Friday, July 16, 2010

Burqa Ban, Kerala Burqa Hoardings and Representation of Burqa Clad women in Indian Contemporary Art.

(Burqa becomes a fashion statement when it is combined with jewelry and embroidery)

France bans burqa. The French parliament says that burqa is a culturally and socially backward practice that imposes male chauvinistic ideas on to the body of women. Any woman who wears face covering veil in public is liable to pay a fine of 150 Euros. Any man who forces his wife/sister/mother/daughter/in general woman to wear burqa also would face severe punishment.

Western Europe has its own reasons to be paranoiac about Islamist traditions. For the Western Europe and the USA, a burqa wearing woman is identical to a social threat; or a medium that could engender a future threat. Hence, they believe that liberating women from ‘such heinous’ practice is the responsibility of the enlightened Western countries.

But it does not tally with the idea of democracy. In the name of protecting secular democratic ideals, no nation can become a synonym of xenophobia. If such banning practices become prevalent and common place, the women in Gujarat and Rajasthan would be paying a high price for it as in these states thanks to intense heat, most of the women cover their faces and hands. In Haryana, many women cover their faces in order to avoid the gazes of elders and strangers.

Burqa is a veil that is meant to show modesty. Thanks to Islamic fundamentalism and forceful imposition of hijaab practice, burqa seems to have achieved several ideological connotations. Burqa becomes a second body of women, who are not only under the protection of men but also under the protection of ‘religion’.

When burqa becomes a second body, it is forced to get inscribed by the values created by a male world. Vandalizing these values or forcefully ejecting these values turns out to be identical to vandalizing of certain male value systems. By forcefully removing burqa from the bodies of women, the law makers (here France after Belgium) are enacting a symbolic act of denuding the women in pubic not exactly to protect their ‘freedom’ but to insult the chauvinistic dignity (as defined by the woman’s body) of the men who have imposed it on them.

Burqa is war. Burqa is an ideological war enacted on the bodies of women without their permission. During war, woman’s body is equated with the body of the nation so that any attack on the nation is at par with the attack on woman’s body. Burqa by being a second body of women (irrespective of its affiliation with Muslim women), forcing it as well as removing it should be considered as an act of violence on her body.

(Writer Late Kamala (Das) Suraiah)

Freedom of choice should be left to the women all over the world, irrespective of their religious affinities. Late Kamaladas, the famous Indo-Anglican writer, when she embraced Islam, not only assumed a new name (Kamala Suraiah) but also chose to wear burqa. When she decided to leave Islam and embrace her beloved Krishna again, she chose to wear her burqa according to her whims and fancies. All secular democratic countries should encourage women to wear whatever clothes they want to wear, including burqa. At the same time, they should crackdown all those religious and other agencies that force women to wear burqa or any other veil.


While thinking about burqa and burqa ban in France, my attention naturally turned towards the burqa clad woman images created by Indian contemporary artists. Surprisingly, I realized, after consulting with a few friends, that there are not too many burqa clad images produced in Indian contemporary art, despite its vigorous engagement with ideological issues including the feminist ones. Neither in the critical mode nor in the celebratory mode burqa is almost a no-image for most of the Indian women artists who are inclined towards feminist thinking. My friend Vivek Vilasini informs me that Pushpamala has used a chaddar (a full body and face cover as worn by the Afghani and North Pakistan women and at times Iranian women) to portray herself as a Muslim woman. But that image does not seem to have gained much popularity.

Interestingly, I found out that most of the artists who have used burqa imagery come from the state of Kerala, which is famous for its religious tolerance and political awareness. This state has been high in the indices of education, poverty alleviation, proliferated suburban life style, per capita income, women’s education and health, girl child birth ratio and so on. Kerala also has got a considerable Muslim population, which has a strong and decisive role in the political fabric of the state. As per the 2001 census, Kerala’s Muslim population is 24.7 % and the Hindus constitute a 56.20% and Christians occupy the third place with a 19%.

Till the end of 1990s, burqa did not have any presence in Kerala’s dress code. In certain northern districts where Muslims have an absolute majority in terms of religious ratio, women used to wear it without causing any ideological or sociological conflicts. These districts also have strong connections with the Gulf countries and wearing burqa for the women is not just a religious thing but a thing of fashion and pride.

