Much ado….about nothing


A photograph of a beach volleyball game, taken by Lucy Nicholson of Reuters, was widely circulated on social media recently – some called it a culture “clash”, while others termed it the true spirit of the Olympics. The photograph, in which a hijab and leggings clad Egyptian player is up against a bikini clad German at the net, stirred two polar opposite reactions in Olympics viewers – while some saw it as an indicator of how far the Olympic games had come to truly represent different cultures while respecting those differences, others pointed out at the “repression” that still continued to haunt women in some cultures. The latter ignored the fact that she was a spirited, determined player, that there she was, representing her country at the most prestigious sporting event in the world, that she played on par with her opponents. The latter chose to see only what she wore – that she had covered her hair, her legs, arms and torso, unlike her opponents. As though that was the most important matter of discussion…

The debate about the repressiveness represented by the hijab or the headscarf worn by Muslim women, and their conservative choice of clothing has been long drawn out and has taken various levels of significance in the past and continues to do so more recently. From Donald Trump’s comments about a Muslim woman who was “forbidden to speak” at her son’s memorial service to comments on Nicholson’s photographs, one might wonder how the world became so obsessed with women who choose to cover up (almost as much as the obsession with women who choose to bare all, I dare say). Historian Merinissi points out that it was during the colonial times that women’s rights violations in Islam took to the forefront, when any other culture was considered inferior to European culture. The idea that “other men, men in colonised societies or societies beyond the borders of the civilised west, oppressed women, was to be used, in the rhetoric of colonialism, to render morally justifiable its project of undermining or eradicating the cultures of colonised peoples”.

How this idea has survived and evolved over the years is anybody’s guess, but how people remain ignorant about its origins or choose to stick to their worldview in the face of information available is baffling. Growing up in Oman and during my visits to the United Arab Emirates, I see and meet many Muslim women. While the words “beautiful”, “dignified”, “elegant”, “make-up” and “perfume”, cross my mind on many occasions, “repressed” never does. Having spent most of my life in India, I have seen repressed, and trust me, a headscarf is not an indicator of any repression. On my recent visit to the UAE, my daughters asked me why there was a “women’s waiting room” and my absent-minded, yet completely honest response to them was, “Because here, they respect women and treat them like queens and princesses.” An interview with a British woman who had married an Emirati and settled in the region confirmed my impression. The lady spoke about how she felt completely at ease as a woman in the UAE, while in England, she felt threatened and insecure. She spoke about how the robe (abhaya) and headscarf (hijab) worn by Muslim women had become a “fashion statement” rather than an imposition, and how women adorned them with pride.

In the Muslim world, much importance is given to dressing modestly – both for men and for women – to ward off any kind of unnecessary attention or flattery from strangers. During an ethnographic experiment that I conducted dressed in an abhaya and a hijab, I experienced the difference firsthand. While in my conservative clothing, I felt invisible and unnoticed, in my regular clothing afterward, I saw the entitlement with which men seemed to look at different parts of my body. According to Muslim women, they choose to cover themselves entirely so that their beauty is only for their husbands to enjoy, keeping other prying, lustful eyes at bay. The “burkini” is another example of how women in the region maintain their modesty while enjoying a swim. Watching how they conducted themselves without much ado and with a lot of dignity, while scantily clad women had lustful eyes feasting on them all along, the relativism was striking to me.

A professor and intercultural communications expert recently gave my class in Lugano a great strategy to approach any situation (intercultural or otherwise) – D.I.E. (Describe, Interpret, Evaluate). As human beings, we are often too quick to interpret and evaluate, without gaining enough information to objectively describe. And that premature interpretation and evaluation can lead to several misguided beliefs that seem to have taken over the world by storm. As intercultural practitioners and international professionals, we all have a responsibility to keep some of those misconceptions in check. So the next time we are faced with an “unfamiliar” situation, let’s take the time to describe it objectively. Which means replacing “How repressed that society which does not allow her to wear a bikini at a beach volleyball game!” with “Wow! That woman plays exceptionally well. She’s Egyptian and chooses to wear leggings and a headscarf at a beach volleyball game!”

