In the November of 1984, when we finally went back to school, we had difficulty meeting each other’s eyes. There was a sense of collective shame at the obscene dance of death we had witnessed together. In a bid to make sense of that horror, we told each other jokes — sick, black humour type of jokes.
By Day 3, we found out that a boy from our school was also among those killed.
He had a younger sister, also from our school. Someone had the bright idea that we should complete her notes and class work, so that she would not have any problems when she returned to school. The stomach-churning realisation that her books must have burnt down with her house was resolutely swept under the carpet. Volunteers came in droves — in the crazy, shifting world around us, it was something tangible to do.
As gestures go, it was a pretty futile one. She never came back to school, and I do not know if those notes ever reached her. What if they had? Would they have helped her? However, they did help us. Those note-books helped us proclaim that we were on her side and had no truck with the murderous mobs that had taken over our streets.
As I watched the school kids in New Zealand now performing the ‘haka’ —the traditional war dance — my heart went out to them. I knew the confusion and shock they were trying to process. All tragedies require rituals to dress their wounds — senseless, cruel acts like the one perpetrated in Christchurch demand grand gestures. And then, the women of New Zealand came up with the grandest of all gestures — wearing hijab: that most controversial of all garments — for a day in solidarity with Muslim women.
From Egyptian feminist Huda Sha’arawi — ritually and publically casting off her veil in 1923, to Egypt’s Minister of Education giving in after protests by Egyptian students and allowing schoolgirls to don the hijab even without parental consent in 1994 — the Islamic veil has a long and complex history. Feminist scholars are increasingly revisiting the positioning of the veil within the feminist discourse, but that is the subject of another debate.
Suffice to say that for a large part of the 20th century, most Muslim countries actively discouraged veiling.
Turkey and Iran actually banned it — leading to wide-spread protests. In Iran, several women confined themselves to their homes for years together, because they refused to step out without their veils. Those who did wear veils in public had to face humiliation, fines or imprisonment. As far as we know, the damage to patriarchy was minimal.
The grandest of gestures by New Zealand women in solidarity with Muslim women — and a direct attack on Islamophobia. (Photo: Reuters)
Today, Iranian women are protesting the law on compulsory hijab. Human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh has been sentenced to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes. There is nothing more patriarchal than an insecure state — afraid of all kinds of dissent. Iranian women today risk their lives and liberties to win the right to remove their head-scarves — just as their grandmothers had risked theirs to wear ‘chadors’ — an all-enveloping veil which became a symbol of resistance during the Islamic revolution. Iranian women know — and have experienced — that patriarchy does not lie in a garment. It lies in the state — and by extension, men — deciding what women should or should not wear.
Western women, who wear headscarves when in Iran are indeed giving legitimacy to this law and therefore betraying their Iranian sisters. But New Zealand does not compel women to cover their heads. Women in New Zealand are free to make a choice with regards to their headgear.
The trope of the veiled Muslim woman has long been used to justify imperialist projects: oppressed Muslim women and the need to rescue them validate bombing their cities or killing their men. It is no coincidence that images of burqa-clad Afghani women flooded American media just as US armies invaded their country. Or that images of burqa-clad Indian women accompanied debates on the criminalization of Triple Talaq.
It is this garment — so loaded with political and social stigma — which the women of New Zealand chose to own and make mainstream.
To my mind, not only was this an act of immense courage and compassion, but it was also a direct attack on the very foundations of Islamophobia.
Kudos to Jacinda Ardern and the women of New Zealand for a gesture so powerful — and so not futile.