To cover or not to cover

The debate over the costumes of Muslim women in Kerala has more to do with culture and not with the religion.

Over the past two decades, there has been a sea change in costumes worn by Muslim women in Kerala. Arabs brought Islam to the region but they never insisted on local Muslims adopting the exotic dress code. The true torchbearers of the Islamic faith believed in assimilating the local culture so that those who embraced the new religion did not feel alienated in their own homeland.

Traditional Muslim dress codes of the region illustrate the cultural assimilation. It is remarkable that most of the provincial customs were modified and Islamized in the latter stages. This shows that native Muslims were at peace with the majority of the region, barring in the pursuit of a new faith that came with the traders.

In south Indian coastal regions, the influence of Arabs was significant in earlier periods; the chief of the ports and important traders of various port towns were Arabs, but their food habits or dress codes were not as such adopted by regional believers.

It is believed that Hippalus discovered monsoon wind in AD 45-47. During the time of monsoon trade, a large trading community used to live in costal lines for three to four months. Until very recently, many such traders lived in the Middle East with nostalgic memories of the seasonal voyages aided by the trade winds and primitive trade. I met a few sailors, in their ripe old age, in Oman, who recalled savouring the ‘kanji (porridge)’ in Calicut and extensive bullock cart rides in Beypore.

Many pictures of the early batches girl students in Muslim boarding schools and madrassas in Kerala reflect the legacy of cultural integration celebrated over centuries. All of them wore well-knit blouse, lengthy skirts and beautiful scarves. But the foray of purdah among Kerala Muslims is linked to the rise of affluent petrodollar culture.

t’s also a fact of social history that the new generation religious scholars and Muslim leaders failed to distinguish between the intrusion of the Arab culture and the slow concurrent abandoning of the centuries-old integrated dress code of regional cultural Islam. The tradition Islam is different from Arab impositions.

Most of these modifications were introduced in the name of “reforms” but traditionalists misunderstood and aggressively adopted purdah as an exclusive Islamic dress code. It is Arab, not compulsorily Islamic. (As part of Arab culture, Jews and Christians also used purdah and burqa in Middle East region)

Arabs used different types of dresses in various occasions. When I visited Topkapi Museum, Istanbul, Turkey, I saw the attractive and stylish ivory robes worn by Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Mohammed, displayed at the museum.

During the early periods, Muslims in Kerala readily continued with their regional habits, hardly contradicting the core beliefs of Islam. Muslims wore a slightly modified version of existing costumes of Hindu families. Women’s costumes were similar to traditional Hindu attire, but with a longer version of the blouse so that it covered the navel. Girls used a special blouse, a modified version of the popular torso cover of women in Hindu families with full sleeves and a skirt long enough to cover the body.

Sixteenth century author Makhdum II writes in Tuhfat al Mujahidin that Hindus of Malabar exposed their body and their usual wear was “a short piece of cloth”. Lower caste men and women were alike in the dress code, according to Makhdum II. He also notes the dress habits of Muslim women of Malabar when he narrates the tradition and acceptance of the regional rituals of Malabar.

Barbosa discusses the status of both foreign Muslims and local Malabaris with specific definition of paradesis and Mappila Muslims. The first group used to wear special costumes, “well dressed and adorned with silk, scarlet cloth, camlet and cotton and their headdress wrapped” on top.

Their status as affluent foreigners was reinforced by their choice of clothing, which resembled wardrobes of their homeland’s elite. Local Muslims lived in tandem with the indigenous Hindu society and imbibed local culture. Barbosa explains that indigenous Malabar Muslims dressed bare like the Nairs; they sported small round caps and grew beards to distinguish themselves from the gentiles.

The men’s common wear in Malabar comprised the mundu, a piece of cloth tied round the loins reaching down to ankles, and a small towel normally slung over the shoulders. In some occasions it was used to cover the head. Muslims also followed the same way of wearing the traditional mundu but the upper flap was normally fixed at the left hand side.

The dress of the traditional Malabar Muslim women was also slightly different with pure white kaachi with black fringe. There were also kaachi in various colours without colour at the fringe that identified with old Muslim women. Muslim women’s blouses were long enough to reach below the waist and a white cloth called thattam covered the head. As a protection they also covered their body with big thattam on certain occasions.

Regional diversities were visible in Muslim women’s costumes. But it was restricted only in the colour of their kaachis and design of the blouse. The length and colour of the thattam also varied from place to place. But overall, all Muslim women of Malabar were identical in dress code, which was an assimilation of their local traditional dresses.

Even ornaments used by Malabar Muslims were the same as that of Hindu communities. The prominent reason for this was goldsmiths as architects of mosques were Hindu. When a family changed its belief, its members never discarded their labour like goldsmith, blacksmith or any other workers who served them for years. Those who converted to Islam changed their inner belief, not their own appearance, if it was not against the Islamic law.

Now purdah has emerged as a sort of official Islamic dress code for women in Kerala and forcefully implemented in Islamic schools and madrassas. It is the freedom of a person to choose the comfortable dress, but when one argues that purdah is the only Islamic dress, it beats logic and tradition. The religious law specifically mentions the need to cover but also gives much importance to the regional culture and traditions, as reflected in early Muslim costumes in Malabar.

(The author is director, International Interfaith Initiative)

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