Written by Divya Susan Varkey, Intercultural Communications Trainer and Practitioner

Much ado….about nothing

I have contacts…


“I have contacts in xyz company, he can get you a job”, “My contact at abc school will see to it that you get a seat for your child”, “My husband is DGP of police, if you have issues with your passport, he can sort it out for you.” The number of times one hears, and occasionally, utilises these invitations during “helpless” times will resonate well with the average Indian. Establishing “connections” with the rich and the higher power holders in society is almost a rite of passage for the average Indian man or woman who ventures out of his/her family (over)protection and into the big bad world. And sometimes, the person in question need not even be rich or powerful – a waiter who can get you a table quicker by favouring you over all those others waiting – that is a connection too (though in that case, he wouldn’t be referred to as a connection, but as “someone”). The eagerness to boast about and exhibit these “contacts” and their power thereof is a chokingly representative aspect of a society where power is unequally distributed. The reward for using power to fulfil obligations comes in the form of loyalty, goodwill amongst the group and in the worst cases, through bribes. The power holders maintain and exercise their power through this vicious cycle.

The advantages of such a status quo cannot be denied – at least for those who have these connections – sailing through bureaucratic hurdles (which, let’s face it, can stand in the way of a good many things that one can accomplish), saving time, “unnecessary” effort, making up for some unfair disadvantage that one may have faced, etc. The repercussions, however, are in plenty – favouring “relationships” over merit and the mediocrity that that fosters, unnecessary and unearned importance and power given back to the power holders, a bribe culture, a lackadaisical approach to things when piggybacking on connections, and in some cases, the helplessness of the ones who do not have these connections and can see that no amount of effort can match up. It reflects back on the culture through these externalisations and are in turn, internalised during a socialisation process that encourages “establishing contacts”. And when one questions the intentions behind actions, one is met with a shrug of “well, what does it matter if it’s done?”

This is typical of a society that is high on Power Distance and Collectivistic (Hofstede, et al, 2010) – the privileges enjoyed by the higher power holders (power distance) and the obligations that one has in order to maintain relationships with the in-group (collectivism) play huge roles in fostering such a status quo. And this is not restricted to India. Another high power distance, collectivistic culture, China, endorses “guanxi” which translates as “relationships” or “connections”, and is a vital part of business culture in the country. In fact, international businessmen claim that it is almost impossible to do business in China without “guanxi”. And unlike what a typical “western” mindset would fathom, the Chinese do not associate it as fostering corruption – “guanxi” becomes negative only when it involves bribes.

While there are several societies where there is an emphasis on relationships, which precede the merits of a business deal, the degree to which the power difference is used varies. For example, one may use a close personal relationship to ask for a reference within a company; this may not necessarily mean an obligation to get one the job. However, when a politician or any high power holder calls in to a company and says that his nephew needs a job and expects that it be taken care of, we see the other side of the meaning of having “contacts”. Very often, these connections also come at various levels – meaning one hears of someone knowing a person who knows a person and so on. Most people in such societies seem to know that one person to call for any “emergency”.

For those unfamiliar with the idea of using connections or contacts to get things done, it can seem extremely unethical and something to be avoided at all cost. However, in a society that has thrived on its connections, and with “connections” who have thrived on this society, it can often mean that you need a lot of patience and a lot of time to get things done. For those all too familiar with using their connections, stepping out of over-using ones’ connections can often mean greater resourcefulness, self-reliance and let’s face it, the satisfaction that comes with achieving through merit. Until that is achieved, the rule of thumb in conducting business in such high power, collectivistic societies – find the right connections.

