Dr. Anjan K Das
Originally posted on Reflections.
Yesterday I got into an argument with one of the Indian residents of the condominium where I live. This young man, while discussing living conditions in Malaysia nd how it compares with life back home began to bemoan the lack of independence for Malaysian women, particularly of the Muslim faith. As proof of this he cited the widespread use of the tudong, the head scarf, which is widely, though not compulsorily used in Malaysia among Muslim women. (The Prime Minister’s wife does not wear a tudong.) There has been a hoo-hah in the press recently about some teacher who insisted that his schoolgirl charge wear the tudong at least during the duration of the Ramadan month . This has set off a lot of brouhaha in the press and the comment was in this context.
In recent times, Muslim women have been criticized for sometimes voluntarily draping themselves in burkhas, hijabs and for covering their hair. This has led to even legislation in Western European countries preventing them from doing so in public. The hijab, or even head covering said to prevent them from integrating and many other things. However there are some angles to this argument that are inexplicable to me.
Let us consider only the head cover. The young man I was arguing with is from Pune, the fertile belt of the Khaki Knicker brigade. It was obvious that many of his arguments were those that he had imbibed from these defenders of Hindu faith against the Muslim hordes. However, as far as I can remember, my mother (very Hindu and very independent) used to cover her head routinely whenever she visited any of our relatives houses, it was normal and in fact even today the bride enters the in laws place with covered head, without, to the best of my knowledge subverting her independence one jot. My mum was one of the few women in Calcutta who drove a car in the early 60s , but did not feel any loss of independence because she had to cover her head at times. It is difficult to belive that head covering subverts all values , but walking around in your underwear is a blow for women’s freedom!
Let us take the case of Malaysia in particular. When I wait at a traffic signal to cross a road, I notice that a full 50 % of the cars that pass are driven by women, many wearing tudongs. Lack of independence? I don’t think so. Also wherever we go, women (again many wearing tudongs) are working at all hours in malls, shopping centres and the toll stations. I have been driven from the LCCT to my flat by a lady Taxi driver (wearing a tudong!) at 11 pm. I cannot imagine any woman in my country daring to drive even in the safest of cities at 11 pm let alone driving a taxi. Independence and freedom are not theoretical concepts; they must have practical meaning too.
There is much to be learnt from the treatment of women here in Malaysia. It is a conservative Muslim nation and Muslim women in general are conservative in their dress. But they do not interfere in what others are doing. The Indian and Chinese here wear clothes that are similar to what is being worn in all Western countries. A girl in a micro mini does not attract any attention, while I can imagine what the reaction would be if she walked down Chowringhee Road in the same attire. We are still forcing women teachers to wear sarees instead of the Salwar In the progressive state of West Bengal. And we talk of women’s freedom! God forgive us.
O I am pleased to say that my friend was chastened when I pointed this out to him. Hopefully he will be a little less hasty In passing judgment in the future.