World Hijab Day!

First of February begins the “World Hijab Day”. A campaign for the freedom to wear or not wear any piece of cloth on anybody happens only when the body belongs to women. I have never found men start a movement about wearing a keffiyeh or ghutrah or take to the streets for their rights of not wearing them. When laws were being made in Iran to impose hijab on every woman, hundreds of thousands of women marched down the streets demanding their rights for not wearing them. The theocratic rulers of Iran denied women that right.

Some women want to wear hijab – they wear it. But the problem arises when some women do not want to wear hijab; they are forced to wear it. Just a few months back, quite a few Iranian women stood on a high spot on the sidewalk to make
themselves noticeable to all, took the hijabs off their heads, tied them at the ends of sticks and fluttered them in the air in full public view on the open road in broad daylight without caring for any punishment or retribution. The statement they wanted to make was: Those who wear hijab, let them; but we do not want to wear it, we want the right not to wear the hijab. As hijab is a religious garment and since religion is personal for every individual, it is reasonable to leave hijab up to an individual’s personal choice.

Pressure is created to place hijab, niqab, burqa, abaya, head-scarf etc. on the female body. The state puts pressure, or the family does, the relatives and friends do, so do the neighbours. Majority of Muslim women surrender to these pressures. My personal opinion: let the pressures cease; let women be given the total freedom in wearing their clothes. Many women are willing to wear hijab for religious reasons. Countless men would stand with hijabi women if they were prevented from wearing hijab but a similar crowd would not stand by the women unwilling to wear hijab. Here lies the ultimate discrimination.

The “World Hijab Day” starts not in any Muslim country, rather in a nation of Christian majority, in the USA. The USA does not have any law against hijab, neither is there any social policy to humiliate hijabi women. Muslims even get permissions from the non-Muslim governments for agitations on the streets of Europe and America. For those organizing “World Hijab Day”, the goal is not religion – but politics. When religion turns to politics, all its virtuous qualities are spoiled. It no longer remains limited within the bounds of personal faith. Religion then becomes a tool for occupation, an instrument for winning power, for decimating the rights of others, a weapon for beheading others. Let religion stay as religion, let it not metamorphose into politics. We have seen the undemocratic activities and inhuman achievements of Jamate Islami, Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic State, Boko Haram, The army of God, Eastern Lightning, Bajrang Dal or Shiv Sena already.

It is well known that in Islamic Republics people are forced to wear Islamic attires; women are specially goaded. But it is surprising to see that a similar pressure is maintained even in a People’s Republic of Bangladesh. Pictures of women wearing Salwar-Kameez and headscarf have been published in recent school textbooks with captions: Appropriate Attire for women. It has been said as an explanation that physical developments in female bodies make them stoop while walking – that is why walking with a scarf allows them to walk erect. I am afraid textbooks would soon present the picture of a woman in Burkha with “women’s appropriate attire” written underneath and many arguments in favour of wearing Burkha would be provided.

My question is: why should one feel ashamed of the developmental changes in one’s body? Why is it necessary to cover those up with extra clothes. Everyone knows about these changes in puberty. Boys go through changes in vocal cords- do they hide it with something? Hair grows on boys’ faces and chests – what is used to cover them up? Then why should the menstruation for girls be kept a secret? Why should layers upon layers of clothes be placed over girls’ bosoms – no one should see them; no one should guess that there is something like breasts under the clothes. Actually, the presence of scarves reveals that there is something. Isn’t the reason for women wearing scarves is: men are scoundrels, stare openly at women’s breasts without self-control; they don’t know how to act civilized? Whether we agree or not, it is an insult to men for women to have to wear dupatta or scarves. Barbaric men would pounce upon women not wearing scarves; some would consider pouncing. In reality, those who pounce would do so whether women wear scarves or not; scarves cannot stop them. They need something much larger than scarves to change their mentality – they need proper education to treat women as equal humans, not as sex objects.