Written by Divya Susan Varkey, Intercultural Communications Trainer and Practitioner, Itim International

I have contacts…

The Indian Way


Writing yet another academic paper in my apartment in Bangalore, overlooking some empty land with slums and alternating green and brown foliage, I am distracted by the commotion that arises from the slums. Men shout and I see some running. Concerned, I decide to watch a while and look away from my Macbook. It’s sweltering outside. Poor souls, I think poignantly, what a life they must lead. I think of how I need the ceiling fan on most of the time to try and keep (my) cool. They probably don’t have fans, or water enough to wash themselves (I take a shower twice a day to beat the heat). What a hard life. Before my mind goes into the guilt trip that privileged people in unequal societies like India often get into, I turn my attention fully onto the events in the slum, hoping that it isn’t a riot, and that no one gets hurt.

I notice a man running, with another calling brashly out to him to stop. My heart stops. I notice the red head and face of the man chasing the first. And I smile. It’s Holi. They’re celebrating the Indian festival of Holi.

As the festivities continue for hours, with shouts and laughter, I muse at the uncanny contradiction. Here I am, working hard, preoccupied by the number of things that I need to get done. And there they are, probably earning a few hundred rupees a day, and yet, taking the time to celebrate, chasing one another and throwing colour at each other in almost child-like frolic. I observe “red-face” calmly walking back, not having caught his “victim”, but pausing a moment near a tree to smear colour on two strangers instead. The shouts continue, “Holi Hai!”, and to an unassuming ear, it still sounds like trouble.

What makes India a place where there is always a reason to celebrate, despite the poverty and the myriad issues that we deal with everyday? Sure, there are several festivals (even a few per month) owing to the huge religious and cultural diversity – so there really is no dearth for reasons to celebrate. But is celebration really possible when the life is so tough, especially for those out there in the slums? What makes them so happy?

An article by writer Eric Weiner describes the contradiction perfectly. His article, titled “India’s chaotic lesson in letting go”, talks about how “letting go” is a crucial and yet, under-appreciated art to be learnt from India. Weiner talks about how in the Bhagavat Gita, Lord Krishna advises Arjun to give a hundred percent effort to the task at hand, but have precisely zero percent invested in the outcome. And in India, that “letting go” or “take it as it comes” attitude translates into daily living, as well as in work.

In Hofstede’s six dimensional model of culture, the fourth dimension is that of “uncertainty avoidance” – the extent to which a culture tries to avoid uncertainty or ambiguity. A culture that scores high on uncertainty avoidance is one that believes in structure and processes and has a need for rules. People from high uncertainty avoidance cultures get stressed in uncertain or ambiguous situations and have the need for control. India, as one may imagine, is not one of them.

In my recent coaching session with a Dutch, I asked him if he ever saw Indians stressed about work in terms of meeting rigid deadlines and expectations – he answered in the negative and said that it was one of the things he appreciated about Indians. It is of course, not to say that Indians never get stressed (you should meet me at my not-so-best), but that the level of stress, the things we get stressed about and the way in which we deal with stress, is very much linked with “letting go”. For example, the stress is almost always to do with things that we perceive are entirely our responsibility and within our control. And beyond that, well, its left to “fate”. If things work out our way, great, if not, something else always will. After all, one cannot control everything in life.

Weiner also says in his article that an indication of mental health is whether you can retain two contradictory ideas without your head exploding. By that measure, he says, India is the most mentally healthy place in the world.

While I do not have data to support or oppose that statement, one thing I know is true: while we plan our daily lives around unforeseen-curseworthy-electricity-cuts, umbrella-scorning-monsoons, then dry-as-a-desert-droughts, life-stopping-traffic-jams, water-shortage-days and let’s not forget, the occasional leopards in a school, we kind of don’t tend to bat our eyelids at everyday mundane issues. It may not necessarily be an “art”- it’s more a survival skill – but it is something useful for those from high uncertainty avoidance cultures to keep in mind while working with Indians: after all, why does it matter “how” it gets done, as long as it gets done? And if we don’t necessarily jump up and down and have a fit every time things don’t go the way we planned, just know that we’ve let go.