The 9/11 incident has been instrumental in causing various ideological shifts and changes in perspective. There is no harm in accepting that the Islamic communities all over the world have become slightly insecure as the powerful western lobbies started dubbing Islamic religion as a system that harbors, nurtures and distributes terrorists/terrorism all over the world. As a reaction to this exclusionist policy, the Islamic communities all over the world have become cautious about their social presence. While a section of believes divests itself of all religious symbolisms in order to integrate with the mainstream, several other sections of believes started investing more and more energies, finance and time into this symbolism. The change of dress code and also a sort of going back to wearing burqas, as a medium to show the strength of a victimized community, as a medium to under allegiance to the religious so that the wearer is protected in a bigger way, as a medium to defy the exclusionists and in a very different scenario, as a symbol of oppression imposed by the male chauvinists within the religion.

Kerala was not exception in this matter. Anyone who travels along the national highway in Kerala, would see massive hoardings advertising different types of burqas. The way Kerala accepts the advertisements of jewelries, since 2001-02, the population in the state has learned to accept the advertisement of burqas without much difficulty. However, there is an underlying conflict, which moves from cultural realm to the economic realm involved in it.

The jewelry advertisements reveal the body of women and cover them erotically with the golden ornaments, whereas the burqa advertisements conceal the body of women and increase the erotic potential of the body, which is hidden inside the veil. Hence, the machine cut intricate designs of the golden ornaments and the embroidered varieties of burqas come to play the same cultural and economic role of enhancing the erotic potential of the woman’s body. Symbolically, the veil of gold is replaced by the veil of embroidered black clothes, firing the male desire to possess the body that wears ‘golden ornaments and embroidered veils’. Once again the woman’s body is not exactly saved from the assumed attacks that the ideological centers aim to oppose. Instead, it leaves open the woman’s body for further conflicts as Rubina Saigol observes in her article Militarization, Nation and Gender, “Women's bodies will not merely be the site of political, national and armed struggles; they will also become the major signifiers in economic struggles and market conflicts.”


It is within this market conflicts and economic struggles that the Indian contemporary artists look at burqa as a symbol. Perhaps, the overt presence of hoardings that advertise burqas might have made a strong impression amongst the artists who hail from Kerala. Rathi Devi, Murali Cheeroth, Binoy Varghese, Riyas Komu and Vivek Vilasini are the five artists who have used burqa clad women’s images in their works in different contexts (I want to take an anticipatory bail here as my research could not yield many results beyond these five artists. If anybody knows other (Indian contemporary) artists who have used burqa images, please send me the details in

(Work by Rathi Devi)

These artists do not deliberately treat these burqa clad women as the symbol of an ideological conflict, which is closely associated with ‘burqa’ as a cloth that is imposed upon them in order to curtail their freedom. On the contrary, these burqa clad women are celebrating a sort freedom, asserting a sort of identity, debating a sort of politics, covering up certain existential issues, re-placing the components in a historical incident with aggressive posturing and so on. Burqa’s generic ideological connotations are pushed aside by these artists mainly because they come from a culture where burqa is no longer viewer as a threat but as something to be celebrated and desired like a ‘body’, which is covered with golden ornaments.

Without questioning the political sincerity and aesthetic maturity of these five artists, I would like to read five images from these five artists in the context of transcended desire facilitated by social acceptance of a certain kind of body (at once revealed and covered), which in more than one way empower the woman. Seen in this light, we could say that all these five (to six) images celebrate the empowered body of women within a given religious as well as secular context, which is more than desirable and covetable, still capable of containing the conflicts of economics and market.

(Painting by Rathi Devi)

Rathi Devi’s works have a couple of veiled (burqa clad) images in them. These monumental faces (if we can call it a face) are covered with heavily ornamented veils. We feel that these faces/heads are bent down mainly because of the heavy veil. But their monumental presence evokes curiosity amongst the viewers. They stand like elephants covered with glittering ornaments. The power of the body inside is palpable and sense of celebration emanates from these images. Rathi Devi, as a woman artist does not involve in self victimization through this portrayal of a veiled woman, on the contrary she asserts the possibility of attributing multiple identities to the women behind these burqas.

