What should Muslim women wear? There are sharply divided opinions on this question.
Is burqa/hijab a symbol of women's oppression or an assertion of religious or cultural identity?
Officially, the Quran states no compulsion for Muslim women to cover their faces with a veil, but advocates that both men and women behave and dress modestly in public.
And yet the burqa, an all-covering traditional garment, worn by some Muslim women takes precedence as a system of protection in their lives. According to them, men are the singular biggest threat to a woman. Commonly perceived by the Western or non-Muslim cultures as an imposed confinement that reduces a woman to a non-person, the burqa is but a second skin for the women followers of Islam.
It is often questioned as to who these women are beyond their outer garbs. This photo essay from India, with the theme "Beyond the burqa" is an attempt to prod into their personal space and discover the meaning and role of the burqa/hijab (headscarf) in their lives. Were there dreams beyond these definitions? Or was it just blind faith?
During interviews with women, it emerged that the indoctrination of the burqa/hijab starts as early as the young age of five, as a tradition followed down the generations. Many little school girls were eager to start wearing the hijab as a sign of being grown up. They wanted to look like their mothers. There was no question of feeling suffocated as it was to be worn for their own good. Some of the "moderates" as they are called, felt more secured and protected when they wore the hijab/burqa as it eliminated them from the negative gaze of men.
Hayâ (meaning modesty) is something strongly advocated by the Quran and maintained by one and all in the Muslim culture.
Alternatively, the hijab and burqa designing is finding its own niche in the Muslim fashion circles in India. The fine lines between religion and culture are easily blurred and religious diktats often become a way of life. The burqa is an outcome of such interpretations.
Education and financial independence are great enablers for many young Muslim women, who are increasingly joining jobs while still wearing the hijab. To be restricted by traditions or to be free with them is a line that the Muslim woman, like any other, needs to draw for herself.