Bengal’s New Age Muslimahs
Traditionally Bengal’s Muslim population has been viewed as its more conservative section and this showed in its choice of clothing, the plain black or green niqab and abaya. Of late though, there seems to have been a trend of opening up. Bengal’s young new age muslimahs are making their veils fashionable.
Nusrat, a college student, prefers to ‘dress up’ her veils with intricate designs or faux jewellery. Her mother however, dresses far more modestly, preferring a plain black cotton abaya and niqab with a khimar over it. Nusrat gives her view on his new trend, “muslimahs today are not like the earlier generation. Yes we still identify ourselves with our religion, but we also want to express it on our own terms.”
Indeed, Bengal’s Muslim women have among the highest ratio of women in the workforce and on average have higher access to education and employment than their other South Asian Muslim counterparts.
In the fashion capital of India, Calcutta, designer Ritu Kumar is experimenting with the basic design of the burqa, “I see potential in this design for artistry and I am giving it my own interpretation.”, he explained to us. The last fall he came out with a new line of ‘chic burqa’ designs.
The designs include combining niqabs with different western and ethnic wear, Ritu Kumar explains that the burqa isn’t worn exclusively by Muslim women but have also been accepted by Hindu women, especially so in Bengal. Veiling with niqabs of course had been part of Bengal’s clothing culture since medieval times, and in time it has metamorphosed into the traditional sari style of Bengali women which incorporate niqab and sari. A more easy to wear lycra niqab has come out which can be removed with ease like a balaclava and has intricate designs sewn on it. This snug fitting new design has proven a hit among young Muslimahs.
Madhumita Chatterji, a professor of women’s studies at Calcutta University, gives us her explanation of the phenomenon, “Muslim women in South Asia have historically lived at the margins of society for a variety of reasons. This has been particularly so in the last three hundred years of Maratha supremacy. In Bengal however, the dynamics were a bit different owing to British rule and later on, because of the reformist movements. Despite this Muslims in Bengal too fell behind their Hindu counterparts for much of our time. In recent years however, there has been a liberalization of sorts and Muslim women are coming out, getting work, and even beginning to live on their own. The new trends in fashion are much more in sync with the aspiration and culture of Bengali Muslim women.”
The trend however, isn’t limited to the younger generation, but has also found appeal among the older generation. We talked with IT consultant Ajeesa, who is a single divorced mother, “My mother would never venture beyond the home alone and I recall she would always wear a plain black garment, usually of coarse cloth. I too began to veil since twelve, which is usual for Muslimahs, but I decided early on, I would not settle for the kind of life style my mother led. So I left our village and came to Calcutta. My parents were not too happy about that of course, but I was determined to make my own mark.”, she wears her niqab and abaya for us, it is a slim fit ‘professional’ design where the abaya comes down only a bit beneath the waist and came with a snug fit ‘balaclava’ style niqab, she wears it along with her black trousers to work. She explains to us, “This new design is very convenient for me and easy to put on, the light fabric is easier in hot weather and I can move around more freely. I can also take off the veil whenever I need to. Besides, it looks pretty stylish, no?”
There was no doubt about that, and many working muslimahs would agree. For them, the new design helps bridge the gap between new age aspirations and traditional compulsions. Kamal Taj Hussain runs an islamic fashion store at Calcutta’s ‘New Market’, he shared with us the popularity of the new ‘trendy burqa designs, “The new designs are much more popular nowadays both among youngsters and working women. I also keep the more plain designs which are cheaper, but there are few takers these days. I usually get the occasional old customer who buys these now. The new ‘balaclava’ style niqab ranges from Rs. 400 to Rs. 1200 and a designer abaya could set you back about 2,000 rupees.”, though the prices are higher, the new age woman can well afford it, with living standards rising among Muslims in Bengal and Calcutta in particular, the higher prices are no trouble.
Though more conservative muslims don’t quite agree with this new trend, the Imam of Nakhoda masjid in particular felt that this dilutes the identity of muslims, “As it is, Muslims are living under great stress, our faith has already declined so much in India, now Bengal too may go that way. The niqab and abaya are not just for clothing, there is a deep spiritual aspect to dressing this way, which is being lost in this new ‘trend’”, he said. While many of the older generation would agree, most younger Muslimahs would not. For them, keeping the tradition of veiling is a way to keep their identity and the new trend merely helps bring old tradition to modern sensibilities.