The men outside certainly have. For, in the midst of their poverty, the extreme heat and a thousand worries, they now have blue, red, pink and green colour plastered all over their faces and bodies.

The Indian Way

Two to Tango


A beloved friend of mine recently asked me to write a blog on how Indian women are not taught to live on their own, not encouraged to travel on their own and not expected to stand for what they believe in. I nodded in agreement at the time, wondering how I would do justice to such an article when I do all these three myself, and manage to get away with them at most times. She posted an article written by another Indian woman instead, which spoke about how Indian women should learn to be by themselves, and take up tasks that are culturally embedded in us as “male tasks”. My inspiration to write came when I was reading that very article and my seven year old peeped over my shoulder to read the headline. She asked me very innocently what the article was about and I told her. She turned to me, nonchalantly and said, “But mama, you are fine by yourself. You can do everything.” I nodded, proud for what my daughter observed and proud for the example that I was apparently setting for her.

Three years ago, and even more so before that, I would never have imagined that I was anywhere close to capable of doing anything on my own, without the support of a man. And while I won’t get into the details of my life here, I’ve realised through the process that cultures like India do not make it easy for a woman to get by on her own. Don’t get me wrong here; there are several successful and capable Indian women who thrive in the system, single women even. And the Indian middle class is changing so rapidly that what I write about now will be redundant in the next five years. However, in order to get there, we need to be aware of the implicit ways in which the system is designed to keep us in our place. And unlike popular rhetoric about everything that is wrong with the system in India nowadays, it is not Modi’s fault. Nor is it Kanhaiya’s or Rahul Gandhi’s or our ancestors’.

Everywhere in the world, there have been struggles for women to get to where they are now – and sometimes, in places that one might think are the most advanced, women still struggle. Why, in Switzerland, it was only in the 1970’s that women were even allowed to vote! Not so long ago, the sole responsibility of a woman was to reproduce and then, care for the young. It was just common sense at a time when people struggled to earn a living, often in extreme conditions and men were often sent to war. The division in gender roles made perfect sense then – after all, only women could birth and nurture their young! And at that time, rules were made, in religions and governments alike – for the purpose of keeping some societal order. Unfortunately though, when the world and its circumstances changed, there weren’t many women “sitting at the table” (as Sheryl Sandberg would say) to ensure that those rules changed for them too.

And so in India, my generation was still raised to be the perfect wives and mothers, everything else, a mere compliment-worthy add-on. According to the census, around 24% of women in urban India work (the corresponding figure in a country like Norway is 73%), and several of them do extremely well for themselves. I am positive that this will keep rising in the coming years, due to changing attitudes, as well as due to the fact that the Indian economy needs its women to be more active in the workforce. However, while more women step into the workforce, there also has to be a corresponding change in the way we raise our girls, as well as our boys. A recent advertisement of a laundry detergent in India reflected (or tried to advocate) this change: in the advertisement, a father apologises to his daughter for not setting a better example for her to grow up with – that household chores were equally a man’s job, and not just the woman’s.

Charming, I thought, watching the ad and thinking about all the men I know who come back from a day’s work, grab a beer and sit in front of the television, oblivious to anything else that goes around them. I also felt a sense of appreciation for those other men I know (far fewer though) who ensure that they pitch in and do their bit. What would their parents have done differently?, I wondered.

Gender roles within families are varied, with each family setting (or mirroring) societal expectations. A child raised in a family with clear cut gender roles will struggle to accept otherwise, as will a child raised in a family where tasks are carried out equally amongst the family members, especially the parents, and put into a situation with clear cut gender divisions. Socialisation sets the norm and unless a conscious attempt is made to change that norm, the status quo will remain bleak for Indian women. Or is it just Indian women?

