Hospital waiting rooms and their inhabitants are special cases because of what brings them together. The utilitarian frugality of their design, the worn furniture that bears witness to surreal pairings of hope and horror, walls that will support the deliverance of daily news to changing but predictable recipients, combine to form a wary and literally cusp between life and death. The room I was in stayed true to these general parameters: a windowless rectangle, its longer walls were taken up by two long couches flush against them; the cushions were navy blue and could not be removed. People do strange things when waiting for news – perhaps removing couch cushions is one of them. The short wall held a shorter couch of similar type, a cushion-less spot in the middle functioning as a sort of table, piled with well-thumbed magazines people may remember from another era before they were occupied with questions of life and death. As it is in much of the world, caregiving and concern, even when it is for the ailing and the almost dying, falls mostly to women. It was for this reason that the numbers of men and women in the waiting room that summer were about equal.
Equality in numbers, however, does not mean equality in power, the avowed entitlement over public space that is continually exerted by men all over the world. This could be seen in the de facto gender arrangement of the room. The women, alone or in pairs, huddled with other women along one side of the room, trying to insure via their proximity to each other that a man would not deign to sit next to them. If empty space was unavoidable, temporary fortifications of plastic bags, purses, duffel bags, newspapers, bags of fruit or friend samosas, could be erected. If a man did sit down next to you, your existing line of defense could be further augmented, but the defeat was visible. Men feel entitled to sit, their dominion a threat even amid the already heavy emotional burdens borne by everyone in the room.
When a man entered, or simply sat staring, legs akimbo on the opposite side of the room, the woman silently, or sometimes even while speaking loudly on a cell phone, stared back.
Staring back at a man, or at groups of men, is a significant act in Pakistan. If a woman who is unveiled (her face visible) stares back it suggests romantic interest. Entire love affairs are built on a man believing a woman is romantically interested simply because she returns his glance instead of staring away. The consequence for most women is a deliberate and constant turning away, of being byt not looking, simply to avoid the cost of looking, the suggestion of whetting the sexual and romantic appetites of the men nearby.
My mother’s sojourn in Special Care lasted for nearly a week. For five of these days, my presence in the waiting room coincided with that of the fully veiled woman. In the initial days, perhaps made because of the shock and sudden nature of my mother’s hospitalization, I arrived at the waiting room dressed as I ordinarily did. I wore a shalwar kamiz, the loose tunic and bottoms that are customary in Pakistan. I also wore a scarf or dupatta that duly wrapped around my chest. Nearly all of my body save my hair, face, and neck was covered. I considered this adequate.
It was not. I learned after the first day that the direction of my gaze was constantly and duly followed. If I touched my hair, it was noticed; if I talked to a cousin or anyone else who came to visit and inquire, the conversations were listened to without any attempt at concealment. My conversations, the book I tried to read, my body when I got up and my choice of place when I sat down, were all subject to the ever-present, ever-staring men. By the second day I wound my scar around myself a bit tighter. On the third day onward, I was covering my hair with the scarf and on the final day I was wishing I had a full veil just like the one the woman wore.
The American wedding is also the only place that the full-face veil makes an appearance without its usual attachments of sinister suspicions; the veiled bride is considered neither repressed nor suffering, not a terrorist in hiding nor a woman marking her resistance against visibility by pursuit of its dogged opposite. Rather, this veiled bride is sweet and pure, not only permissible but ideal.
Selecting an extremely expensive dress at sixteen felt not like the siren of freedom abridged but rather more like an achievement of empowered personhood. Suddenly, I had a say in serious details involving large expenditures; a rather intoxicating feeling for one used at best to considering selections of books or friends of ice-cream flavors. What I remember from those days leading up to the wedding was the sheer variety of the choices and (in retrospect) the somewhat arbitrary basis on which I made them.
My husband-to-be (we were now permitted phone conversations in light of our fast-approaching coupledom) asked whether I would deign to live in the apartment he already lived in. The other option was to move to a new apartment closer to his work and the city and not quite so suburban (which I would later learn also means desolate). I hedged; I had lived in the same house and in the same city all of my life, but I was a teenager very committed to appearing worldly. So I hedged and hedged and when pressed said that we could decide together once I got there. I did not know about leases, the requirements to fulfill their terms. It seemed like a very clever solution.
Overwhelmed by these choices, I did not notice the choices that were not offered. My husband-to-be, who was so graciously asking my opinion of various apartments or suburbs I had never seen, did not ask where I would like to go to college. My parents, arranging the details of the wedding, the extensive menus for three days of celebrations, did not ask if I wanted a smaller wedding, something fewer than the five hundred people. Like most brides in Pakistan then, I knew only some of the people at my wedding and had less of an idea of what sort of college, apartment, or husband awaited me at the other side of the wedding. Too young to be really worried and too overwhelmed to inquire after details, I dressed up in my wedding gown, was primped and coiffed by friends and family, was laden with the ceremonial gifts of jewelry from his parents and mine and waited. The bride must arrive last.
