The government’s dual citizenship woes have now spread to the friendly crossbenches. Yesterday Queensland Senator Pauline Hanson announced that she was likely to also hold citizenship of the Islamic State of Iraq & the Levant (ISIL). The matter will now be referred to the Sharia Court of Australia.
Well, not quite. Hanson, however, did enter the chamber wearing a full body dress frequently worn by an American Jewish convert to Islam named Margaret Marcus. Following her conversion, Marcus became known as Maryam Jameelah. She moved to Pakistan to live with Islamist leader Abul Ala Maududi. As a former Jew, Marcus’ writings on Judaism, Zionism and Israel were very influential in South Asia, much like the works of Ayaan Hirsi Ali are about Islam.
Closer to home, my mum used to wear a burqa as an undergraduate student at the Aligarh Muslim University in India. Not too many women at Aligarh wear much on their heads these days, but things were different back in the 1950s when my maternal grandfather, Mirza Yaqub Baig Nami, taught philosophy there. Mum grew up in a large family with five brothers and three sisters. Her father wasn’t terribly religious in his personal life, but he insisted on certain cultural practices often associated with Islam.
Among these was purdah, the strict segregation of women from public life, practised by aristocratic Indian families of all faiths including Hindus and Sikhs. The word purdah literally means “curtain”. The institution of purdah involved families guarding the honour of their women by not allowing them to appear in public except in a manner where they could not be seen. It was common in those days for wealthy women to go out shopping while seated in a special compartment called a dohli. This was basically a large comfortable box-like structure with plenty of cushions for women to laze in while their male servants (or even male relatives) carried them. The curtains around the box had a screen through which the women could peek and decide which shop they would visit. Women would also have their own private quarters in their home which no man (apart from direct relatives) dared enter.
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I wasn’t brought up to understand purdah as something oppressive to women. My mother always spoke of purdah as an essential part of the luxurious existence aristocratic women of that time enjoyed. In fact, Mum would tell me how much fun it was to be carried in the dohli by her brothers (though Dad often speculates as to whether carrying Mum even at that age may have caused them some back injuries). Mum’s father seemed obsessed with planes and would always make her go inside each time a plane flew over their house. “Daddy, I can’t see the people in the planes. Why should you be worried?” she would say. “You may not be able to see them, but how do you know they cannot see you?” he would reply. It’s amazing what bionic vision Indian men could achieve in full flight.
Mum recalls the women’s quarters being a place where women enjoyed themselves, freed of any domestic duties, as their husbands or fathers employed servants to perform all cooking and other chores. Men were expected to lavish gifts on their female relatives (and in-laws) using the household income, which women were usually responsible for managing (no doubt to their own advantage). Men were also expected to do all the shopping for food and other household needs. Women only shopped to buy clothes, jewellery and other luxury items for themselves. I imagined my mother and her friends reclining like Roman aristocrats on sofas holding bunches of grapes above their mouths, lazily chewing one grape at a time.
Mum’s privileged existence came to an abrupt end when her father died without leaving much of an inheritance for his children. Mum’s family were forced to vacate their home provided by the university and they soon started to live a rather hand-to-mouth existence.
Mum moved to Pakistan in the early 1960s, when she was in her early 20s. She removed her burqa permanently. She stayed with her maternal uncle in Karachi who had a large home and a thriving business. It was around this time that she met, fell madly in love with and married a young scholar who would become my father.
Pauline Hanson is one of a very few women in Australia to have worn a burqa in public. Ironically she isn’t a Muslim. The only Muslim woman in Parliament is Anne Aly, who I’ve never seen wearing anything other than the garb of any other Western woman.
Perhaps Hanson’s problem is that she lives in the era of Gertrude Bell, the English aristocrat who became known as “Queen of the Desert”, so ably portrayed by Nicole Kidman. The reality of Arab and Muslim women’s lives isn’t just about FGM and forced face covering. Next time Senator Hanson pulls off a stunt like this, she should come dressed as Sabiha Gokcen, the world’s first female combat pilot. Or she can borrow one of my mum’s post-burqa outfits.