An interesting fact is that while families in the occidental west are depicted to be more egalitarian, with equal partnership and household responsibilities, research shows that the bulk of household work is still done by women, despite holding a job outside of the house too. A research conducted by Quartz showed that Slovenian men spent more time than any other in doing unpaid housework (119 minutes in a day), followed by Danish, Estonian, French and Belgian men. The same research showed than Norwegian men (Norway being the topper on the gender equality index in the Human Development Reports in recent years) spent only an average of 58 minutes daily on unpaid housework. In 2005, Spain introduced a reformed civil code, in which marriage contracts included sharing responsibility on housework, child-care and caring for elders. In 2002, the district of Barajas in Madrid also published a manual for housewives and househusbands with tips to do regular household work (like working a washing machine); another district held a workshop on similar lines for men. An article in DailyMail, UK, quoted researchers as saying that women still spent three times more time than men in doing housework, despite the fact that both held full-time jobs.

Policy making plays a huge role in changing trends in equal opportunities for women. One of the biggest considerations in gender based role division in a family is parenthood. While most gender divisions came into existence because of the biological dependency on the woman to give birth and provide nourishment to the offspring, greater emphasis is now given to ensuring that both partners take part in childcare. Lanfranconi and Valarino, in a 2014 study, identified the Swiss policy on parental leave as “enabl[ing] a more equal division of work between men and women by fostering paternal involvement in childcare.” A 2015 study by Ronsen and Kitterod in Norway, found that the Norwegian parental leave policy “contributed to… a more equal division of paid and unpaid work among parents.”

There are several policies that have been implemented to combat the discrepancy in women’s workforce rights in the face of motherhood. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women introduced “maternity leave with pay or with comparable social benefits without loss of former employment, seniority or social allowances”. Similarly, the Maternity Protection Convention C 183 adopted in 2000 by the International Labour Organization requires 14 weeks of maternity leave as minimum condition. However, national laws vary widely according to the politics of each jurisdiction. Amongst the Arab-Islamic nations, the maximum maternity leave with 100% pay is given by Iran (6 months), followed by Oman (14 weeks); none of the countries offer paternal leave. In the occidental west, Estonia tops the table, offering 62 weeks of 100% paid maternity leave and two weeks of fully paid paternity leave. However, Norway does better when it comes to gender equality in parental roles, offering 25 weeks of fully paid maternity leave plus 14 weeks of fully paid paternity leave.

National policies on family vary according to the immediate socio-political concerns. Several occidental countries have initiated campaigns and incentives to promote larger families. The “Do It For Denmark” campaign was designed by travel company Spies, to help reverse Denmark’s 27 year low birth rate. The company even offers three year supplies of baby products and a complimentary child-friendly holiday for couples who conceive during a holiday booked through Spies, as well as an “ovulation discount”. Other countries with falling birth rates are also offering economic incentives to women to encourage them to have babies. Countries need an average of 2.1 children per woman to maintain a stable population. In 2013, the birth rate in the United States was 1.86, according to the Washington Times. According to them, the emphasis on a successful professional life over raising a family and the cost of having a child were the primary reasons for falling birth rates. Finland offers new mothers starter kits as incentive, while France offers liberal parental leaves and cheap child care options; Germany offers a year of partially paid maternity leave.

Conceptually, it seems an anticlimax of sorts that occidental societies have strived to push away from gender inequality and traditional family ties, only to be offered incentives to stay at home and raise children because the economy demands it. Practically, there is no denying that women are required to ensure the sustenance of a society. However, there needs to be a greater push for policy changes and a conscious shift towards men taking an equal role in household chores. And for this, like my beloved friend said, women (especially in countries where gender roles are more etched in the societal mentality) need to be encouraged to stand their ground and men need to be encouraged to change how they see the woman’s role in a society.

Unlike other posts on International Women’s Day, I do not claim that women are superior, only that we deserve to have a more equal role in society that is not dependent on our biological clocks.