So long as women continue to wear scarves, it’d prove that women can’t trust men, that they are uncivilized, barbarians. The solution is for women to stop wearing covers; and for men to stop being barbarians. Men or women neither are ignorant of the fact that breasts are just glands, mere fat, and flesh. Then why is seeing or showing them so troublesome? Maybe the problem is just that it concerns the female body. Men have breasts too and fat gathers on them but men are not asked to cover those – just because they concern male bodies. Anyone would realize that whole issue of wearing or not wearing scarves is there in order to create inequality between men and women.

Women are not given the right to wear clothes of their own choice while no one objects about men’s attires; they can wear whatever they like. Just for women, invisible “moral-police” have been posted all around. How can we build a society of equality until this discrimination is eliminated? Attire should not be an issue but it has been made into one. Women’s status in society can be guessed from their outfits.

Even in the Home economics textbooks of schools, I found that girls have been advised on what color clothes they should wear and what colors they should avoid. Chubby girls should wear light colors lest they look fat. That means looking fat is bad! Fat girls’ self-confidence is thus trampled into dust. In school texts, bodies of class VIII girls are being analyzed and researched for structures that look good or bad. Isn’t it more essential to instruct the girls about the discriminations in the society and family? Isn’t it necessary to help girls develop and broaden their minds? Isn’t it more urgent to inspire them in brightening the special qualities they are characteristically endowed with?

Are boys taught “Home Economics” or Home Science in school? This “science” is needed more for boys than girls. The notion that domesticity is for women, men have the world outside – has been proven wrong time and again. This idea has always created discrimination against women. Patriarchal society has locked women in homes centuries after centuries. Challenging this society, women are out today and have shown that whatever jobs men can do, women too can do. Women can be doctors, engineers, physicists, researchers, pilots, astronauts – they can be teachers, thinkers, artists, authors, politicians, sociologists – or laborers, police and military officers, ministers or heads of states. But men not yet been able to demonstrate that they can do what women can. They too can perform domestic duties and raise children. That is why I’d say that boys need to study “Home Science” more than girls do. Though girls have some grasp of this “Science”, boys are clueless.

It is worth remembering that in order to be civilized, an equal society, not a discriminatory one, has to be built. As long as men and women do not have equal rights, society will be anything but equal.

An Interview


You have always been very vocal against Islamic fundamentalism. On the other hand, there are many voices of liberal Muslims saying that terrorism in the name of religion is not Islamic – do you find yourself to be isolated?

There are free thinkers, rationalists and atheists who think like me, so I don’t always feel isolated. For us, it is not important what religion our families may be following, but we believe in humanism. For people like this, there is no need for any religion in society – rational thinking and scientific minds are far more important. So when I say that religion and fundamentalism have no difference and religion is the root cause of religious terrorism Look at ISIS or Boko Haram – Islamic terrorists are always inspired by Islam. They cite the same Quranic texts all Muslims consider sacred.

What about freedom to practise religion?

Of course, we don’t ask people who believe in it to throw away religion. But religious reform is needed for society. And laws should be based on human rights, womens rights, equality, justice and humanism instead of religion. I acknowledge the rights of religious people to believe and practise religion. When temples are broken in Bangladesh, or mosques are destroyed somewhere else, I protest because religious freedom is necessary, but there should also be freedom to not believe in religion or to criticise it and society, education, state etc should be kept outside the domain of religion. The state should should not have a religion but if people like to they can practise a religion but can’t be forced by anyone. This plurarity of thought is important and laws should be based on human rights and not religion. Personally as an atheist and secularist I do not believe in religion. Secularism for me is not the Indian definition – instead it is someone without religion.

You speak a lot about Islamic fundamentalism – but what about religious intolerance in India?

Some people are intolerant – and the cases of torturing Muslims in India, the beef controversy or the recent case of making Muslims eat cow-dung are very disturbing. But so many religions and cultures in India coexist that it is amazing – if India was intolerant there would be many more riots and the state is not intolerant, nothing in the constitution that promotes intolerance – maybe secularism is not being practised properly. The Indian Constitution is not intolerant, but there are individuals who are intolerant and that has to change.

