Removing the Veil Does Not Empower Women

The difficult and complex issues of women's empowerment are all too often and too easily reduced to the symbolism of the burka. The author argues that fixating upon the veil sidesteps the real issues of Muslim women's rights.

BOMBAY, India (WOMENSENEWS)-Predictably, one of the early images we saw from "liberated" Kabul was of a woman "liberated" from the burka. Or was she? Momentarily, possibly to satisfy the whim of a Western news photographer, she lifted the veil. And the picture, flashed around the world, reinforced the belief that all that stood between Afghan women and liberation was that piece of cloth.

It is extraordinary how often, and how easily, the difficult issues of women's empowerment are reduced to this kind of symbolism. It allows the rule-makers, and the media, to sidestep the troubling questions about women's rights. In the context of Muslim countries, in particular, "liberal" and "conservative" have become coterminous with Western and Islamic, respectively. The fact that there are choices that are in-between, that combine the true spirit of religion without violating women's rights, is rarely considered.

We presume, therefore, that a veiled woman cannot possibly be empowered; that subjugation and the way a woman dresses go together; that a woman cannot possibly choose of her own will to cover herself; that given a choice, all women would like to wear short skirts, trousers and halter tops. Thus, in the Westernized sections of our metropolitan cities, "empowerment" has been reduced to another brand of make-up or a line of clothing. It is the external that has come to symbolize what actually encompasses a far wider canvas.

This question of attire is an important issue to discuss because it exposes many myths. Take the women of Iran, for instance: After Ayatollah Khomeini overturned the regime of the Shah of Iran and ushered in an Islamic republic, women's rights were immediately curtailed. Women had to be shrouded in public; the morality police beat them much as the Taliban did in Afghanistan. Women could not go out with men to whom they were not related. Yet, their right to education and to work was not curtailed. And today, with a more liberal regime in place, women are evident in almost every profession and even in government.

Film By Iranian Woman Counters Stereotypes About Burka, Rights

Some of this came across in a remarkable film by an Iranian woman filmmaker, Rakshan Bani-Etemad that was screened recently here at the Mumbai (Bombay) International Film Festival. The film "The May Lady" is unlikely to win any awards. But it is important because it opens a window into the life of a professional Iranian woman and thereby breaks many stereotypes. The story revolves around a divorced woman filmmaker who is bringing up her young teen-age son on her own. The woman is out directing films, which win much appreciation for the reality they capture. She drives her own car and lives in a well-appointed apartment in Teheran, a city with high-rises, flyovers and heavy traffic, but also poorer areas and children selling flowers at street corners.

The woman's son is Westernized, listens to pop music and prefers to hangout with his friends rather than to study. The mother, on the other hand, is torn between the love of a man and her son's hostility to anyone replacing the father. While the theme is not particularly new, what was different was the way this was depicted.

In countries where there are no restrictions on filmmakers, the man and the woman would be shown together trying to work out their relationship. In this film, you never saw the man, only heard his voice on the phone, or through the letters he wrote to the mother. You can only understand why the filmmaker had to resort to this device if you realize that, in Iran, you cannot show romantic scenes between men and women on the screen. In fact, even the mother and son do not hug each other, though Iranian families are warm and demonstrative. This, too, is because men and women who are not related cannot have physical contact, even if they are just acting.

Unveiled Women Still Powerless in Societies of Overt Male Dominance

The mother wore the "manto," the long-sleeved coat that all women must wear, and a headscarf throughout the film. Yet, she was also shown jogging, with trousers clearly visible below the manto, directing the cameraman on a shoot, editing film, eating by herself in a cafe and talking to the men in her office. These images counter misconceptions that arise about Iranian women from the limited news coverage of that country.

We imagine that with the restrictions placed on dress, women are also denied other rights. This image has been greatly reinforced because of the actions of the Taliban in Afghanistan. But every Muslim country is not like Afghanistan. And in Iran, as shown in the film, the professional urban woman can survive within these restrictions even though people in the creative fields must want greater freedom of expression.

What also came across was the fact that the dilemmas this Iranian woman faced were universal ones: how to be a "good" mother and yet find a way to fulfill her own professional and personal needs, and how to protect her son without making him unfit to deal with the harsh realities outside the home. The film raised a familiar question: By what norms should we judge the lives of women living in a different country, a different culture? Are liberal and Western necessarily the same? Have not some of the most conservative and intolerant trends come from the West, based on hatred and exclusion of people on the basis of color or race?

Mary Dejevsky, writing in The Independent, London, Nov. 20, expresses some of what one feels after watching "The May Lady." She wrote: "Burqa burning will not automatically generate rights for women where they do not exist. Women can be as powerless uncovered as they were covered, and in societies of overt male dominance, more vulnerable." The writer was referring to Afghanistan. In fact, the words (with a few minor changes) could apply to any society, East or West.

Kalpana Sharma is deputy editor of The Hindu, a prominent English-language newspaper.