Written by Divya Susan Varkey, Intercultural Communications Trainer and Practitioner

Two to Tango

The “Other” Conundrum


I was very (un) fortunate to interact with a Trump supporter recently – somehow I hadn’t realised that they are your everyday normal people (sort of like when you meet a real life Justin Bieber fan – who knew they existed?). Anyway, post the initial jaw-drop moment, I used the opportunity to try and understand the mentality behind the support. Enough of diplomacy, the lady berated, we are done with political correctness. We need a strong leader who will keep an eye out on who enters this country and why. Interesting, I coaxed, trying to maintain my intercultural communications trainer diplomacy, but what about the fact that most white Americans who support the guy were once refugees and that you yourself (the woman in question is Indian) are a migrant? Well, she said, my parents have worked hard to reach where they are now and it hurts to see how the taxes we pay are being used to support those migrants and refugees who want to avail benefits without working for them. I wondered out loud if there was no better way of ensuring that “they” do not take the system for granted, rather than shutting borders all together. The lady maintained that keeping “them” out is the safest bet now that she was raising her own (brown skinned) daughter in the country.

It was a typical rant from someone who had privileges and would do anything to keep them without thinking for a moment where they came from. Unfortunately, there seems to be a trend here – one of using people’s fears of losing privilege to earn votes or draw support. Here are a few recent quotes from politicians and prominent figures across the globe:

“The progressive Islamisation of our country and the increase in political-religious demands are calling into question the survival of our civilisation.” – Marine Le Pen, President, Front National, France

“I will build a great wall — and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me —and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.” – Donald Trump, United States

“Islam is the Trojan Horse in Europe. If we do not stop Islamification now, Eurabia and Netherabia will just be a matter of time. One century ago, there were approximately 50 Muslims in the Netherlands. Today, there are about 1 million Muslims in this country. Where will it end? We are heading for the end of European and Dutch civilisation as we know it.” – Geert Wilders, Dutch politician

“Although Islam and the newcomers from the developing countries are the real instruments used to ruin the European welfare state, democracy and civilization, it is only possible due to the multiculturalist discourse matrix.” – Jussi Halla-aho, True Finns Politician

“It is no wonder the Safavids are in alliance with the Jews and the Christians against Muslims; history is witness to that. But the wonder is the delayed understanding of this fact until this moment.” – Saudal Shureem, Imam, Grand Mosque of Mecca

“Most Muslims destroy our country, our people and the Buddhist religion.” – Ashin Wirathu, Buddist Monk, Myanmar

In the Intercultural Communications context, academics have started referring to a 1992 paper by American political scientist Samuel Huntington, who predicted that the post Cold War era would see a “Clash of Civilisations”, and debating about whether that prediction is indeed, coming true. In every sense, the current world scenario does seem to point towards a clash between civilisations. Some academics have also spoken about Huntington’s theory as being self-fulfilling.

Though much of the world (or its politicians) may not have read Huntington’s work and may not necessarily be conspiring to fulfil his prophecy, the huge outreach of media does work to propagate this myth. According to an article by Yale Global, globalisation of the media allows instantaneous dissemination of the extremists’ point of view – both jihadists and far-right extremists who advocate violence, intolerance and segregation. As a result, complex issues, rather than being seen and understood in that light, illicit and provoke immediate and extreme reactions from the public.

This phenomenon is in turn used by some politicians to project the fear of a “common enemy” with the promise to protect the people if they are voted to power. Hence, expansive media reach, political propaganda and that propaganda spread through the expansive media reach in turn makes the theory as self fulfilling one.

It is important that people make an effort to understand everyday conflict situations as objectively as possible and facilitate positive interactions in society. In reporting and discussing cross border conflicts, there need to be stronger voices talking about the roots of the conflict in a way to avoid the “otherisation” of people. As research shows, however, most people selectively choose messages that confirm their beliefs, and rarely that counter them. In that case, as long as political propaganda is strong enough to incite sentiments, and media exists to propagate them, we may be relying solely on the common man’s ability to maintain equanimity in thinking without overreacting to conflict situations and jumping to take sides.

