Top Stories

'No hijab, little burqa, in Jamia in 1960s, 70s'

By Rajiv Shah*

Currently "holidaying" in the United States, I went to meet one of my bosom friends, Khursheed Latif, who lives in a beautiful area called Pocono known for its forested peaks, lakes and valleys in the US state of Pennsylvania.

Khursheed is one of the few friends from my childhood days I spent in Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi with whom I continue be in touch even today, talking over phone, exchanging thoughts and making fun on each other. Jamia is the spot where my parents, both confirmed Gandhians, would teach art education, while his father, an Urdu litterateur known to be a close associate of Jamia Millia Islamia founders including Dr Zakir Hussain, who later became India’s President, edited the official 'Jamia' magazine.

Image is for representational purposes only
During my stay at Khursheed's beautiful residence on a hillock surrounded by tall trees on one side and golf course on the other, as it would happen, we recalled our "good old days." The arguments were bound to revert to a large number of topics including the hot ones which connected us with our past. And, as we were talking, the hijab controversy raging across the country became a point on which he told me something I knew as an “outsider," but surely not as an insider about what Jamia Muslims thought about it in the 1960s and 1970s.

What I knew for sure was that with a few exceptions, most Muslim women and girls - including the two sisters of another bosom friend (whom we lovingly called Munna), who would tie me a rakhi every year - wouldn’t ever put-up a hijab or a burqa. Munna’s mother too, whom we called aapa, a close friend of my mother's, never wore a burqa, though namaz was her regular feature. She would treat me as her child, call me for dinner when my parents would go away to Ahmedabad and serve me vegetarian dinner.

I recalled, one of our friends, whom we would tease and call 'Chand' (I don’t know the reason why), was perhaps a few years older than us. What we knew for sure was that he got married. Was it before the allowed date of marriage? Was it a child marriage? We would wonder among ourselves but he wouldn't mind. 

We would make a team of three-four boys with him and take a walk up to the Okhla dam, our daily evening outing after returning from school, and later college. After a few of us who would gather to go to the dam site, we would knock at Chand’s house to come with us. We had never seen his wife. All of us would make fun of him for keeping her in hiding from us, in burqa. A little uncouth, though a simpleton, he alone would justify his wife being kept in burqa. Ironically, I was part of the team which made fun of him, yet the Muslim friends never said why I was doing it despite being a Hindu!

I told these incidents to Khursheed and he started talking about his experiences in Jamia. He told me, as an insider, how he also knew very few Muslim women wearing burqa, pointing out there was no hijab then as we know it. What he said was revealing to me: During informal gatherings of Muslim families, they would make fun of those who kept their wives in burqa (there was no hijab, as we know it today, in Jamia). These, he said, were isolated cases and could be counted on fingers. In fact, he said, even devout Muslim families would detest burqa as something obsolete, not part of their tradition and culture.
Even as we were talking, Khursheed told me an interesting detail about Jamia's co-education school where he studied. "Though it was called Jamia Millia Islamia, girls, most of them Muslims, would act in plays and take part in NCC in which forget burqa they would not even have a dupatta, as NCC dress code did not allow it. Not only my sister and mother did not wear any burqa, my mother detested the practice."
In Jamia Millia Islamia, during informal gatherings of Muslim families, they would make fun of those who kept their wives in burqa.

"One of the persons who used to participate in NCC when in Jamia school was my sister," Khursheed said, regretting, "But see now: The same person wears a burqa today. She started this practice after the birth of her first child. My mother used to often tell me to ask my sister to give up this practice." According to him, "This assertion of Muslim identity became strong after the complications of Babri Masjid."

He continued, "Some of the Muslims whose wives wore burqa never stopped their daughters from coming on stage and performing, be it plays, singing nazam, ghazal, the National Anthem, the Jamia anthem or bait baazi (elocution contest). In 1969, our small group consisting of girls and boys went to Mumbai to participate in the Ghalib centenary celebrations with male teachers."

He further told me, "Some girls used to come from old Delhi in burqa. However, they would remove it before attending classes. They were doing it on their own, as they apparently found most girls were coming to the school without burqa and they shouldn't be any different. After getting down from the bus, they would quietly go to school peon Jumman’s house first to remove burqa. Many of us were not even aware that they wore burqa before reaching Jumman’s house."

Ironically, most of the Muslim families I knew were devout Muslims. Namaz, Ramzan (now turned into Ramadan!) fast, and other Islamic rites (including the 'manzoor hai' consent of the bride and bridegroom and meher during marriage) were part of their lives. Vising their families – my every day affair – I clearly saw all this. A few of them who called themselves “progressive” would also observe some of these rites as part of their culture, if not by conviction. However, none of the women or girls, not even during marriage functions, or those visiting us on Holi and Diwali, would ever put up hijab, not to talk of burqa.

I was a little astonished when I saw videos of the agitations against the new citizenship law before the pandemic began, in which many Muslim girls from the Jamia area, participating in large numbers, had put up hijab. Some educated Muslim girls, who gave strong speeches, were in hijab. What a change, I wondered. I don’t know if any expert has cared to look into this change and sociological reasons behind it. However, I do remember doing a story for the Times of India, Ahmedabad, in the 1990s. I don’t know which year it was as I don’t seem to have kept its clipping.

The story was based on a report prepared by a well-known women’s rights organisation in Ahmedabad, Ahmedabad Women’s Action Group (AWAG), which was very active till its leader Ilaben Pathak was alive. I didn’t know Ilaben much, but would sometimes interact with one of the important members of the group, Sophia Khan. She gave me the report. I don’t know whether I still have it preserved in my large number of files.
The report, which was based on a primary survey of Muslim women, found that following the riots which took place in 1992-93 in Ahmedabad during the Sangh Parivar’s Ram Janmabhoomi agitation, there was a sharp increase in the number of Muslim women coming out of their homes wearing burqa – it didn’t talk of hijab. Even the number of Muslim men with the scalp caps had gone up drastically after the riots, I have been told by independent observers. The report said that rise in the incidence of burqa was part of the Muslim assertion of identity.
I personally agree with the view that the state is nobody to decide whether Muslim women should wear hijab or not and barring Muslim women from educational institutions only because of hijab would debar them of education, pushing them further into the conservative hands of the Muslim clergy. However, I am left wondering, did Muslim women consider hijab a part of their identity for “centuries.” There was no hijab, little burqa, in Jamia in 1960s and 1970s, during my childhood.

* The writer is Editor of Counterview. A version of this article first appeared here.

Follow The Draft: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | YouTube