Beards, Bigotry and Burqas

Growing up in 90s India, one couldn’t avoid the jovial Sardar caricature in the Entertainment industry. Most Sardars one saw on television we either Jaspal Bhatti/Navjot Siddhu or Jaspal Bhatti/ Navjot Sidhu on steroids. It’s been decades since these caricatures made an impression on my mind, but still, the moment I see a Sardar, I tend to start assuming him to be a jovial, funny, and extroverted person – and in my experience, that stereotype has mostly held up in my eyes. So when I read news articles of Sikhs being targetted in the United States in wake of the 9/11 attacks as an 11-year-old, I was extremely confused. In my eyes how someone could confuse a full and rich bearded and turbaned Sardar with a moustacheless Muslim extremist stereotype.

Similarly, the honest Muslim Chacha was surely aimed at creating a positive image for bearded and capped Muslims who had humble professions. But for someone like me who was initially inoculated with even more powerful imagery of the bearded Muslim (as illustrated below), the Bollywood Muslim stereotype wasn’t enough to leave an impact on my subconscious mind.

The image I am talking about is shown below :

Around 1 km from where I stay, an entire wall is painted with this image with the title – “This is how terrorism ought to be tackled” in Marathi. Growing up in Maharashtra, every Ganesh festival, half the pandals (decorations made for celebration ) are about Shivaji – and a significant number of them have either bearded & mustache-less Afzal Khan, Shaista Khan, Aurangzeb. The strong impact this imagery made on my psyche wasn’t countered enough by the various Bollywood chacha’s I grew up seeing.

As a result even at age of 25, I held on to a tiny bit of the initial instinctive negative reaction when encountering bearded moustacheless individuals. Some years ago, I had convinced myself that my reaction was due to the aesthetics of certain styles of facial hair which I do not find appealing. Later reading a novel in which the daughter/son (Thousand splendid suns or Kite Runner or Not without my daughter) was playing with her Abbu’s mustache less beard made me realize the error in my ways. Since then I have made a conscious effort to curtail that initial reaction and have been largely successful Was this reaction bigotry on my part? or something else?

Coming to the recent controversy where the radical atheist author Taslima Nasreen made an off-hand and poor tweet about England cricketer Moeen Ali. Taslima Nasreen is known to fly off the handle – especially with poorly worded tweets – was instantly attacked by Moeen’s England teammates. Irish England captain Eoin Morgan made special mentions after the 2019 world cup of the multicultural atmosphere of the English team – which means bearded (conservative?) Muslims like Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid (or Monty Panesar) don’t stick out like a sore thumb and that is progress of a kind in my opinion.

Similarly, at the age of 16-21 as a radical atheist (when I assume I was a lot more immature than I am today), even the Hindu Tilak invoked a strong reaction in me. But today, like the beards, skull caps (the *out of tribe* symbols of identity/belief) I do not have any reaction to the Hindu religious symbols. It’s a sign of shedding some of my atheistic/judgemental roots. But still, an image remains, even the sight of which troubles me to an unreasonable and illogical extent.

From beards and turbans, we come to the Burqa. Arguably the most controversial garment in the world, no matter how much I try, I cannot empathize or humanize the Burqa. I have observed over the years that whenever I travel (outside my ghetto Pune urban life) – especially in the summers – I grow more Islamophobic. The appearance of the Burqa in the sweltering heat of India sends such a strong and negative emotion in me, I cannot humanize it no matter how much I try. In the end, I feel it’s only the French who have got this issue sorted the way it should be. Of course, it infringes on the freedom of choice but I concede I am not that libertarian. As a wannabee male feminist, I do cringe when I see the North Indian (even Maharashtrian) Purdah or the hijab, but Burqa is definitely a line I believe I can never cross in the 21st century. Does this make me bigoted? I personally don’t think so but I could see the wokesters calling me so.

