Reviewing our Liberal Notions

A women with Niqab

I was drinking tea and chatting with a group of friends on my university campus when a girl wearing a burkha passed by. All of us watched her walking by without realizing what we were doing. That we stared at her was a momentary impulse. And all of us gave in to that impulse. We didn’t stop talking while we were looking at her.

But we did observe her and something or another came into the minds of each of us. And I realized that whatever had happened at that particular moment is not unusual in this period of time which we consider as an age of modernization.

Is wearing a burkha or a hijab a sign of repression? Or is wearing a burkha a sign of orthodoxy? Or is it altogether an antithesis of liberal thinking and attitude?

I do not really know what it is in reality. But I do know that most of us consider that following such dress codes is a manifestation of illiberal thinking and conservativeness. And as expected, one of my friends commented:

Why do these girls still follow such repressive dress codes after having access to education?

The comment was obviously naïve but not unusual. Most people think in similar ways. And immediately an argument or I would rather say a discussion, ensued amongst us on the issues of Islam, women’s rights, oppression and similarly related topics.

I felt my friend’s comment was uninformed as adherence to particular dress codes need not necessarily define a person’s disposition. But isn’t it normal to think that a woman wearing a burkha is conservative, unprogressive and may be fundamentalist as well? And somewhere deep within me, I too was not free from such misconceptions.

A girl who was sitting with us commented that not every girl who gets the chance to study has the liberty to express her opinions. Most of the girls are under great pressure from their families and have to follow certain codes of conduct as well as dress codes. She commented that education is still a privilege for many girls in patriarchal societies.

I agreed with what she said. Education is deemed a right but in reality, it is still a privilege for most people in third world countries.

However, I started thinking whether the purpose of education is to promote and instill a homogenous thinking amongst people regarding issues of modernity and progressiveness or to encourage heterogeneity regarding those issues. Does our education provide us enough space to question that which is deemed obvious by the majority? Why have we become increasingly intolerant and critical of approaches and ways of life that we cannot identify with? And instead, why do we think that we are becoming more tolerant and liberal with education and exposure?

Our discussion then shifted to the repressive norms and rules imposed on Muslim women. Every one of us started to criticize religion and its role in oppressing women. Patriarchy along with religion is no doubt the most lethal weapon that has been used against women since antiquity.  All of us concurred with each other’s viewpoints.

In our criticism, it became evident that we made women who wear burkha or hijab the victims of the oppressive rules of Islam and denied any kind of agency to such women. We completely ignored factors such as “choice”, which can also be a reason for embracing particular dress codes. And even if choice is a consideration, the general perception amongst most people is that such choices are the result of skewed perceptions and religious orthodoxy.

But isn’t it possible that a woman wearing a burkha can be modern and progressive as well? Can’t attire be a part of one’s identity and choice rather than an imposition and a reflection of orthodox beliefs and worldview?

And while criticizing, we somehow tend to believe that our perspectives are liberal and we belong to that category of people who can be considered open-minded. But I was particularly intrigued by a question raised by another friend who was sitting with us. And that question and her subsequent enquiries changed the way I see things now.

She asked,

Are we really open-minded and have a genuine liberal outlook?

All of us believed so and thus we nodded while looking at each other. At first, her question seemed completely out of place but as the discussion continued, I realized how wrong I had been all these years to think that I really have a very liberal outlook.

Doesn’t being liberal mean to be tolerant, open-minded, unprejudiced, accommodating and especially ready to accept behavior or opinions different from our own? Isn’t our so-called liberal outlook or thinking an illusion, when we compartmentalize people as modern or conservative depending on their choice of attire?

Why is wearing a bikini considered synonymous with modernity by most people while a woman in a burkha becomes synonymous with orthodoxy and thus contrary to progressiveness? Is such a tendency to compartmentalize people based on their outfit not a reflection of our skewed understanding of modernity and progressiveness?

I realized that if you are really open-minded and tolerant, then you would not get entrapped in such patterns of thinking. In fact, you would stay balanced and would be genuinely open to alternative ways of thinking which would contradict your worldview as well.

Yes, it is time that we start to question our own perception about ourselves as liberal minded. It is time to question much of our conjectures on modernism and progressiveness.


Image Title Author License
A women with Niqab A women with Niqab Antoine Taveneaux CC BY-SA 3.0