Behind the Human Curtain

France won the Football World Cup finals at Russia last month, and while it was so well deserved, the ethnic profiles of its players celebrating on the field were surprising. A disproportionately large number of its players were dark-skinned or black, ie from North Africa or sub-Saharan Africa respectively, with either the players or their parents having been born on that continent. It is illegal to make a demographic assessment of one’s ethnicity in France, but learned estimates tell us that the coloured population of the country ranges between 13 and 16 per cent. With only five of the fourteen men in their football finals team being white, the country cannot be faulted for discrimination here.

Otherwise too, the nation has given so much to the world, in philosophy and culture, in fashion and cinema and arts. Its national motto, Liberty, Egalite, Fraternite (Liberty, Equality and Fraternity) has beamed inspirations to the world’s community of nations. But recently, when it objected to the wearing of a garment in public, the country precipitated an internationally polarized debate that refuses to sit on the back burner. The garment, called Burkini—a portmanteau of the burkha and the bikini—is a new kind of swimwear for Muslim women, whose religion takes a stern view of women exposing their bodies in public. Respecting the Islamic traditions of modest dress, the burkini is a head-to-foot swimsuit, leaving only the face, hands and feet exposed. Made from lycra or polyester, it comes in many colours and three styles: modest fit, slim fit, active fit. While the priests are not at all happy with the body-hugging necessities of the burkini, they have for now trained their guns in another direction: the French government, which has banned their use in swimming pools.

Some people wonder if the ban comes from the same country whose national honour was crowned by a football team in which over half of the players were of African descent. They also wonder if it’s the same country that has inspired the world, including in tenets of democracy and equality, as we also saw. Others see no conflict of values here. Because it’s like this: France wants to be a beacon in the world community, by creating a place that in the public space is religiously neutral, where you must appear similar—thus endorsing secularism—and only then expect similar treatment. It sees such outfits as a possible link to Islamic fundamentalism. The United States on the other hand, allows you to wear what you want, do what you want, stand out like a sore thumb if you wish, and you may still expect equal treatment. Perhaps Americans are forgetting what their own President, John Kennedy said in his inaugural speech: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. Both countries allow you to practice and preach your religion, no problem. The difference is in the philosophies of how a state must be run when it comes to a public show of religion. Take your pick.

The burkini is not only for Muslim women. Other ladies also like the idea, since it also gives them a good deal of sun protection. By creating an air of mystery, it is nice for aesthetics too. As also for women who, not delighted with their body, want to downplay the exposure. No wonder that the outfit is a hot favorite worldwide. But many other cultures have veils of some kinds down the years. The Hindus, Sikhs and Jains have the ghunghat, still worn by ladies when around men and elders. Christian nuns wear a habit, which covers their heads, as a dedication to God. Parsi women wear a headscarf when entering a fire temple and Orthodox Jewish women also wear one.

It is most common in the Muslim faith though, where it has many faces and names. Hijaab covers a woman’s hair. Naqaab covers the head and face with a cut for the eyes. Abaya is a long cloak covering the body, except the face, feet and hands. Burkha or Chaadari has a slit or a grill only for the eyes. Al-Amira is a two-piece veil consisting of a close-fitting cap and a complementing scarf. Chador covers the entire body except for the face, and burkini as we saw is the newest addition to the family.

Hindi cinema has had quite a few tragedies of errors resulting from women in burkhas and naqaabs. In Chaudhvin Ka Chaand (1960), it was the burkha that caused serious misunderstandings between two buddies, played by Rehman and Guru Dutt. We move to Mere Mehboob (1963), and here we see the burkha causing a mix-up between Ameeta and Sadhana, each of them thinking Rajendra Kumar is in love with her. Nutan was no stranger to some kind of modesty veils, wearing them in Laila Majnu, Shabab, Dil Hi To Hai and Dil Ne Phir Yaad Kiya, but before all these, she was the heroine in a murder mystery called Nagina (1951), when she was just 15. The film was given the Adults Only certificate. Shrouded in a burkha, she tried to sneak into a cinema hall, but it was discovered.

As for our poetry, we put all cloaks under the simplistic umbrellas of ghunghat, parda and naqaab. While by parda we also mean a curtain separating the women from the men, the result being the same. And in this collective simplification can be found several songs from Hindi cinema. Our list begins with Mukesh’s first hit, from Pehli Nazar (1945):

Dil jalta hai to jalne de aansoo na baha fariyaad na kar

Tu parda nasheen ka aashiq hai yoon naam-e-wafa barbaad na kar

(Roughly, “Stop complaining if you’re hurting. Please don’t reveal her identity and insult her loyalty”).

