The seventeen year old Bangladeshi girl who meticulously covers her head with green or white scarf to ward off the male eye is not much bothered about who she is while briskly crossing the traffic-choked Dhaka streets. She prefers to remain anonymous; all she is concerned about is her female sex. Her scarf may be attributed to her background but it doesn't say all.
The situation may be a lot different with her counterpart in a similar outfit in a London or New York street. The motivation for the latter's get-up may be traced partly to her religious background and strongly perhaps to her assertion of who she is in public-- her 'correct' identity as she perceives it, or that passed on to her from her family or the peer group.
For the Dhaka girl, identity per se is no big deal-- herself a citizen and a Muslim in a Muslim-majority country. Her case may be further explained by the 'logic' (a trifle dubious for a westerner) that she feels more at ease in a public place being very little exposed.
Few years back, lingering with a friend in front of a makeshift tea-shop near Humayun Tomb in New Delhi, this scribe's attention was drawn to two small boys playing cricket with a tape-wrapped tennis ball right across the street. The boys, barely nine to ten years old, were bare bodied but for the low-slung, patched-up shorts that needed to be repeatedly pulled up to hide their lean bottoms every time either of them made a movement to hurl the ball or take a quick run. The striking feature to feast the eyes on was not the game, not the shorts unwilling to hang on to their nether parts, but the yellowish skull cap that fitted tightly on each of their heads covering close-cropped hair. A deliberate statement backed by religious identity? One may like to argue that it has more to do with the way of life rather than a conscious approach to declare one's identity. A subconscious statement then?
Looking for one's identity is not in most cases a watchful journey, not the awakening of the self to assert itself as a state of being in order to be distinguished. Descartes' one-liner 'I think therefore I am' is too uniquely innovative to become a commonly accepted index for identity search. The common practice is that identity rests with the membership in a group or affiliation to a collective oneness defined by culture or more starkly by religion. However, more often than not, this is reinforced by the members of a community besieged to re-affirm the uniqueness of their identity through the manifest insignias of their religions.
Identity based on religion is not as simple, and is perceived differently by different people. Some people need to be anchored in a single community which provides them with a 'direction' in life as dictated by their religions; others live in situations where they see themselves as members of various groups. These people then have to deal with how much these individual groups are able to tolerate each other and at the same time how much they try to protect their own unique religious identity.
Religion being inclusive of culture is exclusive too. A statement of one's cultural or ethnic identity is amply manifest in one's very appearance - the skin colour, silky or bulbous hair, high or low cheek bones and other attendant ticks. But for people claiming their religious identity as more central, such inherited features are not just enough to strike a more distinctive mark.
Now, why would one just for one's religion seek exclusion from the mainstream society? A self-perpetuated discrimination! The problem is, by allowing others to readily tell them apart from the crowd, the minority ethnics tend to be a more visible, segregated and at times sought after minority--not with all the good intentions. Why then is it so important to consider one's identity as so unique as to cost self-exclusion? The practice, needless to say, is increasingly on the rise among Asian Muslims who have temporarily or permanently made the West their home. And women in particular are the lead practitioners. The issue is not one of religious extremism nor does it necessarily stem from the individual's wish to proclaim his/her religious freedom in a society where a different religion predominates. It has more to do with the incumbent's psyche to demonstrate his/her otherness, and the commonly opted way these days is to walk along the starkly segregated path of religion.
No wonder the worst that the public face of religion does to individuals is relegation of his/her true, hard-earned identity--say, as a physician, a software engineer, an entrepreneur, or well, as a human being--to a secondary, if not to a lesser level. For the Muslims, one may argue, the phenomenon has grown pervasive since the incidents that followed 9/11--the 'wars' on terror, the West's Islam-bashing, among others. The situation of late is seemingly getting more heated--and cruder still--as some regions in the West tend to become more visibly intolerant. The recent German court's ruling on a ban on circumcision on religious ground says a lot, more than oral bashing. Scarves covering head are already banned in parts of West Europe.
So, provocation is there and no doubt discrimination. The provocations do not just come as stereotypes. How does one having lived in a western country for thirty-some years explain his hours of waiting at the airport immigration of that country for an entry stamp on his passport (issued by the authorities of that country) just because his is a name with a tag to it?
How does one react to such provocations given one's choice to live in that society and be a part of it? Through self-exclusion? You call me lame, but far from proving you wrong, I keep faking lame to demonstrate I am what I am-- not like you! Wrong.