There is a picture also of the unveiling. In it you can see my aunt’s arm as it holds the mirror; she had worn pink silk that day and she holds the mirror as best as she can between our faces. My veil has been lifted and I can be seen. My husband peers into the mirror following the instruction. I do not remember looking into it or finding him there, but as traditions go, I am sure I pretended to look. I knew that the bride is not supposed to say anything at all at that moment. The groom duly exclaimed at the beauty of the bride, hidden from others, so that he would be the very first to see.
The veil as object
I trace the moment of my veiled entrance at my wedding to the ostracism I faced at that school picnic at the beach to provoke the literal question that has been at the center of my own grappling with the veil in particular, and the nature of choices in general. Are our choices, represented by the literal actions we take, the physical picking up of an object such as the veil and its putting on, or at these snapshots of decisions culminations of an ever larger and more involved webs of considerations – a previous experience, a parent’s love, a lover’s command, a friend’s insistence whose collective congruence is sometimes reflected in what we wear or how we choose to appear? Decisions in this sense have a genealogy that, like all genealogies has a complexity of content, an innate and obstinate resistance to being synthesized to just one thing. As with all things, we see only the visible, but what we see is not the sum total of what is.
Not Muslim Enough
Instead of focusing on the whether Chapter 24, Verse 30-31 of the Holy Quran – which instructs both men and women to lower their gazes and guard their private parts, and whose translation and interpretation is challenged by feminists – I would like instead to consider the rift that the debate itself has birthed among Muslim feminists. The iterations of this rift has divided friends and created enemies, not to mention imposing a measuring scale of piety whose gradations make collective unity an increasingly elusive possibility for Muslim feminists.
Not is it a hidden divide; its ugly ramparts and the whizzing grenades each side lobs at the other are in plain view (perhaps problematically so) for those who may not have a stake in the debate.
The unveiled are expectedly perturbed by the construction of the truly pious Muslim woman as dulyveiled; in the shadow of World Hijab Day 2016 Sara Yasin, a self-described hijab alum, wrote a post called “World Hijab Day has Got it All Wrong”. In her piece Yasin takes issue both with the premise that the hijab protects women from the male gaze but also a series of pro-hijab cartoons that present a woman that is not wearing the hijab as an unwrapped lollipop or as rotting fruit. None of it, she rightly concludes, encourages an environment where the choice of wearing or not wearing a veil can be safely availed by women and recognized as a human right.
In the summer of 2009 I visited Egypt. I went as part of a delegation made up mostly of South Asian Muslims (some of whom lived in the United States) and American academics. This was still Mubarak’s Egypt; the Arab Spring had not yet dawned nor been quashed by the military with its consequent bloodletting. In his speech, President Obama had sought “a new beginning between the United States and the Muslims of the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” No one could have known what was coming then, but the divisions were still obvious. The academics and students that we met from the American University in Cairo were fluent in English and Westernized.
Most were dressed in Western clothes and indeed seemed eager to underscore, particularly to the white Americans among our group, just how cosmopolitan and West-friendly they were.
At Cairo University, the very venue where President Obama gave his speech, there was more skepticism – particularly toward me. I was the only woman who was Muslim and who was not wearing a headscarf. Two of the three faculty members that we met were similarly Muslim women and both were wearing their headscarves. They asked me several times if I was Muslim and several times I said yes. They did not respond but they also did not engage ; they seemed to imply that if I was Muslim, I should be dressed like they were, should choose to wear my Islam visibly. It was as if our sense of common experience and history, our opposition of imperialism and hegemony, was now irrelevant – a sideshow to my lack of a veil. In choosing not to wear it, my allegiances were suspect; I had chosen a team and it was not their team. I had also refused to wear the headscaf when we briefly visited Al-Azhar University, the oldest and most highly revered center for Islamic learning in the world. There had, however, been no other women present and so no stated objections to my omission.
Unspoken censure changed to loudly articulated disagreement toward the end of the trip. On this occasion we went to a large center devoted to the propagation of Islamic studies, located outside Cairo in one of the suburbs then named after various dates important to the then rulers of Egypt. The building was funded by a Qatari foundation and scholar and was large and imposing, a white swan among the suburban dunes of Cairo. Inside, over fifty young people, all employees of the foundation, awaited us. The topic was not only a mutual exchange of ideas but also to learn more about what they were doing to proliferate a moderate and inclusive Islam via the internet.
