The foremost presidential candidate is neck deep in controversy regarding her ‘veil’ or ‘purdah’ remarks. I wonder what purpose could the remark serve anyway. Moreover, whether it is done away with or stays is a matter of choice. There is nobody forcing the women to wear purdah when they are already out there prancing around in miniskirts. It is simply about cultural preference. Recently, I read an article by one Sapna Sharma in The Times of India (June 22, 2007; Pg. 20, New Delhi Edition).
The writer lady says:
“Purdah hardly protects women. Far from it, it was and continues to be a device to subjugate them. That this subjugation was complete under the Rajputs is evident from the facts that either before or after Moghul invasion one finds no historical figure among Rajput women except Mirabai. Ironically, her greatness lies in her being a symbol of revolt against the suppression of women.”
Purdah or veil, as must be known to the writer, is made of cloth, and not of steel and cannot, therefore, be expected to work as a shield or armour. The ‘protection’ being talked about here is the protection of some kind other than afforded by combat attire. Quite evidently, it is a protection against sight, and is not essentially against the sight of the intruders or plunderers as the writer seems to suggest or as Ms. Pratibha Patil seems to have suggested. It was brought in essentially to protect women from becoming an ‘object’ – or an ‘object of desire’, if you prefer. The same writer concludes the same piece saying, “The sad truth is that purdah is a relic of the times when men regarded women as property. It has no relevance in a liberal society.”
Let’s agree for the sake of argument. She says it belongs to the period when women were treated as ‘property’. Well, property belongs to someone, as the conception of ownership is inherent in the term ‘property’ itself. But an object may not ‘belong’ to anyone. In the times of purdah, women ‘belonged’ to someone, today they belong to the billboards. That’s liberal society for you. With the exit of purdah, also went away the ownership, making women public property. Haven’t you seen magazines for males featuring attractive women clad in swimsuits on the cover? Haven’t we seen them selling shaving gels for men? Aren’t they being ‘used’ without belonging? And for whose benefit – males, of course. It was this ‘objectification’ that the purdah sought to be a defence against. Of course, the clothes that protect from the sun, rain and dust also confine one’s body to some extent. Protection always comes at the price of liberty, and for security of any kind one needs to forego a part of one’s freedom. So long as the liberty to choose is there, the freedom cannot be said to be lost.
Coming to Mirabai, her ‘greatness’ does not lie in being ‘a symbol of revolt against the suppression of women’ but in her devotion to Lord Krishna. It is this that makes Mirabai stand out. She was not a social reformer but her devotion necessitated her revolt. Mirabai’s devotion and her treating Lord Krishna as her husband was against social norms, which made her a rebel. So, rebellion was a necessary means and not an objective.
Therefore, purdah does signify a bygone era but that does not entitle us to sit in judgment on it, as it is also indicative of the realities that are not ours. We have neither the authority, nor the understanding to pronounce a value judgment on the past. After all, today will be ‘yesterday’ tomorrow.