Saturday, March 06, 2010
Veil of darkness
Exploits of the burqa brigade
An apocryphal story is told of how an infamous smuggler who operated from coastal Gujarat in the 1970s would ensure raids on his house by the police would not result in the seizure of ‘incriminating’ material and documents. Every time the police knocked on his door, whether at high noon or sunset, he would send word that he was praying and could they please wait till his communion with god was over? Mindful of not hurting ‘minority sentiments’, the police would cool their heels on the street or sit in their jeeps while his men swiftly strapped gold biscuits, cash and hawala documents to their muscular bodies. Next, each one of them would don a voluminous, ankle-length burqa and stand around their boss. The door of the don’s den would then be thrown open to the patiently waiting policemen who would troop in, move from room to room, look under beds, sofas and cabinets, and, after failing to lay their hands on any ‘incriminating evidence’, profusely apologise before trooping out. Some 25 years later, a senior police officer who was a frequent visitor to the don’s den courtesy the raids which never led to either arrest or prosecution told me, “It was so frustrating. We knew all about his trick but there was nothing we could do about it.”
Kalimuddin Shams, who would contest West Bengal Assembly elections as a Left Front candidate and was the acknowledged mastaan of Kolkata’s Kidderpore Docks, used the same trick on the day of polling in his constituency. There would be endless queues of burqa-clad voters who would refuse to show their face or have their finger inked as that would amount to ‘intimacy with strangers’. Each one of them would step into the polling booth, vote for Kalimuddin Shams, and join the queue again. Needless to say, Hasina Bano would get to vote more than once, as would ‘her’ friends. On counting day, Kalimuddin Shams would be declared the winner with a huge margin. It’s not surprising that the CPI(M) held him in high esteem: He had mastered the art of rigging elections without leaving any tell-tale evidence behind. “They were brazen about it. You could see their lungi sticking out from beneath the burqa, their hairy arms would be visible. While standing in the queue they would casually lift the veil on their face and smoke beedis. But there’s nothing we could do,” the Chief Election Officer of West Bengal told me after demitting office. Kalimuddin Shams, who never tired of reminding officials “I am a Muslim first and then an Indian” and had once famously declared (while serving as a Minister in the Left Front Government) that “Muslims form a separate nation in this country”, was not someone to be trifled with.
The burqa has proved to be useful to others, too. Maulana Abdul Aziz, the chief cleric of Lal Masjid in Islamabad, tried to escape the July 4, 2007 Army crackdown ordered by Gen Pervez Musharraf on his jihad nursery clad in a burqa. The Pakistani commandoes proved to be tougher than the 1970s police of Gujarat and West Bengal’s polling staff, and the maulana in drag was spotted, arrested and carted off to prison. Islamabad’s Deputy Commissioner of Police, Chaudhry Muhammad Ali, told the BBC, “The maulana came out of the mosque with a group of girls wearing a burqa and carrying a handbag. The girls protested when he was stopped. But the officers were suspicious and after a search, Maulana Abdul Aziz was identified and arrested.” According to another version of the maulana’s failed flight to freedom, put out by AFP, he was “picked out” by security officials “because of his unusual demeanour”. The agency quoted an official as saying, “The rest of the girls looked like girls, but he was taller and had a pot belly.” A third version, which was gleefully related to me by a Pakistani journalist, was far more delightful. Apparently, the maulana decided to wear women’s shoes to make his disguise as authentic as possible. After much rummaging in the dark as bullets whizzed through shattered windows and shells landed on the roof of the women’s madarsa, he found a pair of high heels, slipped them on, and tottered out with a group of women, clutching a handbag. There was a problem though. The shoes were a size too small for the him and he couldn’t quite keep his balance on the high heels. It was this comical sight that drew the attention of security officials. Gen Musharraf’s regime charged Maulana Abdul Aziz with murder, incitement and kidnapping (of Islamabad’s prostitutes). The Pakistani Supreme Court, in its wisdom, decided to let him walk free on April 16, 2009. Public memory being notoriously short, the maulana was accorded a ‘rousing reception’ when he returned to Lal Masjid.
In more recent days, one of the Taliban suicide-bombers who attacked guest houses in Kabul on February 26, killing six Indians and other foreigners, is believed to have worn a burqa to avoid detection by security guards. It was a common trick used by Palestinian terrorists when suicidebombings were a feature of daily life in Israel. Meanwhile, our Supreme Court is hearing a petition seeking exemption for burqa-clad Muslim women from getting themselves photographed while registering as voters or revealing their faces to officials at polling booths, keeping in mind their “religious sensitivities”. On March 1, Muslims ran riot in Shimoga and Hassan in Karnataka, allegedly enraged by an article published by a local daily, Kannada Prabha, penned by dissident Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen, questioning the religious basis of forcing Muslim women to wear the burqa. Taslima Nasreen has since clarified that she did not send the article to Kannada Prabha for publication. It transpires that the daily took the article from her website, but these details are not germane to the organised mob fury which resulted in the death of two persons.
Since we began with an anecdote, it would be in order to end with another. The former ‘Grand Mufti of Australia’, Sheikh Taj al-din al-Hilali, wanted for inciting terrorism in the country of his origin, Egypt, is given to describing women who do not wear the burqa as “uncovered meat” and blaming them for “enticing rapists”. On one occasion, while addressing the faithful after Friday prayers at Lakemba Mosque in Sydney, Sheikh Taj al-din al-Hilali rose to the defence of a serial rapist, Bilal Skaf, asserting, “If I come across a crime of rape, kidnap and violation of honour, I would discipline the man and teach him a lesson in morals and I would order the woman to be arrested and jailed for life. Why? Because, if she hadn’t left the meat uncovered, the cat wouldn’t have snatched it... If one puts uncovered meat out on the street or the footpath or the garden or the backyard without a cover, then the cats come and eat it. Is it the fault of the cat or the uncovered meat?”
Must we let ulema who insist “women should not be seen in public as they cause social turmoil” answer that question? What do you think?
[This appeared as my Sunday column Coffee Break in The Pioneer on March 7, 2010.]