it has seeped into the psyche of many South Asians, causing an "Arabization" of many traditions.

"Patriarchy and religion demand subjugation of women, and veil is a form of suppression. Men influenced by rigid ideologies treat women as their property and they do not want them to be seen by others," Ali said.

Irrespective of India's pluralistic values, the subjugation of women has always been widespread in the region.

Progress and security

Experts say that statistics prove that the use of burqas and niqabs in South Asia has increased exponentially in the past three decades; hence the phenomenon is linked to the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in the region to a large extent. Be it the 1979 Iranian Revolution or the Afghan War in the 1980s, the foreign influences on the South Asian culture and politics cannot be overlooked, they stress.

"In the 1960s and 70s, many urban-based women in South Asia revolted against religious clothing and started donning western-style dresses. Women in Kabul, for instance, would even wear skirts," Arif Jamal, a US-based expert on Islam, told DW.

"However, the rise of Saudi-Wahhabi Islam in the 1980s revived the use of veil and also introduced the hijab, which only covers head and neck. The hijab became popular among the working women who wanted to appear both religious and modern at the same time," Jamal noted.

A barred window is one of the sole methods of seeing the outside world. The women are limited to the time they get outside of the shelter (Photo: Katie Falkenberg/Washington Times +++(c) dpa - Report+++)

'The hijab became popular among the working women who wanted to appear both religious and modern at the same time'

In other words, the present-day burqa is a modern phenomenon, which is an influence, and simultaneously a reaction, to the challenges and contradictions of a globalized world.

Historian Dr. Mubarak Ali believes that a sense of insecurity in modern societies is also a factor behind an increase in the use of hijabs and burqas. "In countries like Pakistan where crimes against women are common, some women wear burqa because they feel safe in it," Ali said.

Analysts, however, agree that external factors determine what kinds of clothes people wear in different cultures, and the burqa and other Islamic veils are no exceptions.

"I do not think that wearing burqa or burkini is a matter of personal choice. We almost always follow the religion of our parents and are conditioned to act in a certain way. Only if a woman changes her religion and decides to wear a veil or a burkini then she is acting out of choice," Jamal asserted.