Here are many more songs on the modesty veil:

  • Kab tak rahega parda, parde mein chhupne waale (Lata/Heer, 1956)
  • Ghunghat naheen kholoongi saiyaan tore aage (Lata/Mother India, 1957)
  • Parda utthao saamne aao (Rafi, Shamshad/Pak Daaman, 1957)
  • Pyaas kuchh aur bhi bhadka di jhalak dikhla ke, tujhko parda rukh-e-roshan se hataana hoga (Talat, Asha/Lala Rukh, 1958)
  • Aaj kyoon humse parda hai (Rafi, Balbir/Sadhana, 1958)
  • Sharma ke ye kyoon sab parda nasheen (Asha, Shamshad/Chaudhvin Ka Chand, 1960)
  • Gori ghunghat mein mukhda chhupao na (Asha/Ghunghat, 1960)
  • Ghunghat hata na dena goriye chanda sharam se doobega (Lata/Sapan Suhaane, 1961)
  • Parda utthe salaam ho jaaye (Manna Dey, Asha/Dil Hi To Hai, 1963)
  • Rukh se parda hataaya to pachhtaoge (Asha, Manna Dey/Dil Ne Phir Yaad Kiya, 1966)
  • Rukh se zara naqaab hata do mere huzoor (Rafi/Mere Huzoor, 1968)
  • Parde mein rehne do (Asha/Shikar, 1968)
  • Ye parda hata do, zara mukhda dikha do (Rafi, Asha/Ek Phool Do Mali, 1969)
  • Parda hai parda (Rafi/Amar Akbar Anthony, 1977)
  • Ghunghat ki aad se dilbar ka deedaar adhure rehta hai (Alka, Kumar Sanu/Hum Hain Rahi Pyaar Ke, 1993)


An interesting take on the parda was offered in a quatrain by poet Akbar Allahabadi, which could become a fun song if set to music:

Bepardah nazar aayin jo kal chund bibiyaan

To ‘Akbar’ zameen mein ghairat se gadh gaya

Poochha jo unse aap ke parde ko kya hua

Kehne lagi, wo mardon ki aql pe pad gaya

(When the writer espied a few uncovered women, he was scandalized! “What happened to your cloak?” he asked. They replied, “The cloak is now masking men’s wisdom”).

That was a commendable repartee. More seriously, perhaps it can be extended to mankind in general. Most of us can do with more wisdom.


Originally published in DNA Jaipur on 19 August 2018, page 13


7 thoughts on “Behind the Human Curtain

  1. Bahut khoob! The first thing I did after reading your piece is to find out from net, how a burkini looks like. I think I have seen seen it before. Yes, Phantom the Ghost who walks, used to wear something like that.

    Your article too flows something like burkini. On the face of it, it appears to be a thesis on ethinicity of France, covering what is about to follow, but as you shift the gaze downward the body of writing, it catches the eye-balls with an attractive list of songs, all about concealed beauty.

    Being currently on an US tour, actually my first-time ever, that is something like Rampur ka Laxman or Gangaram coming to Mumbai, I was rather rattled while walking on NY streets to see the level of ‘exposure’, so much glaring that I was inclined to cover my eyes with hand la Manoj Kumar. Probaby a Naqab would have helped to limit my view.

    That reminds me of this obscure song from ‘Nehle pe Dehla’, which I think, had Bindu in her characteristic display of her explosives. The song goes something like this:
    Mashooq apne shabab me
    Karte hain parda hijaab me
    Kaisa zamana aaya dekho
    Aashiq khade hain naqaab me

    1. S.V.Nathan – couldn’t help but respond to your reactions at the “exposure” you’re facing in New York. I understand :). 19 years ago, and, to some extent, even now, I feel like that myself. It’s just so culturally different!
      Have a great trip! Take in all the ‘sights’! 🙂

  2. Quite an educational treatise on burkha /Naquab / Parda. Some times you have an occasional urge to emulate Shashi Tharoor [ portmanteau] and I have to resort to Wikipedia.

    I loved the couplet by Akbar Allahabadi. By the way I am sure, he is not the fictional character in Amar Akbar Anthony.

    The ethnicity of France was a great way to begin the essay, leaving us wondering , where you were leading us. Such anxiety, I used to feel, while reading James Hadley Chase novels and the urge to turn to the last page to find out the suspense was something which needed a lot of control.

  3. Mazaa aaya. Enforced lethargy, brooding mind, un mein se, parda uthwaake, kucch gyaan ki roshni dikha diya Manek ji ka lekh. Something to brighten the prosaicity of existence. Great, educative topic and adding ‘Parda utha do mukhda dikha do, tu mere dil ka dukhda mita do’, to Manek’s list. Dunno the film & other particulars.

  4. Wow! I’m glad I stayed up to read this! Loved the essay. The differences between France and America’s ways of publicly acknowledging their religion. Then, connecting that to the types of veils – the Al-Amira was a new one for me.
    A beautiful line-up of songs too. So much lyricality in most of these songs.
    Manek, I wonder if “chilman” would fall into this line-up? There’s a few “chilman” songs too – “kis ne chilman se maara nazara mujhe” and “ye jo chilman hai, dushman hai hamari”.
    That last quatrain you quoted? It was one of my nanaji’s favorite quotes. 🙂
    Thank you for this essay. Your essays can be read at many levels – pure enjoyment, speculation, introspection… and I enjoy them all.

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