Behind the veil

Muslim-owned publications and burqa manufacturers have successfully pushed Muslim women in Kerala behind the purdah

"Your clothes conceal much of your beauty, but hide not the unbeautiful.
If you are seeking safety and freedom in your garments, you will find a harness and a chain."
-Kahlil Gibran in The Prophet.

But the editors of some family and women’s magazines in Kerala are convinced that clothes are all about morality, freedom and empowerment.

"Your body is not a mass of flesh the beastly-eyed men can watch with lust.Nor a showpiece to attract the men other than your husband. So, wear a purdah while going on the streets," the editorial of the Aaraamam women’s magazine exhorts the Muslim women. "Purdah is a modern dress for moral women," it concludes.

Aaraamam, owned by the Girls Islamic Organisation affiliated to the Kerala chapter of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, is published with the editorial support of the Malayalam daily Madhyamam. Like Aaraamam, there are more than 20 such publications, owned by religious groups, which mainly target a female audience.

According to a recent survey conducted by the University of Calicut, 10 such women’s/ family magazines carried 143 reports/features, 23 of them on covers, to promote the purdah after 1992. Aaraamam tops the list with 23 pro-purdah features to its credit. Pudava, a monthly controlled by the Mujahid Girls Movement carried 19 articles while Poonkavanam and Sunni Afkar, owned by two orthodox sects of Sunni Muslims published 10 each.

Two relative newcomers, Mahila Chandrika of the Chandrika group, owned by the Indian Union Muslim League and Thejas, the fortnightly brought out by the extremist National Development Front (NDF), carried three purdah features each over the last three years, the survey reveals. When Sunni Afkar brought out a women’s special annual issue last year, the topic was confined to the clothing of Muslim women. Thirteen out of 18 by-lined articles in the issue were on purdah.

The survey also revealed that the number of Muslim women who were purdah in the five districts of the Malabar region increased from 3.5 per cent in 1990 to 32.5 per cent in 2000. The northernmost and the most backward Kasargode district, where the community-oriented family magazines have the largest readership, tops in the graph.

Purdah House, started 10 years ago in SM Street, Kozhikode’s commercial hub, set the wave in motion. "The sales, though very lack-lustre initially, improved. Gradually we decided to come out with designer-wear burqas," says Rasool Gafoor, a former partner of Purdah House. Gafoor, who today owns the Crescent Group of Companies, manufactures these garments under the brand name Hoorulyn.

Apart from Purdah House, Hoorulyn sells at a number of outlets all over the state and in neighbouring Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Crescent has its clientele abroad, too. Last year, nearly 15 per cent of its Rs. 5 crore turnover came from exports to the Gulf. Now, more than 20 companies manufacture burqas in Kerala. And all of them get their quota of feature support from these magazines, which had a total circulation of five lakh at the last count.

Two years ago, India Today (Malayalam) on its cover profiled some budding Muslim businesswomen who dared the clergy, preferring the common dress code in public. Losing no time, the family magazines jumped in with replies and rejoinders. Aaraamam even featured a counter-story on its cover, detailing the lives of Muslim women who do small businesses but still observe purdah. Even the secular credentials of India Today and the correspondent who wrote the story were questioned.

Madhyamam, which has emerged as the third largest newspaper in the state with six editions including one from the Gulf, organised two debates on the promotion of purdah, and published more than 50 letters to the editor in its columns defending the spread of the Arabian dress code.

"The editorial support and moral patronage from Muslim publications, especially the Madhyamam group, were of immense help in spreading the message of purdah. Middle class Muslim women, our consumers and their readers form a common target," says Rasool Gafoor, of the Hoorulyn.

In his earlier advertisements, Gafoor had used newspaper pictures of purdah-clad Iranian women leading marches on the streets of Tehran. Women in purdah, driving cars and operating computers, are some of the images the publications project.

Until a few years ago, only the very orthodox Sunni women wore the purdah in Kerala. Its newfound popularity is due partly to the realisation that it is more convenient than other attire. "Many find slipping into a burqa much simpler than the elaborate ritual of draping a sari. Cost is another factor. But the predominant factor is the editorial support given by the women publications and the patronage of community organizations" says MN Karassery, noted writer and progressive critic on Muslim women’s issues.

Among Muslims, people like Karassery interpret the purdah-craze as a deliberate attempt on the part of fundamentalists to divest Muslim women of all progress.

The conversion of the famous writer and poetess Kamala Das alias Madhavi Kutty to Islam three years ago triggered another boom in the burqa market, as publications devoted dozens of features on the celebrity in purdah. It was an almost warlike campaign to attract more and more buyers for new and newer brands of burqas. A number of shops named after ‘Surayya’ sprung up in several towns of Malabar after the famous author embraced Islam. In return, these publications gained a sizeable volume of advertisement support from the burqa makers.

The only way to reach Muslim women is to advertise in these family magazines. "Their editorial support garnered credibility for our ads," says Rasool Gafoor, who spent more than Rs. 25 lakh on advertising last year.

Even mainstream family magazines like Vanitha of Malayala Manorama and Grihalakshmi of the Mathrubhumi group, chipped in by propagating a ‘nice-girls-wear-burqa’ line.

In Kerala, particularly in the Malabar area, purdah is a recent phenomenon. A decade or so earlier, a woman in purdah was a rare sight on the streets of Malabar. Now they can be spotted everywhere – in colleges, markets and super bazaars. Observers are unable to pinpoint one single factor responsible for the rapid spread of the purdah in such a short time. They attribute it to the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the subsequent tendency of community members to become introverted, focussing on a revival of Islam. The high visibility of the RSS-backed revival of Hindu customs and rituals has also had its impact on Muslims.

As more and more women come under the spell of the purdah, the progressive among them view it in a different light. To them the cloak conceals a religious chauvinism that spells danger to Muslim womanhood. "Clerics and orthodox organisations want Muslim women to be confined to their traditional roles in the kitchen and bedroom. The purdah provides an effective weapon to restrict their progress," says VP Suhara, president of Nissah, the Progressive Muslim Women’s Forum. "These publications are run by the same outfits," she adds. 

This article is a part of series on ‘Women and Media’ under the Prem Bhatia Memorial Scholarship 2002-03.

Archived from Communalism Combat, January 2003. Year 9  No, 83, Investigation



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