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Dressing to Please

I guess I should be happy I can wear clothes at all.

Do any of you remember the slew of articles that came out in the wake of 9/11 when people (in the West) suddenly sat up and discovered that there was a significant – significantly Muslim that is – population of women out there who walk around covered from head to toe?

Reporters were dressing up in burkhas to walk the free streets of London to find out first hand what it felt like (Answer: confining, scary, got stared at a lot. Alternative answer: safe, confining, got stared at a lot.); there were roundtable discussions on newschannels about what it meant to be an Arab and a woman and a Muslim and how they could make it all work (Answer: Arabic for “adjust maadi!”); and everybody was very concerned about how this was a violation of human rights.

I thought it would slowly fade away because it’s not like Muslim women just started covering up. I’m pretty sure they were wearing those things even before 9/11 and all they got in return were double takes and stares. But no, they’re still at it.

Meanwhile, lots of Muslim women went, “Thanks but we’ll drop you a note when we need you to talk for us because right now all you’re doing is creeping us out.” Turns out a lot of these women really like wearing the hijab/niqab to various degrees and saw it as their ethnic wear. Then a bunch of other Muslim women spoke up and said, “Hold on! We never signed on to this! Doesn’t our opinion count?”

So then everybody went back to the drawing table and it was finally decided that it was terrible that some countries (*cough*Saudi Arabia*cough*) control what women wear but if the women themselves want to wear it, then that’s because they’re brainwashed victims but hey! at least we told them so now it’s on their own head and let’s get real here for a second, is Saudi Arabia really going to pay attention to what the rest of the world thinks about how they treat their women? Ha! So enjoy snorkeling in a hijab, ladies! We hear the sea around your country is awesome. The Israeli end of it anyway.

***

My last year of high school, right before the Board exams, my friends and I were casually sauntering past the library on our way to catching the mid-morning bus home. Seniors were invited to come in a for a couple of hours each morning and put in some extra practice under the concerned teacher’s supervision if they felt they needed it and a bunch of us thought it was an excellent idea: we’d study in the morning, hitch a ride back to town, get something to eat at our favorite hangout before going home to study some more. Teen life in a small town where everybody knew who you were and what you were supposed to be doing was always a matter of extreme forward planning.

We didn’t have to dress in uniform and could pretty much do whatever we liked in school as long as we didn’t disturb the rest of the students, which was fine by us. It was like having a picnic every day and we thought it was a great way to end our school life.

So on this particular day, we’d just wrapped up and were about to go find the school bus when we heard the librarian screech: “There she is!”

We turned around and there she was, finger pointed dramatically and accusingly at… me. What had I done?

“Look at her clothes!” she screamed as though I was poking holes in her eyes.

I looked down. I was wearing my baggiest jeans, the ones that had never fit me properly but I loved to wear because it was so comfy. You could just see its shapeless legs peeping out from under my tent-like pink t-shirt, the one so large, its shoulder seams hit halfway down to my elbow. Not that this gave me a cleavage of any kind, mind you: like all Indian t-shirts sold within the country, it had a round neck that was so tiny, it would have strangled a person of the right size.

So I stood there in my hobo outfit, wearing flat ballet slippers, and completing the look with greasy hair, thick spectacles and a mouth full of steel and rubber. Damn, I thought. I should have listened to my mom when she told me I looked like a bum.

“What are you wearing, Amrita?” asked Miss X, the teacher we’d come to meet this morning, the one the librarian had apparently been complaining to.

“Uh, jeans and a t-shirt?” I said, hoping for the best.

“Well, such tight clothes are not appropriate for school,” she said with a straight face.

I looked at her. She studied her nails. The librarian looked victorious.

“Ha ha,” I said at last. Sometimes the teachers like to crack jokes. Nobody ever got them because they were incredibly lame, but maybe this was one of them?

Nope. No such luck.

“Why don’t you wear something like your friends?” she asked.

