| Gender |

The business of promoting the purdah

MP Basheer

"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." Khalil Gibran in The Prophet.

But the editors of some family and women’s magazines in Kerala are convinced that the 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 addresses the Muslim women. "Purdah is a modern dress for moral women," it concludes. Aaraamam, owned by the Girls Islamic organisation affiliated to 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, that largely target a female audience. According to a recent survey, conducted at 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 in its credit.


Pudava, a monthly, controlled by Mujahid Girls Movement carried 19 articles while Poonkavanam and Sunni Afkar, owned by two orthodox sects of Sunni Muslims published 10 each. Mahila Chandrika from the house of the Chandrika group owned by the Indian Union Muslim League and Thejas fortnightly of the extremist National Development Front (NDF), two relative newcomers, carried three each purdah features in 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 the Muslim women who use purdah in the five districts of the Malabar region increased from 3.5 per cent in 1990 to 32.5 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 back in S.M. Street, Kozhikode's commercial hub, set the wave in motion. "The sales, though very dull initially, improved. Gradually we decided to come out with designerwear 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. Nearly 15 per cent of its Rs 5 crore turnover last year came from exports to the Gulf. Now, more than 20 companies manufactures burqas in Kerala. And all of them get their quota of feature support from these magazines, having a combined circulation of 5 lakh copies at the last count. Two years ago, India Today (Malayalam) on its cover profiled some budding Muslim businesswomen who dared the clergy, preferring common dress code in public. The family magazines lost no time and jumped into the field with replies and rejoinders. Aaraamam even featured on cover a counter-story detailing the lives of Muslim women who do small businesses in purdah. Even the secular credentials of the India Today and the correspondent were questioned.

Madhyamam alone, which has emerged 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 immense help in spreading the message of purdah. The middle class Muslim women form a common target, our consumers and their readers," says Rasool Gafoor, of the Hoorulyn with gratitude. In his early advertisements, he had used newspaper pictures of purdah-clad Iranian women leading marches in the streets of Tehran. Women in purdah driving cars and operating computers, are some of the images the publications project. Till a few years ago, only the highly orthodox Sunni women wore the purdah in Kerala. Its new-found 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 most predominant factor is the editorial support given by the women publications and the patronage of the community organisations" says M.N. Karassery, noted writer and progressive critic on Muslim women’s issues. People like Karassery among the Muslims 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 back triggered another boom in the burqa market, as the publications devoted dozens of features on the celebrity in purdah. It was a virtual war to attract more and more buyers for new and newer brands of burqas. A number of such shops named after Surayya sprung up in several towns of Malabar after the famous author embraced Islam. These publications, in return, gained heavy volume of ad support from the burqa makers. The only way to reach the 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 the mainstream family magazines like Vanitha of Malayala Manorama and Grihashobha of the Mathrubhumi group, chipped in by propagating a ‘nice-girls-wear-burqa’ line. In Kerala, particularly in the Malabar area of the state, purdah is a recent phenomenon. A decade ago or so, a woman in purdah was a rare sight on the streets of Malabar. Now they can be found everywhere; in colleges, markets and super bazaars. Observers are unable to pinpoint the reason for the spread of the purdah in such a short time. They attribute it to the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the subsequent tendency of the community members to become introverted, looking at a revival of Islam. The high visibility of the RSS-backed revival of Hindu customs and rituals has 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 V.P. Suhara, president of the Nissah, the Progressive Muslim Women's Forum. "These publications are run by the same outfits," she adds.


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