Inside, the arrangement was an unusual one: we the guests were lined up on chairs along one wall, foreign specimens of whom all must have a good view. Our audience sat opposite us in a similar line, the principals from the place i the first row with assumedly less important others behind them. The idea was to have a discussion, with questions posed by either side and then discussed among the group. So we began with the usual silence that inaugurates such plans – the reticence to speak first a common habit. Then, after a bit, things got going and we had the usual back and forth about the differences in forms of government, what mosques are like in the United States and so on. Ten or fifteen minutes into it, we got to the heart of the matter. One among them asked: “Given that the veil (the headscarf at least) is required in Islam, how could I stand or give answers about Muslim women, even really consider myself a good Muslim?” Behind her, silhouettes of heads nodded in appreciation and agreement; unveiled women were not to be called Muslim. This was an important topic.
With flaming, feverish cheeks I responded that I did not think I had to wear a veil, a headscarf like some in the audience or a face veil like others. My own interpretation of my faith did not see the practice as necessary, I said. I found it much more crucial and pressing, for instance, to work for social justice. I was working as a lawyer representing Muslim victims of domestic violence, and that, I believed, was the core of living my faith. No one heard the second portion of my answer; at that point a chorus of voices rose – exclamations against my obviously uninformed and incorrect perspective regarding the veil. Many objectors were men, who duly addressed me as sister, before proceeding to disdain my views.
In this cacophony, one of the Muslim men in our delegation gave a command for order. Its very tone foretold the authoritative and conclusive summation he was going to deliver to pacify the crowd, mend the tears that the catty women in the congregation had just made in the otherwise pristine fabric of cross-cultural exchange. “We understand that the dominant view in Islamic scholarship is that women must be modest and that modesty is interpreted variously as the covering of the hair and the face.” Having delivered the mollifying morsel, he continued – “of course not all of us on this side agree with each other” – suggesting clearly that the immorality of my unveiled state must not be attached to him – “and of course you may disagree with some of the people on this side of the room” – me. “But of course, we have all come here in the spirit of exchange, to listen and understand the other.”
I had already lost him; I spent the rest of the day in an inflamed fury. On the bus back to Cairo many in the group, including, much to my utter disappointment, a white female academic, lauded our great male peacemaker for his efforts. If my female questioner had insisted I was not a Muslim, this man, who lived and worked with unveiled Muslim women in the West (and would never have challenged their choice), had grasped the opportunity to do something in this climate more amenable to his perspective. Moral disciplining is done in a variety of ways, and that evening as I lay awake, replaying the morning in my mind with shame and anger and disappointment, I knew that this was one of them.
In a world framed in the crude language of “us and them,” the veil has been marked and graded, and then attached to a constant and unforgiving moral judgment that is deemed to be a woman’s unshakable burden.
What is judged by means of an object is also reduced to an object and so it is with the veil. When there is no need to inquire further, to question or know, to go beyond the physical, the easily avowed and the visibly apprehended, the two entities, object and wearer, become synonymous, losing the possibility of subjectivity and becoming together one object. The single object is then judged permissible or impermissible and is always the signifier of one or another truth: either the rightness of Western opposition to the veil, or the correctness of the Islamist insistence on it.
At most the long interview would merit an arch, amusing mention in a weekend special about Old Delhi. If it was a double spread, a small portrait of Mulaqat Ali might even be published along with some close-ups of Mughal cuisine, long shots of Muslim women in burqas on cycle rickshaws that plied the narrow filthy lanes, and of course the mandatory birds-eye view of thousands of Muslim men in white skullcaps, arranged in perfect formation, bowed down in prayer in the Jama Masjid. Some readers viewed pictures like these as proof of the success of India’s commitment to secularism and inter-faith tolerance. Others with a tinge of relief that Delhi’s Muslim population seemed content enough in its vibrant ghetto. Still others viewed them as proof that Muslims did not wish to ‘integrate’ and were busy breeding and organizing themselves, and would soon become a threat to Hindu India. Those who subscribed to this view were gaining influence at an alarming pace.
-The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy
But eventually, the Elixir of the Soul that had survived wars and the bloody birth of three new countries was, like most things in the world, trumped by Coca-Cola.
-The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy
Then came Partition. God’s carotid burst open on the new border between India and Pakistan, and a million people died of hatred.
-The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy
In Urdu, the only language she knew, all things, not just living things but all things – carpets, clothes, books, pens, musical instruments – had a gender. Everything was either masculine or feminine, man or woman. Everything except her baby. Yes of course she knew there was a word for those like him – Hijra. Two words actually, Hijra and Kinnar. But two words do not make a language.
Was it possible to live outside language? Naturally this question did not address itself to her in words, or as a single lucid sentence. It addressed itself to her as a soundless, embryonic howl.
–The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy