By Syeda Saiyidain Hameed
On a petition in the Supreme Court on photographs in voter IDs
IN 1947 my mother and other women of my family decided to remove the burqa. They did it with the full support of male family members. These women were the best embodiments of the spirit of Islam. The five pillars of the Islamic faith were embedded in their lives. They prayed five times a day, fasted during the month of Ramadan, performed the Haj, and never erred in giving certain part of their modest income in charity. The only thing they asked us so far as dress was concerned was to observe modesty. The underlying tenet of their faith was the Quranic injunction La Ikra Fid Din, meaning, there is no compulsion in religion. I remember never being ordered to say my namaz. It was of my own accord a few years after my mother died that I became a namazi and continue to be one for the last 45 years. The women of my family influenced me by invoking the spirit of Islam which allows an individual to practise religion according to her own light.
In the context of my upbringing, when I examine the Supreme Court's observation on the burqa and voter ID cards, I find there is nothing inimical in it to the Quranic injunctions about a dress code for Muslim women. All it suggests is that in order to vote a Muslim woman like any other Indian citizen must be photographed in order to possess a valid voter ID. The matter came up last week when the Supreme Court was hearing a petition challenging the display of photographs of Muslim women on electoral rolls and voter identification cards. The petition was before a bench headed by the Chief Justice of India, K.G. Balakrishnan. "If you do not want them to have their photographs on electoral rolls, please tell what they should do if they want to contest elections, which is anyway only an extension of the right to vote," the chief justice asked.
Many Muslim groups have agreed with the sentiment and given various arguments in favour of exceptional cases which warrant Muslim women to allow themselves to be photographed. From my study of the Quran, its explications and commentaries I find that there is nothing in the Quran which enjoins women to cover their faces with a naqab or hijab.
Let me quote Surah and verse.
In the Quran there are three references to dress code and none of them refers to the naqab, or veil.
The first is the 24th Surah Al Nur which means The Light. In this women are asked not to display their zeenat (beauty) except before family members. There is also an injunction for women and men to "lower their gaze and protect their private parts". The underlying idea is not to draw too much attention to their bodies. Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and be modest (Ayat 30). Tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest (Ayat 32).
The important fact is that this Ayat gives identical instruction to men as well in the "hifazat" of their private parts, which has been interpreted by scholars as "dignified or modest dressing". Further, women are asked to draw the veil over their bosoms; which does not mean covering their faces. The other reference is in Surah 33 Al Ahzab, which means the Clansmen. Here there are two references to women's dress. The first is Ayat 59 which enjoins the Prophet to tell all believing women to draw their cloaks around themselves so they are distinguished in a crowd and not harassed. The rationale for using the cloak (original word is jilbab, which in the Arabic dictionary means any piece of clothing from a chemise to a cloak) is diametrically opposed to the idea that women's identities should disappear inside burqas or naqabs.
The second reference in the same Surah is the one and only reference to hijab, aword which is so used and misused today. Far from meaning covering women's faces as it is commonly understood today, it refers to the private space of an individual which needs to be protected and respected. The great commentator of the Quran, Al Tabari, refers to a Hadith of Anas Ibn Malik, one of the Companions of the Prophet. The Surah was revealed on the Prophet's wedding night to Zainab Bint Jahsh. The wedding guests lingered on and on without regard for the Prophet's need for privacy. He then drew a hijab between his private quarter and the public domain. The delicacy of interpersonal relations and respect for privacy of families gave the words Minawara-e-Hijab (behind the curtain) which in turn gave coin age to the word hijab a sitis used today.
Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, the great translator, commentator and interpreter of the Quran, has asked the reader again and again to look for meanings by going to the fountainhead (Siraj-eMunir) -- that is, the Quran itself -- instead of blindly following diktats of self-proclaimed experts. Because, he writes, Din is easy; it has been made complicated by centuries of facile erudition. That being the case there is nothing in the Quran and therefore Islam which mandates veiling; the choice to do it is entirely an individual choice. Therefore to attribute this to Islam is to negate its true spirit.
The writer is a member of the Planning Commission email@example.com The women of my family influenced me by invoking the spirit of Islam which allows an individual to practise religion according to her own light. When I examine the Supreme Court's observation on the burqa and voter ID cards, I find there is nothing inimical in it to the Quranic injunctions about a dress code for Muslim women.
The writer is a member of the Planning Commission.
Source: The Indian Express, New Delhi.