In our eagerness to pick sides, we often tend to forget humanity and indeed, our own roots (like my acquaintance). It is then, an important aspect of intercultural training and even of everyday education and self discipline, to practise responding objectively, rather than to react impulsively to situations.

Written by Divya Susan Varkey, Intercultural Communications Practitioner and Trainer

The “Other” Conundrum

Beneath the burqa…

In all the (hardly recent) harp about Muslim women and their oppression, I decided to experiment with what has become the symbol of “oppression” – the burqa. I couldn’t quite bring myself to cover my face too, so I limited my own “oppression” to the abaya (the long black robe) and the hijab or headscarf. I must admit that I felt pretty hot and bothered underneath all those extra layers and the scarf that, owing to my own lack of experience in adorning it, threatened to fall off my face in a very obviously non-Muslim way. Using a paper clip to secure it more firmly, and once the initial apprehension of being revealed as a fake Muslim wore off, my partner and I made our way through the streets of Deira in downtown Dubai.

For those who are not familiar with Dubai, it is one of the most cosmopolitan areas of the Arab world with 85% expatriates and women who wear anything from burqas to mini skirts in public places. The area we chose to walk through, however, was male dominated, albeit the fair share of burqa and “other” clad women. The first phase of our experiment was to walk through the streets in the abaya and hijab and note how we were perceived (my partner is Spanish, but can easily pass off as a very handsome Syrian or Jordanian man). Due to our limited fluency in Arabic though, we decided against holding conversations, as it would be an immediate blow to our cover.


In the metro – the guys in front of me never turned once to look at me

The two hours that we walked through downtown Dubai were uneventful – there was hardly a glance in our direction. Besides a few curious white males, I had almost no one glancing in my direction. Even if someone did, the glance was immediately averted. I felt invisible, which is not something I am used to feeling, living in India. Then, after a few hours, we went on to the second phase of our experiment; I went to a corner and quickly removed my facade, dressed now in pants, a top and a jacket – nothing revealing, nothing provocative. And within moments of my costume change, I regretted it.

The difference was almost dramatic. I will not focus on the number of glances that came my way (which was, in any case, more than a fifty percent difference), but rather, on the kind of looks that came my way. Dressed in “ordinary” clothes now, it almost seemed like men around me felt a sense of entitlement to look at me. Not just at my face, but running their glance down my body, pausing at specific areas of my body that were more “interesting” than others. This was not limited to men of a certain origin, but men in general. A curious feeling overtook me. All at once, I felt freer in my choice, but a slave to the entitlement of others to view me as an object. I suddenly longed for the freedom that being fully covered gave me in that scenario. Of course, my experiment was limited to a few hours and one place – I plan to conduct the same in different scenarios and places. However, as a student of culture and in order to understand the reasons behind wearing a burqa or abaya, I had to experience wearing one.

While the burqa has become the symbol of oppression of Muslim women, it is hardly something that deserves focus in the way that western media has given it. It seems that Muslims have long been criticised for their oppression of women. However, according to Merinissi, it was during the colonial times that women’s rights violations in Islam took to the forefront, when any other culture was considered inferior to European culture. According to Ahmed, the idea that “other men, men in colonised societies or societies beyond the borders of the civilised west, oppressed women, was to be used, in the rhetoric of colonialism, to render morally justifiable its project of undermining or eradicating the cultures of colonised peoples”.

Why does Islam consider it important to dress modestly? What is often forgotten is that Islam calls for both men and women to dress modestly. And it is a brutally honest religion in most cases. If one takes into account recent scientific studies about how men’s brains work when they look at a woman (“…men of a certain age view sex as a highly desirable goal, and if present them with a provocative woman, then that will tend to prime goal-related responses”), the findings are congruent with early Islamic beliefs that “I have never seen anything more capable of weakening a man’s senses and his deen and of destroying his judgement than one of you women.” According to Islam, there are several parts of the woman that are “awra” (sexually attractive), including the arms, legs, waist, hair and neck. In some schools of Islam, the face is considered “awra” too, and hence, encouraged to be covered.

