First Lady Bushra Maneka has been ridiculed and criticised for her choice of clothing since news of her marriage with Prime Minister Imran Khan’s became public.
Both secular and liberal opposition and conservative support towards her burqa became more pronounced on social media after Khan’s oath-taking ceremony. This incident is not new as women’s bodies and clothing in Pakistan has been frequently deconstructed by the moral police. From a moral standpoint, if an outfit is too revealing the woman is declared shameful and immodest, and if it covers a bit too much the woman is touted as repressed or orthodox.
In particular, some have asserted that the First Lady’s burqa is a symbol of repression of all Pakistani women. Some have said that her image will be utilised by the West to highlight the right-wing tilt of the country. Others holding this perspective also believe that hiding her body and face behind a veil represents her oppression.
First, the veil – whether it is a hijab, abaya, burqa, niqab – isn’t simply forced upon the women wearing it. Yet, women are commonly mocked and labelled as ‘fundos’ (fundamentalists) and ‘ninjas’ for donning them. In her latest book, Rafia Zakaria states that the veil doesn’t reflect a lack of agency or choice as not all women are forced to cover their bodies by men. Even in the case of Bushra Bibi, her burqa predates her marriage to Khan and reflects a preference to remain hidden from the public eye.
Her specific understanding of religion and piety also seem to have played a role in her choice of the veil. Sadaf Ahmed, in her book ‘Transforming Faith: The Story of Al-Huda and Islamic Revivalism among Urban Pakistani Women’ has argued that “veiling” is a spectrum. Women cover themselves to reject colonisation, rebel against their families, ensure anonymity, and as a fashion statement. Hence, the veil isn’t static and can’t be interpreted simply as a tyrannical religious (read: Islamic) symbol.
Second, constructing the veil as regressive is central to Western imperialism that amplifies the lack of freedom of women to justify the barbaric nature of Muslim men. The stereotypical image of the burqa-clad Afghan woman has been used to legitimise the US war in Afghanistan. Here, the logic is that Muslim women have their agency forcibly stripped by violent and barbaric Muslim men. This holds true in the case of the Afghan Taliban as they forced women to wear the burqa and killed those women who defied them. Yet, it is critical to note that a piece of clothing isn’t inherently oppressive. Instead, it is the contextually-specific extremist interpretation of Islam and misogyny that makes it so.
Beyond the group of people who label the burqa as regressive and backward are those who have defended it as the freedom of choice. Those vehemently supporting her choice are the same ones, who would shame a woman for choosing to dress in a ‘non-traditional’ manner. Not only is it culturally unacceptable for women to wear anything above the ankles, but hate speech is often used against those whose dress sense is too ‘Western’ or ‘revealing’. This stance, routinely adopted by the religious brigade, is hypocritical and ‘otherises’ women who don’t follow their ideals of acceptable dress codes. Those using this lens to decode women’s clothing consider the burqa as pious religious attire and malign other women in ‘Western’ clothing as immoral and depraved.
The unwarranted policing of Bushra Bibi’s burqa from either perspectives has more in common than meets the eye. Both sides attach reductionist and biased moral values to pieces of clothing that are as diverse as the people who wear them.
Overall, the intrinsic meaning of different forms of clothing depends upon the context in which they are worn. For instance, in many Western countries, the bikini is commonly recognised as the symbol of freedom for women who choose to expose their bodies. In comparison, when women are forced to wear the same bikini, the item of clothing becomes oppressive and symbolises their lack of freedom. The same logic is then applicable to ‘veiling’ in all its forms. It can be oppressive, liberating, convenient or fashionable based on varying factors and circumstances.
The mainstream conversation on Bushra Bibi’s veil is belittling as it reduces her to her clothing. As Adrienne Rich, American poet and feminist, stated that “the woman’s body is the terrain on which patriarchy is erected”. In a society, where analysing female public figures through what they wear is a function of patriarchy, it is integral to move beyond these morally stagnant perspectives.
The writer is a senior analyst at the SRajaratnam School of InternationalStudies in Singapore.