In the lanes near the Nizamuddin dargah, women in burkhas go about their shopping, some pushing back the veil as they haggle for added emphasis. The daughters of a local entrepreneur wave a cheerful farewell as they go off, clad in salwar-kameez but without the burkha or hijab, to their offices: one works in a call-centre, one as the receptionist in a blue-chip company.

Fatima comes in for work as always, dressed in her salwar-kameez and shawl; today she has to leave early to attend a meeting at her childrens’ school, after which she must sort out a late bill at the electricity office. Her sister, Salma, has just enrolled the youngest of her three daughters in a special sports programme and is off to the market to buy sneakers and gym clothes. At the malls in Gurgaon, there is a sprinkling of women in burkhas: if you were crass enough to ask the giggling groups of teenagers their religion, you would meet a few young Muslim girls, indistinguishable in their jeans-and-T-shirt uniform from their friends.

These are the women who’re giving Maulana Syed Nizamuddin nightmares by doing nothing more than going about the everyday rituals of their lives. This Wednesday, the venerable secretary of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, a body whose edicts carry considerable weight among India’s Muslims, announced a new set of guidelines for women. It was a blend of the positive—the AIMPLB ruled firmly that Sania Mirza’s tennis clothes did not come under the purview of Muslim personal law—and the irrational. The Maulana asked Muslim women not to work alongside men, not to go shopping in markets or malls where they might be subject to the gaze of strange men, and said that women of the faith must avoid dressing in Western clothes, especially outfits that are too revealing.

The Maulana’s pronouncements were widely reported; what was less visible was the reaction of the section of the community that might be expected to be affected. “Sania Mirza has done more for Muslim women than any of these clerics,” said Abida Bibi, who runs a tea-stall in Nizamuddin. “The problem with these Maulanas, poor fellows, is that they are so easily shocked.” Other women giggled: “The women of his family must have run up large shopping bills this month, that’s why he’s upset!”

Salma and Fatima reacted with the same contemptuous embarrassment I’ve felt in the past when some pious Hindu religious leader has announced that Hindu women must not cut their hair short, or must wear only saris, or must go nowhere except to the temple. “Will the Maulana come and do my shopping and run around to the municipal offices for me?” Fatima asked.

Salma was more thoughtful. “For those outside our community, it must seem like we poor Muslim women, we have so many rules to follow. But we will have trouble only when our neighbours say, this is what the Maulana has said so you must do it. But no one is saying that. We all have to work, we have to bring up our children, and we like choosing what clothes to wear—some of us wear burkha, some not, we all pray. When the Maulana tells us how to pray, we listen. When he tells us how to live, we laugh, and we carry on with our lives.” And she went off to see if she could find sneakers with a good grip and a fancy design for Ayesha, burgeoning star of the slum school track team.

(Published in the Kolkata Telegraph, February 2006)