(Work by Murali Cheeroth)

A sense of empowerment of the disempowered is what makes the burqa clad images of Murali Cheeroth and Vivek Vilasini. In any museum, at times we get to see the scenes of burqa clad women (in that case the nuns who too are covered fully with specially designed cloaks) carefully watching the exhibits. They could be housewives, aestheticians, artists, filmmakers, theoreticians, singers, teachers so on. However, the moment we see a woman in burqa we start assuming that they are socially retarded. Murali Cheeroth disputes such generalization by making the burqa clad woman stand before the painting of Devi (in Kalighat style).

The burqa clad woman leans towards the painting and carefully observes how a woman/divinity from another religion is represented in a painting in a more or less same fashion (clad from head to toe). The tension of the body that leans forward is palpable in this work. It shows not only the anxiety but also the curiosity of a woman, who for the public is ‘one who is deprived of all kinds of freedom’. What Murali asserts here is her authority over her own body despite the presence of a veil. She holds it strong in public and gazes at something that is always gazed at. She coverts her position from as an object that to be gazed at to a person who has the power to gaze back, engage and understand. Here burqa becomes a symbol of veiled possibilities of empowered-ness and erotic potentiality. The woman gains an identity, which is venerable and desirable at the same time.

(Last Supper at Gaza by Vivek Vilasini)

We see similarly empowered women in Vivek Vilasini’s digital work titled ‘Last Supper in Gaza’. The context is art historical and obvious. Da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’ is re-articulated here with an ensemble of burqa clad women. These women are from Gaza Strip in Palestine, a highly conflict ridden area in the world map. The Arab issue has been there since ages and women have been at the receiving end ever since the conflict began. As we know that women’s bodies are inscribed with the meanings of nation and national pride, any kind of attack on them is taken as a victory (by the attacker) and as an insult (by the affected).

Here in Vivek’s work, he presents an imagined possibility. How will be, if all women in Gaza region decide the future course of things? That would be a historical moment. Vivek works on that imagined possibility of history, where women could decide on the future course of decisions and betrayals. It would be the beginning of a new world with a new religion in place. There would be persecutions and witch hunting. However, the world that is to be must be a great world where women are not treated as second class citizens. This is a decisive moment.

While replacing Christ and his twelve apostles with the burqa clad women from Gaza strip, Vivek does not attribute them with the mythological/historical identities. Instead, Vivek creates a theatre for them to act out their will and identity, not as Christ and his apostles but as women from Gaza. This affirmation of identity within the transcended desire of the artist comes as a celebration of women power. Each woman within the burqa is capable of deciding for herself. Vivek opens up a possibility of/by the empowered women and a context where burqa is not seen as an ideological burden or a sin. His Kerala connection must be reason to do so.

(Paintings by Riyas Komu)

Riyas Komu’s burqa clad woman, her series of portraits come from the aesthetical, political and economic realities of Iran. This woman is emblematic of a woman who internalized the realities of Iran. She is not a protestor. She must be remembering her days where there was cultural and economic freedom for women. But the religious revolution had changed everything for her. But still she is hopeful and she asserts her identity as an independent person through various mediums including films, paintings and video art.

Riyas takes off from the mediatized image of a burqa clad woman. She seems to be blank in certain sense and at the same time, the blankness has a sort of determination behind it. A small pimple on her face reminds the viewer of her internalized wounds. It is like a pimple, a slightly disfiguring but temporary one. Riyas wishes that it would go away and the total freedom for women would be achieved in the near future. He too does not consider burqa as a burden. Instead, he asserts it as a part of his identity and she is also not troubled by it. She is asexual in a way. She is not a desirable body. However, the desirability is evoked through the sensuous rupture in her body/face. She celebrates her loneliness in the repeated frames and the burqa becomes her companion, let me add, without conflicts.