Another aspect that is often overlooked is that most women who choose to adorn the abaya or burqa, do so with pride. The idea is not that they cannot dress the way they want, but that they are too respectful of themselves to expose themselves to those who are not part of their close family. Islam is a religion that calls for utmost modesty in that one is discouraged from inviting unnecessary attention, flattery or attraction.

The matter of oppression of “Muslim women” seems to be over-emphasised and manipulated in most cases. A recent study by a team of international economists led by a Harvard Business School professor, ranked the UAE as number one in the world for treating women with respect. My experiences in the UAE and in living in Oman for six years corroborate this. While there are countries in the Islamic world in which women are severely oppressed (as there are women in several other countries in other parts of the world which are less in focus, and let’s admit it, have no oil, who are equally oppressed), it has nothing to do with Islam; one must only take a look at the women in countries like Oman and the UAE – they carry themselves with pride, and are treated and behave like queens. Past the prejudiced notion of an oppressed woman, one clearly sees the privileges that they live with and the utmost respect that they are given.

This article in no way recommends the burqa or adopting Islam. However, it does recommend discarding prejudices and more so, the questioning of a worldview that is created by dominant media. For every cultural trait, there is a reason behind it existing for all these years, and rather than blatantly and ignorantly criticise and condemn it, it is high time we condition ourselves to respect the “other” despite the fact that we may not necessarily agree. And for those of you who do not agree with “awra”, try spending a few hours in the desert heat, you would wish to be completely covered to escape the burning sun too!

Written by Divya Susan Varkey, Intercultural Communications Practitioner and Trainer

Beneath the burqa…

Holy Cow! Why I Choose A Cow Halloween Costume This Year


This Halloween, I will be a cow. Supposedly a slutty nurse, a zombie bride, a playful bunny, all invoke the wrath of testosterone on me. Cow forbid, I wouldn’t want to tempt a poor, innocent, unassuming Indian boy. But to be a cow, ah, that’s another story all together. If I dressed as a cow, I would be worshipped, protected, given privileges. So why not? In a country where a cow is protected more than it’s women, it seems like a fitting costume. (Or wait…am I going to be beaten up for celebrating Halloween? Tough call. Well, I guess as a cow, I should be quite safe anyway.)

Now, don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against cows – I love them, as I love all animals. And if indeed the beef ban is meant to be for environmental benefits, you will see me raising my hand in support. But when it takes the dangerously imposing turn that the ban has, I cry foul. So why not, I ask, place a restriction on killing snakes too? Why not let them roam freely around – after all, they are considered holy and worshipped too? Why the hypocrisy?

It is obvious where this extreme imposition comes from – and that has nothing to do with the holy cow. It is about the show of power – of who is in charge, from people who someone has convinced, “rightly” hold that power. Those who are from different faiths protest – some in the name of retaining the sovereignty of the state, others, simply because it is affordable meat. Those who never consumed beef, remain silent, most turning a blind eye to the events that do not concern them in the first place. When one finds himself on the side of the power holder, one chooses not to speak up. That’s the law of CYA (Cover Your Ass).

From the brutal murder of the Muslim man who allegedly consumed beef, to the attack on the parliament member who served beef at a party, to the raiding of the Kerala government quarters in Delhi, the atrocities in the name of the animal continues. And several jobless, impressionable thugs that exist here in India, jump at the opportunity to exercise power. A Saudi official is said to have brutally raped a maid in his quarters, but the Delhi police had the power only to raid the Kerala government quarters, so they did. This warped sense of power and how to exert that power in any given circumstance is quickly making India a laughing stock the world over. Who cares about larger issues like power shortages, poverty, inequality? At least our cows are protected. What a massive step towards development!

So anyway, this Halloween, I will be a cow. Because in some twisted way, I might find myself powerful too.

Written by Divya Susan Varkey, Intercultural Communications Trainer and Practictioner

Holy Cow! Why I Choose A Cow Halloween Costume This Year