What intentions lie behind the veil?
One evening, I was having a conversation with my wife about the country’s nascent hijab culture. Why do more and more women succumb to this veiling obsession? Why have Bangladeshi women, in the past few years, become excessively religious?
My wife debunked my misconception. There’s nothing to do with religion here, she claimed. She told me that of the 15 female staff in her office, eight were hijab wearers.
But the truth is that the majority of them do not wear the veil out of their strong faith in Islam. They have other reasons, she said.
There are some incredible benefits to being a hijabi. Hijabi women, my wife expounded, need not worry about doing their hair before going out. If they have bad hair or dandruff, it doesn’t matter at all, they just don the hijab.
And as Dhaka prides itself on being among the most polluted cities in the world and having some of the the worst air, the hijab protects their hair from dust and pollution.
Since most hijabis put on a long loose outer-garment which can be worn over their regular dresses, they never strain themselves over what to wear inside, and they don’t take the trouble of ironing their clothes.
My wife believes that, overall, hijabis supposedly save more or less an hour every day from “getting dressed to step out of the house” compared to non-hijabi women. And last but not least, hijabis receive some sort of extra respect thanks to their Islamic outfit.
However, there is a good number of ultra-modern hijabis as well, my wife pointed out. These women wear heavy make-up, eye-catching deep lipstick, and showy fashionable trendy hijabs. When they walk on the streets, their flamboyant dress-up grabs more attention than non-hijabi women.
I was stunned to discover the notion of this camouflaged religiosity. As I meditated on the facts my wife had just highlighted -- the reasons behind the topical craze of hijab use in secular Bengali culture -- the image of my mother surfaced.
Living a few blocks away from my flat in Dhaka, mum visits me frequently. She has two loose outer-wears -- one for daily use, one for events. Whenever she is out for chores, she slips into her daily outer-garmet over her maxi dress.
I used to nag my mum about it: “Can’t you put on something nice before you leave the house?” She replied with her sheepish smile: “It’s just you I’m seeing.” Or “I’m not feeling well.” But I knew the real reason. She was simply lazy.
On Eid and other festivals, mum receives traditional saris as gifts. I joke that she no longer requires them because of her over-garments and maxi wear. However, occasionally, when she attends any family gathering or a wedding, she happily appears without her veil.
I thought about my cousins and the girls in the extended family who wore hijabs. I am pretty sure that none of them prayed five times a day -- obligatory for every Muslim. They are like any other orthodox Bengali woman.
They freely show up before male strangers and talk, never bothering about the extra covering when at home. In social gatherings, moreover, they appear as usual, with no Islamic veil on; perhaps a sheer headscarf that hints at hijab practice.
Oddly enough, all of these females -- except one or two cases -- had taken the hijab voluntarily. They, in fact, started wearing it seeing other women. And to some, it gives a feeling of security while outside the home.
Their safety concerns should not be disregarded. A study conducted by BRAC published last year says that about 94% of women commuting via public transport in Bangladesh have experienced sexual harassment in verbal, physical, and other forms.
No doubt too that our roads and footpaths are unfriendly for pedestrians. And the biggest nuisance every woman has to face when on the streets is the shameless male staring, which certainly could be termed as “eye-rape.”
Anyhow, I thought hard to find some hardcore conservative Muslim women from the body of my hijabi friends and acquaintances. All seemed to be liberal believers. On the streets, I might bump into them in their hijab veil, but at home, they are unveiled, .
They come up before men with an orna or dupatta covering their head and neck, draped around their shoulders. This way of appearance is customary for Bengali women.
Even Hindu women, in front of the senior male members of the family, put on a ghomta head veil as a mark of respect. Women covering their heads with a dupatta, in many places across the Indian sub-continent, is cultural, not religious.
Rahad Abir is a writer. He is finishing his first novel.