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Islam, Women and Feminism ( 27 Jul 2015, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The Burqa in Question


 By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam

27 July, 2015

It is common sense to assume that Burqas are retrogressive. It is considered as the very embodiment of medievalism, something which should be discarded in the contemporary times. I personally do not have any problems with this argument. I think it is a patriarchy that is imposed on women although it would be fair to suggest that many believing Muslim women wear it out of choice. Despite my own reservations on the Burqa, I respect that choice. 

The issue in question here though is altogether different. It was pointed out and documented that pre medical tests (AIPMT) were being conducted unfairly. These unfair means included using chits hidden inside Burqas, and several other religious garments like the Sikh headgear, etc. It was in this context that the Supreme Court rejected the prayers of the petitioners like the SIO (a student wing of Jamaat e Islami). The argument of the court is very simple: taking away religious symbols for a few hours does not take the away the persons’ religion. The SC was categorical in its assertion that they were not arguing for a ban on all French symbols in the public sphere like the French state. Muslim women were free to don the Burqa whenever they pleased, but not in taking exams, especially since it raised the issue of malpractice, which has been documented and proved in some cases.

The larger problem is that this simple observation of the court becomes a debate about the nature of secularism in this country, the imposition of the Hindutva agenda and the question of religious freedom guaranteed in the constitution. This is especially hypocritical for organizations like the SIO whose own history never believed in the idea of a secular state, forget about secularism. We should also remember the SIO and other organizations have treated dissent as is evident from their hounding of Taslima Nasreen and other writers who have who have questioned their interpretation of Islam. It is a unique case where these Muslim organizations want a secular government but they do not want the secularization of their own society.

But there is something more that needs to be said. And this is about those secularists (Muslims or otherwise) who are criticizing the position of the Supreme Court as an infringement on religious freedom of Muslims. This is simply erroneous to say the least. For one, the Court’s observation does not relate to Muslim religious symbols alone, but to all other faiths such as Sikhism, Christianity, etc. It is the media which has portrayed that it is a Muslim issue alone. Again, Muslim organizations have left no stone unturned to turn the issue by playing the victim. The changing nature of the state is important; the rise of Hindutva poses a great threat to the idea of a composite India (if it ever existed). All these things are important and cannot be overlooked. But this should not lead to a closure of debate on things that plainly wrong in Indian Muslim society.

Since the SIO has made it into a religious issue of right, let me ask them some basic questions: have they ever raised any issue over the fact that Muslim women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia? Have they condemned the flogging of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi? Have they ever questioned the culture of beheading in Saudi Arabia? Or the ways in which Saudis are slithering to pieces the civilians in Yemen? Now of course a criticism can be made that India cannot be compared to Saudi Arabia. True. But then there has to be a consistency (not hypocrisy) in what an organization is doing. Going by its dubious history where its ideologue Maududi considered the modern state as the devil incarnate, it looks like the SIO’s current posturing on Burqa is another attempt to monopolise the discourse on their terms. Those who are viewing the whole issue through the prism of minority rights are doing two things: one, they are supporting a retrograde organization; two, they are not listening to dissenting voices coming from within the community. 

Arshad Alam is assistant professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU, Delhi.