The Veil as Armour: Observations From the Clarissa Project

Photo Credit: JAGADEESH NV/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD) is currently involved in a study, under the CLARISSA consortium which seeks to find innovative solutions for children in hazardous and exploitative labour, that focuses on children’s perceptions of the worst forms of child labour. As part of the project, we met with a group of girls around 10 to 14 years of age at our field site in Hazaribagh, Bangladesh. Much to our surprise, we found six of the seven young adolescents wearing burkhas, with four of them also wearing niqabs (face covering). Indeed, adolescent girls are rarely seen on the streets in Hazaribagh. When they are seen, they are mostly wearing school uniform, which commonly involves a head covering. Females who are seen on the streets are usually either small children or adult women. While it is common to see women wearing the burkha, especially in more conservative areas, it is usually older adolescents, young adults and adult women who wear it. Children aged 10-14 years rarely wear conservative garb. The only girl in the group who was not wearing a burkha was an especially small 11-year-old.

Understanding the Issue

Curious about the fact that they were wearing a burkha and niqab at such a young age, we asked when and why they started wearing it. The most common reason given was that it would protect them from harassment from men. When asked what kinds of situations lead to sexual risks in the area, they said that it happens to “those girls” who “dress up and make TikToks”. The group believes that it is entirely their own responsibility to stay safe from harassment, inadvertently becoming tools of the patriarchy. Even though they initially reported that only “those girls” experience sexual harassment, removing themselves from the equation, they later confessed that they had all been subject to the unwanted approaches they were trying to avoid despite wearing burqas. They have all faced repeated requests for phone numbers, requests for romantic relationships, verbal harassment and being whistled at. In these cases, interactions between a girl and a boy were automatically given a romantic label by onlookers. None of them ever relate these incidents to their parents as they all felt the girl is usually blamed in these situations. They have also heard stories of violent sexual assaults and rape in the area, furthering their feelings of insecurity.

The young adolescents stated that they were instructed by religious studies teachers or their mothers to wear a burkha when going out. Even their neighbours seem to have a say in their public appearance. Their public life consists of walking between their home, school and workplaces. They are not seen hanging out in the neighbourhood, in the children’s park, or engaged in any other form of group activity. The respondents mentioned that if they were not properly covered, people would complain to their families. One of the girls said that people were more likely to make derogatory comments about poor people, and not wearing the burkha only added to such comments. Purdah [seclusion] from the male gaze does not seem to be the problem necessarily, as they often take it off once they reach school or work, but purdah in “public space” and the anonymity it gives them seems to be the goal.

Contrary to the young adolescents, in the parents’ FGDs, we saw that mothers from this neighbourhood wore salwar kameez, with maybe the orna (scarf) covering their heads. For domestic workers or factory workers, the burkha was simply inconvenient. Children are also instructed not to wear a burkha in school, even in co-education schools. If the higher authorities were visiting, the uniform must be worn as originally designed, otherwise their teachers were scolded. The utility of the burkha was more of a deciding factor than adhering to the purdah system.

When asked how they would like to dress if they did not have social restrictions, one of the young adolescents immediately responded that she would dress like one of the researchers, who wore a loose sweater and jeans. From the following conversation, it seemed that it wasn’t only the researcher’s clothing which appealed, but also the way she carried herself more loudly and confidently, engaging in discussions, expressing her opinions and taking notes. Another mentioned that when she goes out with her aunties, who are educated working women living independently, she wears jeans and loose tops instead of her burkha and niqab.

Much of their decision on whether or not to wear a burkha depends on context. The girls said that they would be open to wearing less covered clothing around Dhanmondi Lake, an adjacent but affluent area, or at restaurants, but it was unacceptable within Hazaribagh. All girls in the area dress similarly, so dressing differently would make them stick out and they do not want to draw attention to themselves. They try to include some elements of uniqueness in their burkha, with cinched sleeves, different ways of tying the hijab, or a different cut. But for the most part, they look homogenous.

A Driver of Child Labour?

In prior studies, particularly in rural areas, young adolescents were found to be extremely embarrassed to talk about sexual harassment and for the most part, denied ever having experienced it or not even knowing the meaning of the term. For the researchers, it was unnerving to see young girls who were not only talking about being subject to sexual harassment but were also actively taking precautionary measures. Religious beliefs or traditions did not feature during any part of the conversation on burkhas, but rather it was the result of a patriarchal social system which expected a young girl’s mobility to stay within constructed margins. Even the word purdah was not mentioned. Their attire was entirely utilitarian, a form of armour, albeit somewhat futile, against the patriarchal backlash.

When 10-14-year-old girls have to think of their sexual security in the neighbourhood that they live in and call their own, it is an issue that demands attention. It has implications for their safety and mobility but also points to deeper drivers of child labour where parents prefer their girls to be confined in workplaces if not in school, but not free to roam in their neighbourhoods. Even in the context of rampant child labour practices, the risk of harassment remains their most significant exposure to vulnerability and exploitation.

Shravasti Roy Nath is a former Research Associate and Taslima Aktar is a Research Associate in the Gender and Social Transformation cluster at BIGD.