I have read the passionate defense by Khatija ( AR Rahman’s daughter ) of her choice to wear the Burqa. Having seen an iota of merit in that argument, I still feel for the greater good Burqas ought to be banned. (I don’t see it getting banned anytime soon anywhere in India). However, I have to acknowledge that whenever someone uses the *For the Greater Good* as part of their argument, maybe the argument isn’t watertight.

Post Script:

I understand this is a highly politically incorrect blog post to write. I have wanted to express these thoughts for months now, but something held me back. I have tried to be as honest and rounded in my thoughts as I could. 

Please be constructive and respectful in feedback.

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22 Replies to “Beards, Bigotry and Burqas”

  1. Moeen Ali wore armbands that said “Free Palestine” and “Gaza” in a Test match against India (wtf moment for the ECB/ICC which warned him). That was Moeen’s idea of “performative activism” in 2014. I think everyone has a right to such antics including Taslima.

    The second bullshittery that got normalised by “cricket liberals” is that – you (as a consumer or as a commentator) are not supposed to bring religion into cricket but religious cricketers can bring religion into cricket!! Moeen Ali and other M cricketers routinely refuse to wear alcohol sponsor logos on their shirts. Fuck’s sake – its not the same as swilling alcohol.

    Both Taslima and Moeen got a pump of social media capital from this saga. That a desi brown woman initiated this sparring round is very illuminating to me – an ex-Muslim vs a practicing Muslim, an ex-Bangladeshi vs a ex-Pakistani and feminist vs a wannabe (no extra e!) Arab.

    +3
    1. Moeen’s activism was pathetic ! Agreed.
      About alcohol on clothing – same as Hashim Amla – I guess they get paid let for that – it’s fair seeing they’re losing something for their activism. I somehow empathize with that coz I know lots of Jains Hindus who wouldn’t want to advertise Nonveg brands like Venky’s etc. As long as u dont expect to be paid the same as others i guess that fair

      +5
      1. Did you just add freshly plucked whataboutery to the broth? Not interested in that. If cricketers can bring religion on to the field, then viewers and commenters can also do so, either by trolling or sarcasm.

        Most of the English team reacted like that because Moeen is a teammate. That is instinctive. Also understandable. But the Indian journalists and twitterati reacted from very different perspectives. One, the troll is a woman talking about a man in a man’s game. Two – she is crossing boundaries (pun intended) that men don’t. Three – she outed a very typical Indian cue tip for other vexing topics. Taslima could have taken this teachable moment and given a lesson to some of the “liberal” males on her twitter timeline. But she backed down.

        BTW, Moeen Ali puts his wife in a abaya. Or perhaps she made the “choice”. Make up your mind if Taslima called it correctly.

        +1
  2. I can completely understand your attitude to the head dress. What interests me is that Arabs, i.e UAE etc the men wear a similar dress the white version and have not discarded it yet.
    I think in hot dusty climate covering your hair was/is sensible and both men and women were doing it .But then
    when the Iranian revolution happened it became a symbol of Islamic rule. An easy visible symbol ….agreed to by all.

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    1. I have worn the thawb/jubbah and it is pretty comfortable in hot summers, even more comfortable than Shalwar Qameez. The air freely floats around the body keeping it cool while the fabric protects the skin from the sun. The headwear is also there to protect from sun and blowing sand. A bigger tragedy is that people don’t see that wearing jeans in 35+ degrees is much more uncomfortable.

      +1
  3. The difference white and black garment make cannot be understated. Done experiments about how much just color of the fabric makes things uncomfortable.

    About Jeans -they can be comfortable – but we don’t start dressing our 2- 3 year old boys/girls in rugged thick jeans right outdoors ?

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  4. I don’t think the color difference is that significant or makes any difference at all, see this

    https://www.nature.com/articles/283373a0

    Bedouins wear black in the desert heat as well, not just the women.
    I think its more uncomfortable wearing tight western style clothing (jeans, fitted pant/shirt) in hot and humid temperatures than it is wearing loose fitting robes.

