Throwing out the 'purdahs'

Sunday, 18 November 2012 - 10:36am IST | Agency: DNA
Here’s a question I have long wanted to ask of our security providers. I understand the need to scan bags and jackets. But how do you explain those monstrous curtained cubicles created especially for women?

Here’s a question I have long wanted to ask of our security providers. I understand the need to scan bags and jackets. But how do you explain those monstrous curtained cubicles created especially for women? Police, security agencies, mall owners, government, someone, explain! What do you think is being accomplished? Women fliers or cinema patrons are checked by other women. Purses or backpacks have already been searched outside, or put through scanners operated by men. Then, we walk into a makeshift cubicle with black fabric walls, or else, horrid rubber strips for curtains (which are probably never washed and make me worry about dust and infection), so that we may have hand-held metal detectors passed down the length of our bodies. And we step out again.

What part of the process needs to be ‘private’? We are not being strip-searched, after all. So, why do we need to go behind a curtain?

I feel upset because there seems to be an assumption that anything to do with a woman’s body must be concealed. It is almost as if the very idea of women having women’s bodies must be embarrassing and that, if we must be touched by anybody — even if it is a female cop — it must be concealed. As if a woman being touched for any reason at all is a horrible thing. But that doesn’t stop the security checks. It just puts us into a temporary purdah, so nobody can see what’s being done to us.

Why?
Do cops or mall-owners seriously think that women want to curl up and die at the thought of being brushed down with a metal detector? I very seriously doubt if shoppers or fliers are ashamed of being made to undergo a mandatory security check. Does being felt up make us conscious? Perhaps. But it would make anyone conscious, men too. Why do you assume that men’s embarrassments are meaningless?

And if security staff needs a private area to conduct an intimate search of our shopping selves, then there ought to be one for men. If it is not appropriate to examine women’s bodies in full public view, it is also not appropriate to conduct such examinations of men’s bodies in front of women, right?
This has bothered me for years now, but most of us don’t see fit to make a noise about it because it isn’t a big enough issue. But actually, I do believe that it is symptomatic of a larger problem — that of shaming women and, at the same time, making them constantly conscious of their physical selves. It’s like a message being sent out — keep those bodies under wraps, even as someone pokes and scans and metal-detects the life out of your bones. Under no circumstances must anybody notice your body.

There is something very absurd and very frightening about a society that cannot accept one simple fact: women have bodies almost the same as men, and that a body — or having things done to these bodies — is not something to be ashamed of.

I personally am a firm opponent of purdah in any form for this reason. The assumption that women’s bodies — even just the hair, or the face, or the legs — lead to violence is a false one. It is an unjust, cruel assumption and if we want a truly equal, peaceful world, then this idea must be ripped out of all minds. And I don’t know if we can change all purdah-loving cultures immediately, but we can throw out those meaningless, bizarre curtained cubicles out of all public areas. And we should. This very night.

Annie Zaidi writes poetry, stories, essays, scripts (and in a dark, distant past, recipes she never actually tried)


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