Your thoughts on uniform civil code?

I’m all for an uniform civil code and had campaigned for it in Bangladesh too, where Hindu women really suffer because of ancient Hindu laws and have no right to inherit property from their fathers. They also suffer because their husbands can marry any number of times that they want to. Muslim personal laws based on Islam in Bangladesh also say that women can inherit less property than their brothers. The husband can have four wives. There’s no equality under any religion, so uniform civil code based on equality is the best way possible in India and Bangladesh.

The new face of terrorists in India and Bangladesh is that of educated young men from affluent families. Your views on radicalisation and is this more alarming than before in view of the recent violence in Bangladesh and Kashmir?

Religious leaders are looking at looking at educated youth for Islamisation because they need talented young people as recruits. They have grandiose dreams to control the world, for which they need to recruit bright young educated men with brains. The old stereotypes of poor, underprivileged and frustrated people turning to religion has changed. Educated young people are turning to religion and are being groomed through Islamic education and the Koran within their families. From a young age they are taught to believe in religion and have faith, when they later study science that’s only for jobs and their profession but they already have a strong belief in religion from childhood. This religious identity is created at an early age and provides an easy solution. Science is difficult to learn and understand while religion is attractive because it provides easy solutions. It is also easy to convince and brainwash young people with religion. Islamist leaders often don’t send their children to madrasas but instead to English medium institutions and western countries for their education, but they have been brainwashed with religion from an early age and so turn to terrorism.

What in your view is the solution?

Children should be allowed to grow up in a free thinking environment and should not be under pressure of religious teachings from an early age. Only then will they not be influenced by preachers to turn to violence in the name of religion. What happens now is that they become easy prey since the seeds of religious fundamentalism has been sown at an early age in their fertile minds. There has been a lot of talk about the misinterpretation of the Koran by preachers. But like Koran there are other holy books too which have also doubtlessly been misinterpreted by fundamentalists – but that has not given rise to Christian or Jewish terrorists who slaughter people. Only one religion creates terrorists who kill innocents around the world.

As a writer and a creative person in exile do you have any regrets about not being able to go back?

No I have no regrets, but I have relatives in Bangladesh and would like to go and visit them. But that is Impossible – the government doesn’t renew my passport or issue a visa – I have no valid documents and it is not safe anymore for me to travel to Bangladesh. I feel like I’m a citizen of this world and I don’t believe in national boundaries – the universe is my country, whole world is my village.

What about the ban by the West Bengal government?

I will keep on fighting for my right to go to Bengal, I’m a Bengali writer and I don’t have any rights to live either in Bangladesh or in West Bengal. I will fight for my right to go back to Bengal – I may not live there but I should have the right to go there because of my freedom of expression. I should be able to criticise religion or say whatever I like and still have the right to stay there. Even the Indian government had thrown me out but I came back again and I’m living here – and that is because India is democracy and India should uphold my freedom of expression. That’s why I live in India because India is a democracy and freedom of expression is valuable – I can criticise religion and still stay in India. More than me this is a positive of India as a secular and democratic state. My fight is not only for me, it is also the fight for people who need to have freedom to express their views that are different from others.

Personally, I’m a citizen of Europe and can live in Europe. I also have an American Green Card and permanent resident rights there. But I live here because I love the Indian sub-continent and I don’t feel like they’re different countries. When I’m in India I feel like I’m at home – my books have been published here and I have so many readers, so many people love me that’s why I feel at home here and not because Indians look like me.

There’s a conspiracy to throw me out though – I have been thrown out of Bengal and Bangladesh and there ae so many fatwas and price on my head but still I’m living in the Indian sub-continet because I write in Bengali – one of the Indian languages.

What are you working on – and though you write in different genres which defines you the best?

Some people like my poetry while others love my fiction and essays. I have written seven autobiographies and will write another one. I’m also writing about women’s freedom. I feel there is a poet inside me.

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