(Painting by Binoy Varghese)

The total celebration of burqa happens in Binoy Verghese’s works. He paints the images of burqa clad women against flowery background. Most of these women are from disadvantaged situations. They come from slums. They move in the streets. They move in groups and at times their innocence is beamed through their partly revealed faces. From the bottomless pits of insecure lives, they smile at the world, as the flowers in the background smile at the viewer. Binoy may be a romantic when it comes to aesthetic approach. However, he does not make burqa as an emblem of conflict. While there are innumerable ways of depicting a Muslim woman symbolically, Binoy’s choice of burqa clad women/children has to be noticed.

Binoy’s interest is in the identity of these women/children, even if they are disempowered and thrown to streets. Burqa does not become a burden for them as they flaunt the way flaunt their partly veiled beauty. He does not make their body desirable in an erotic sense, but he attributes them with a sort of dignity that evokes curiosity amongst the viewer to know more about them. For Binoy, burqa is a way to suggest an irony; the irony of sending those supposedly honored human beings to streets as if they were flocks of sheep destined to graze under the shadow of charity. The critique becomes stronger as their veiled images are seen set against the gardens/nature, which is said to be most free spaces in the world. Binoy plays between the given and the suggested, the way the hoardings of jewelries and burqa shops do in the public imagination.

I argue that these artists could deal with the burqa clad images without much hue and cry mainly because, they come from a state where burqas have already been accepted as a part of the social life. These artists do not consider burqa is a social malady, which is to be done away with by any means. They look at burqa and burqa clad women through the eyes of a transcended desire that understands the dynamics of burqa clad women imagery as ‘major signifiers in economic struggle and market conflicts.’


JohnyML said...

Hi Layered,

I can imagine that scene...I am touched when you re-tell this.

In Kerala, at Vakkom, a village where I was born, a junction next to my home is called 'Pakistan Junction' thanks to the predominant muslim population in that area. But we never felt that it was a separate land.

You may remember my posting almost one and half year back, Finding a Muslim Friend in You...

Anyway, thanks for those nice words.



Hi Johny

It is a very interesting article.Helped me to remove some of cobwebs.Your interperation on some of the points are good but a few flew like Thommo's bouncers.Your interperation of the works is excellent but I would also love to hear the opinions of the creator's of these works.What they thought What went through thier mind at the time of the creation of these wonderful works.

The Burqa on its own is a very powerful symbol.The wearer of the Burqa is much stronger then the person who forces a woman to wear it or the society which removes it from her body or see it as a threat.

The Burqa is a symbol and its very powerful.Only one has to understand its significance and the underlying meaning of a Burqa.


JohnyML said...

Dear Uttam Bearings,

Thanks for this comment.

I am not sure, whether I should always go for the authorial intention behind the work.

I am familiar with most of the artists and their aesthetic philosophies. So I am more or less close to their interpretation on Burqa. Unless and until they have a different opinion, or some other critics/viewers have a different take on them, my view stands.

But I am humble enough to say that mine is one of the interpretations possible. Expecting other views too.

Once again that you very much.


Ben_D said...

In the end it comes down to the interpretation of the word TOLERANCE. I have heard after 9/11 "You cannot blame all the Ummah (Muslims) for the actions of a few, fair enough. But when the Pastor in Florida burned the Qur'an this was quickly forgotten and the rioters killed?

So it is not so much as the Burqa but the growing perception that when you are in Dar al-Islam you must respect our customs but when we are in your lands you MUST change your customs to make us comfortable, and that the Ummah are a sort of Islamic Trojan Horse.

Today it is the Burqa, tomorrow it will be? However this can be stopped and turned around through education from the Ummah to where non Muslims do not see this as an expectation of one way tolerance, until and unless this education takes place I foresee strange days ahead. Hope I am wrong.

MoldyVoldy said...

I found this very interesting. I am a high school student and am currently writing a paper about women's education, or rather the lack of, in Afghanistan. Last year I wrote a paper about condemning the French ban. I am facinated by Muslim studies and I really enjoyed your article and feel very much inspired for my paper now! Thanks!!!

Rio Dio said...

Fashionizing the international symbol of women's oppression. Helping to desensitize the media to ease us into the caliphate. Normalizing the modern world to 7th century barbarism. Feeling noble? Don't worry the truth _will_ find you.