I looked at Pops and Sangs, wearing tight-fitted salwar kameezes and identical WTF expressions. Contacts placed discreetly in their eyes and no braces in sight. Then I looked at myself. If I was so inclined, I knew who I’d find attractive amongst the three of us. (Hint: it’s not me.)

I opened my mouth to argue when one of my friends jabbed me discreetly in the ribs. “Jeans,” she muttered significantly.

Ah.

Denim. Cloth of the Devil. It’s a wonder they let you buy it over the counter considering the accessories that come with it – a libido that won’t quit, teenage pregnancy with mandatory termination, the morals of a sociopath, a junkie-unwashed-hippie boyfriend, and an alarming tendency to take away the free will of all men in sight and turn them into slavering rapists by force! Oh, did I forget the Western Bug? It’s an advanced parasite that hides in your pants leg and drills into your bone, instantly changing your nationality, your morals and your personality.

For fuck’s sake! They’re pants! Durable, comfortable, easy to wear, easier to maintain, pants!

Tell that to the good fathers who ran the Catholic college I attended. In Bangalore. Shortly after I joined, they actually banned jeans on campus. No, I’m not 100 years old. This incident took place at the turn of this century, not the last. The fathers did it with the best of intentions – they were shielding the pristine minds entrusted to their care by anxious parents. I failed to understand then and I still don’t understand how wearing a skirt or salwar kameez to college protected our virtue whereas denims would absolutely destroy us.

What I did understand then, and continue to understand now, is that when you are a woman, the world is entitled to not just have an opinion about the way you dress but enforce it as well. As business school students we were required to dress in formal attire three days a week and were allowed to dress as we pleased the other two days.  The gender ratio in our class was five girls to about twenty boys. We studied together, we hung out together, we got in trouble together, we partied together, we paid the same amount of money to attend the same classes taught by the same teachers about whom we all bitched in the same rooms. For three days of the week, we were all equal. For the remaining two, five of us had an extra rule based on nothing but gender.

The ban didn’t last long, its utter ridiculousness becoming more and more apparent as the college tried to modernize itself into a sleek, Western-friendly environment in a city being touted as India’s Silicon Valley. India’s success brought down a rule based on lingering Indian bigotry. But I’ve never forgotten the sting of that relatively minor injustice.

***

The burkha is not a garment that I would wear. Unless I was hiding from the police or something. I don’t even wear a dupatta every time I put on a salwar because I often feel suffocated by things touching my neck, so the whole hijab-niqab bit is lost on me. I don’t care if it’ll make me feel warm and fuzzy like I’m back in my m0ther’s womb, I don’t want it.

Other women do for various reasons of their own. It’s hard to understand them from where I stand but you know what? They don’t need me to understand. I’ve never in my life put on a set of clothes hoping some random person I don’t know and will never know, somewhere out there in the big wide world, approves and understands my sartorial decisions. Why shouldn’t the woman who wears a niqab have the same right?

That said, Yasmin Alibhai Brown, a journalist I greatly admire even when I find myself disagreeing with her, makes a strong point when she says:

We communicate with each other with our faces. To deny that interaction is to deny our shared humanity. Unreasonable community or nationalistic expectations disconnect essential bonds. Governments should not accommodate such demands. Naturists can’t parade on the streets, go to school or take up jobs unless they cover their nakedness. Why should burqaed women get special consideration?

Why? Because there actually are women living in the West today who cover themselves not out of choice but because that is the requirement for stepping outside the house at all.

Take for instance the woman who was fined for wearing a burkha in Italy. Her husband thinks their only alternative now is for her to just stay where she’s put, where nobody else can look at her. A law meant to “help” her ended with her imprisonment.

Europe’s response to Islamic nations forcing their women to dress a particular way is to tell Muslim women living in their countries how to dress, thus isolating them even further. Well! That’ll certainly show those stupid women in Saudi Arabia and Iran and elsewhere!

Amazing, isn’t it, that the right and the left come at it from two completely different political viewpoints, but they agree on one thing: the best way to help a girl out is to tell her what to wear. Once you’ve taken away her choice in this one thing, she will magically find herself surrounded by a multitude of “correct” choices and the world will be a better place. For her and for you.