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    1. if that were the case I stand corrected ! I might have less visceral reaction to the Burqa next time – though thats not the only reason for my visceral reaction

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      1. Burqas being more comfortable than jeans would be a more legitimate argument if burqas were the only thing Muslim women are putting on but they do wear full clothing (sari/salwar) underneath.

        That said, I am not a big fan of tight jeans either. But most non-Muslim women in India do not wear jeans daily anyway.

        In smaller cities and more conservative families, women wear salwar or nighties or cholis. In more liberal spaces, they wear yoga pants, skirts, shorts etc.

        Also, I think burqas are much more prevalent in the deccan and in the western coast than up north. One of my college friends from Bihar is a really pious Muslim. (His FB cover pic reads Quran is the perfection of man or some quote like that.)
        He also frequently posts pretty religious stuff. But his mom wears saris and appears in photos with him.

        I was a bit surprised at how ubiquitous burqas were when I travelled through the western Ghats a few years ago in places like Chikmaglur. You don’t see that even when you go to Old Delhi.

        +1
        1. yes, its interesting that muslims in “less muslim” areas choose more outward distinction. Many women in burqas and men clean shaven or with mustache-less beard. Hyderabad and then Lucknow are by degrees more subtle in the distinction between the outward appearance of hindus and muslims. Finally, in Pakistan, burqa is quite rare, and its absolutely normal for a man to sport a mustache with the ends piqued like a rajput, or not so consciously groomed like a public sector bank manager from udupi. Lahori women more or less carry themselves like sardarnis

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  5. GauravL, I must say that you fail the only *actual* test of tolerance – tolerating what you *actually* despise (as long as it’s not harming you, obv, or a few other game-theoretic considerations excepted). Otherwise, if you only tolerate what you’re already fine with people doing, this isn’t tolerance, this is just… nothing.

    From the inimitable Scott Alexander (copy-pasted; this may change formatting and remove links):

    The Emperor summons before him Bodhidharma and asks: “Master, I have been tolerant of innumerable gays, lesbians, bisexuals, asexuals, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, transgender people, and Jews. How many Virtue Points have I earned for my meritorious deeds?”

    Bodhidharma answers: “None at all”.

    The Emperor, somewhat put out, demands to know why.

    Bodhidharma asks: “Well, what do you think of gay people?”

    The Emperor answers: “What do you think I am, some kind of homophobic bigot? Of course I have nothing against gay people!”

    And Bodhidharma answers: “Thus do you gain no merit by tolerating them!”

    — From his excellent “I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup”

    It’s only if and when you tolerate the burka and the women who wear them, in spite of it *truly grating on you*, in spite of it feeling *outrageous!*, etc etc, that you’re actually ‘tolerant’. You have to, you know, actually find something *unpleasant* to tolerate it; otherwise, what’s the point?

    Similarly, true inter-cultural maturity comes from realising that that sense that outrages you when you see something, that you feel is just so *wrong*, fuck it, how could I possibly tolerate that!? – when you realise that the reflexive assumption of the validity of the judgements that sense is producing *is in fact* parochialism, and most fundamentally, realising that ‘My gut reactions are *not* a valid way of deciding this, that way lies rape and genocide’, and that actual tolerance is to set that parochialism and those gut reactions aside, NO MATTER how much the burka (or whatever else) grates on your soul, and to use neutral standards of judgement for what should or shouldn’t be permissible – THAT is tolerance.

    And not anything short of that.

    But your trajectory is certainly good; I urge you to keep it up, and level up from working with individual things that offend you, to true tolerance. Good luck in your journey!

    +2
  6. Thanks, I sooo love this post. A deep empathy, no racist bigot could draw from such a well. I salute and embrace your sentiments. Please can you contact me on the email for a discussion offline. Your thinking in this and other writings, as well as the people following your posts, resonates with me… and on matters not easily discussed in open online as the woke-ers do their troll duties. Please if you can contact. Keep writing, thanks.

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