On my way to the office every morning, I often stumbled on an intriguing scene: a woman was clad in a black garb that covers her entire body, including her face. She always wore a black glasses that seems she deliberately put on to hide her eyes. What makes the scene even more intriguing for me is that she rides a motorcycle alone, zigzagging through a jammed and crowded traffic in a way that is not so dissimilar from other ‘wild’ motorcyclists in Jakarta.
Ulil Abshar Abdalla
A women putting on a burqa, riding wildly a motorcycle — that seems a mismatch for a popular image people have about burqa. In Western media, burqa tends to be seen as amounting to the suppression of women and their relegation into a private sphere. Burqa is cultural project imposed by a patriarchal society on women to limit their movement and curtail their rights. Burqa is a remnant of medieval culture that defies the raging wave of modernization. Burqa is associated closely with the fundamentalist version of Islam that is represented politically by Taliban in Afghanistan. And so forth.
While I am not in agreement with those among Muslims who believe in burqa as an obligatory dress for Muslim women, I don’t go also with the popular image that portrays burqa in an unfavorable way. A woman motorcyclist wearing burqa that struck my eye on my way to office every morning forces me to re-think about how burqa has been “re-interpreted” by women in their daily life.
For some Muslim jurists fuqaha, the question as to whether woman is allowed to drive car, much less to ride motorcycle, is still a subject of debate. The majority of scholars have no issue with women driving a car, while others, particularly in some of Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia, still raise an objection from the Islamic point of view. The con camp argues that allowing women to drive cars in public spaces will lead into the social disorder as women are seen as the source of ‘fitna’ or sexual arousal.
Among conservatives, woman’s piety tends to be defined by two things : a total covering of her body and a limit put on her movement. The popular image that links burqa with limiting the free movement of women in the public spaces cannot be blamed solely on an ignorance on the part of the “outsiders”. There is, in a way, a truth to that image.
However, it’s not the whole picture either. As students of modern sociology may know well, human individuals are not held totally hostage to a fixed social categories and identities. Although categories are helpful in short-cutting the complex social phenomenon, but it always falls short of exhausting its complexities. Burqa has been seen a social symbols for certain behaviors and expectations.
However, burqa-wearing women are not taken passively hostage to those existing social categories and all expectations that it entails. Instead of a passive subject in the face of social expectation, woman is rather an active agent that is able to put a “twist” into the existing interpretation of burqa. A woman from my town, wearing a burqa while riding wildly motorcycle, is emblematic of a “subversion” of an existing social understanding of burqa.
We have heard a repeated criticism of the Islamic legal tradition as a misogynist one. The fact that the majority of Muslim jurists are man is always held responsible for this flaw. While agreeing to the truth of this criticism, it’s not admissible to see woman as a passive recipient and consumers of male-oriented interpretation of Islam. While adhering “exoterically” to legal rules laid down by male jurists, Muslim women seem to find their own “esoteric” way to subverting these rules. A woman who wears burqa and yet ventures into a wild stroll in public space on motorcycle in Jakarta is, for me, the best case in point.
Few years back, I visited Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for a conference and went during the break hours to a Starbucks cafe located squarely in the middle of a busy business district. The scene in the cafe of a burqa-wearing young woman few meters away from my seat, sitting beside a young man, chatting and giggling, sent a sudden wave of shock to me at that time. The scene, in my opinion, turns the whole existing image of burqa upside down.
First of all, it renders the image of burqa is a patriarchal project to control the woman body entirely irrelevant. More importantly, burqa doesn’t necessarily a “counter culture” project that aspires to challenge the dominant global capitalist culture. A burqa-wearing woman is not necessarily a “resisting subject”; she may fit into the global westernized culture.
Those on the left or right side of the fence in the current ideological war can be relegated into a sheer disillusion with regard to the ‘politics’ and ‘poetics’ of burqa. An alternative approach I offer here is to interrogate the daily life of Muslim women as a fluid category that may not be entirely exhausted by the existing categories that seems more and more like a dumb cliches.
Having said all this, I think a disclaimer on my side is in order: this essay is not meant to justify burqa from the point of view of Islamic legal tradition. This essay is not a venture into a legal debate. What I am doing here is an attempt at understanding a social phenomenon that seem so poorly understood due to the heavy weight of ‘business-as-usual’ way of thinking. While the issue of burqa itself is still open to be debated along the various lines of ‘ideological’ persuasions, it is also pertinent to consider that legal debate on the status of burqa hasn’t necessarily had any bearing on how burqa is in fact appropriated in the daily life of ordinary Muslim women.