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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 44, Dated November 06, 2010
CULTURE & SOCIETY  
Personal Histories
DEEPTI SHARMA
Is 23. She is a student of English literature
at Delhi University

A SERIES ON TRUE EXPERIENCES
FRIENDSHIP

‘Feminism had made me orthodox, while the burqa had enabled her’

THERE IS a woman. When she first entered the feminism studies class, clad in a full-length burqa, my enraptured gaze was turned towards her. Soon enough, I was uttering the exclamation, “Wow! What a feminist”. The utterance was by me, another kind of woman.

‘Feminism had made me orthodox, while the burqa had enabled her’

I, after having read too much Simone de Beauvoir and Virginia Woolf, considered myself a great feminist (bordering on idealism or rather hooliganism) and took great pride in it.

So, going by that streak, I cut my hair, befriended lesbians, joined activist groups and became a voluntary critic of the burqa-clad woman. However, as is the case with student life, the two of us were grouped together for a course project.

This gave me the chance to understand she was no less than me or anyone else; I was surprised to locate such a brilliant set of ideas hidden behind that veil and ended up cursing my preconceived notions. But there still remained some notions in my head. In fact, a lot more that had yet to be untangled.

The project got over and what remained was a booming friendship despite the ideological odds. Most of the time the two of us were seen having long rambling conversations on one issue or the other, but I could never go as far as to the touch the “burqa issue”. I always wanted to tell her, “You are all liberal in your ideas but ever tried applying it? What is stopping you from removing this hindering and oppressive veil which doesn’t even let you breathe?” I dared not ask her, for the simple reason that she might have taken offence to it.

Months passed and it was near the end of our course when she, for the first time, invited me to her place on Eid. With the colourful celebration at its peak, I couldn’t help feeling suffocated at the plight of every burqa-clad woman there, inhabiting a prison of her own (talk of a room of one’s own!).

After having restrained conversation and eating my share of delicious sewaiyaan, we went to the terrace, when I impulsively taunted her (I could not resist this time), “Why do you call yourself a feminist when you wear this oppressive garment?”

She merely smiled and after a long pause, said, “Well, this is my choice in a way. My choice even when I don’t have any other choices.”

I was about to open my mouth again when she elaborated, “Why do you always set western feminism as a standard against which every other woman’s feminism is measured? Why a set definition? Isn’t it tiring to put yourself on display all the time? Here, beneath this, there is a sense of serenity, a way which lets me feel free. This shield doesn’t let a stray man scrutinise me as an object. In yours words, that ‘commodifying western gaze’. This is not to say this is the ideal kind of feminism, but this is my kind of feminism. Being a creature of a particular historical context, I don’t want to become so radical that my life is at stake. Isn’t that a choice again? What use is there for uninhibited radicalism if the fanatics of my community almost kill me? Isn’t it great that I’m studying a feminism course and have a friend like you?”

It was then I realised that the burqa wasn’t her religion but standard feminism was my religion. As it turned out, while blaming her for orthodoxy, I was the orthodox one. The burqa, seen by me and dogmatic feminists as disabling, became enabling for her, letting her see things critically (when I was busy reading literary critics). She did inhabit a room of her own!

It was that day when both of us stood for hours together, holding hands, only to be applauded by the cosmic fireworks in the sky. And that was the day my life changed as I arrived at the other side.

ILLUSTRATION: SAMIA SINGH

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 44, Dated November 06, 2010
 
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