India doesn’t have this problem, of course. Shikha Dalmia thinks it’s because India has a secular ideal based in the tolerant strands of Hinduism. Maybe. I think it’s because conservative Hindus up north practice their own version of the burkha. Any Indian politician who runs around saying Muslim women need to set aside the veil runs the risk of running into hordes of pissed off Hindu men vehemently opposed to their women taking the pallu of their sarees off their face.

***

So, basically, I wanted to say: Argh.

 
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Posted by on June 1, 2010 in Life, News, Newsmakers, Personal, Politics, Video

 

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Kabul Disco by Nicolas Wild

This is an “educational comic book”, French illustrator Nicolas Wild informs us in an early panel. If so, then they should all be so lucky to be as hilariously poignant and smart as Kabul Disco.

The book begins in Paris in early 2005, where a broke Wild finds in himself a new and burning desire to take in the sights of strife-stricken Afghanistan when informed by his zealously productive roommate that he’s shortly about to become homeless. After an unexpected and caviar-filled break in the unfriendly heart of Azerbaijan, Wild arrives in Kabul and enters the mysterious world of NGOs that work in war-torn countries.

His brief: to explain the Afghan Constitution to the overwhelmingly illiterate population, especially children, through comic books featuring the adventures of a war orphan who learns about the rights and freedoms of the new republic through his life with the kind man who adopts him.

His problem(s): several. Some pretty entertaining, others not so much.

For one thing, he has about 24 hours to catch up on the history, politics, customs, problems and Constitution of Afghanistan – a country about which he knows nothing. Also, Kabul is kinda freaky – people get kidnapped, it’s cold as all hell, and the threat of violence is omnipresent (although Afghanistan in 2005 sounds much better than the Afghanistan of 2010).

Over the next few months, he learns about the expat life, living with war, adjusting to a wholly different culture, and how to rub along with people with whom you have very little in common like pretty young women responsible for getting George Bush elected President. The resulting vignettes are witty, sad, informative and downright giggle-worthy.

But what really struck me about Kabul Disco is Wild’s ambivalence about his role as a Westerner teaching Afghans about their new Afghan reality when he can’t quite grasp it either. The artificiality of its construct is painfully obvious in the sequence of panels in which he finds out that there is no actual Afghan parliament as of his employment in Kabul. He’s nonplussed.

“What do I draw?” he asks.

“Make it symbolic by representing the ethnic balance: 45% are Pushtuns, 36% are Tajiks, 12% are Uzbeks, 14% are Hazaras, And then there are a few Nuristanis, of course. Draw some wearing shalwar kamiz with turbans, patoos or pakols. Then others wearing three piece suits. Out of the 300 members, 25% are women.”

“Of course,” he says. Only: “I just wanted to know, what do Pushtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, Nuristanisshalwar kamiz, patoos, pakols and women look like?”

Wild is particularly brilliant when he’s exploring the differences between the cultures of the people around him and his own. There is a screamingly funny dream about going back to France to find his mother and sisters in burkhas, for example. Or the the time he and his friends crash a celebration of Ashura and are all but certain they’re done for when one of them does the touristy thing and breaks out the camera flash, only to end up on a balcony drinking tea and musing on the differences between Christians with their Easter egg hunting and Muslims with their self-flagellation.

And yet, he understands the importance of his work, coming as it does after decades of unrest and violence. It might frequently be ridiculous and or even stomach turning as he finds his later work, creating propaganda to recruit Afghans into an iffy life in the national army, but it is a part of putting a country back on its feet. For good or for ill.

I don’t know if there exists an English translation of Kabul Disco Book 2: How I Didn’t Become an Opium Addict in Afghanistan, but if there is, sign me up! Kabul Disco is not the first book I’ve read about the challenges facing Afghanistan since the war began, but it is the first one that left me feeling something other depressed and hopeless. And that’s nothing to sneer at.

Highly recommended.

 
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Posted by on March 2, 2010 in Books, Entertainment, Review

 

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