By Zeenat Shaukat Ali
May 12, 2019
Any covering of the face that "hinders the identification of individuals in a way that threatens national security" is banned in Sri Lanka. This diktat came into practice after the terror attacks that left 350 dead on Easter Sunday in the island country.
The order specifies that the base criterion for identification is the ability to see the face of an individual clearly. It applies to anything covering the face, which could include Burqas, Niqabs and helmets or masks. World over, people have been divided over the ban on the Burqa and other face-covering veils. For many women, it is a threat to their choice of wanting to wear a Burqa or not. Public and political response to such prohibition proposals is complex, since by definition that would mean the government decides on individual clothing. Some non-Muslims, who would not be affected by a ban, see it as an issue of civil liberties, as a slippery slope leading to further restrictions on private life.
There is no suggestion in the Quran, where women are asked to lead a cloistered existence or be kept apart from world affairs. On the contrary, the Quran references to the participation of women in all respectable enterprises and professions.
It is often forgotten that in early Islam, women were political activists, went to war, defended the nation, nursed the wounded, gave sanctuary to men, participated in debates, were scholars, legalists contributing to society just like men.
The use of the word "Burqa" is unfamiliar in the Holy Quran. It is necessary to state that there is some confusion regarding the subject even among Muslims. There is no clarity if there is a difference in the meaning of the words Hijab (screen or barrier), Khimar, Jilbab (dress or cloak); all these words are generally understood as kinds of veils. The Arabic word "Khimar" (plural Khumur) does not simply imply a head-covering (and certainly not a face-covering ) for women as commonly understood. The Quran states that the word 'Khimar' or 'Khumur' comes from the root 'Kh-Mim'Ra' which means something that veils or conceals. "It was a veil worn in pre-Islamic times more or less as an ornament and was let down loosely over the back; and since, in accordance with the fashion prevalent at the time, the upper part of the woman's tunic had a wide opening in the front, her bosom being bare."
Significantly, Islam did not introduce veils and segregation to the Arab region nor are these institutions indigenous to Arabs. It was a general regional practice. Long before the advent of Islam, these traditions appear to have existed in the Hellenistic-Byzantine area and among the Sassanians of Persia. In ancient Mesopotamia, the veil for women was regarded as a sign of respectability and high status, decent married women wore the veil to distinguish themselves from women slaves and unchaste women, indeed the latter were forbidden to cover head or hair.
Successive invasions brought into contact Greek, Persian, and Mesopotamian empires and the Semitic peoples of the regions. The practices of veiling and seclusion of women appear to have subsequently been established in Judaic and Christian systems. Gradually, these spread to Arabs of the urban upper classes and eventually, to general urban communities. Veils of Arab Muslim urban women became, more pervasive under Turkish rules as a market of rank and exclusive style. By the nineteenth century, upper-class urban Muslims and Christians in Egypt wore the "Habarah," which consisted of a long skirt, a head cover and a Burqa, a long rectangular cloth of transparent Muslin placed below the eyes, covering the lower nose and the mouth and falling to the chest.
The revival of the term in the 1970s emerged when the veil became the centre of feminism, identity, and nationalist discourse in Egypt during British colonial occupation.
The Muslim Educational Society (MES) state president Dr Fazal Gafoor says that "All undesirable practices on the campuses should be discouraged." As pointed out by scholars, the modesty of dress and outlook for both genders is religion based whereas veiling, particularly of the face as pointed out by scholars is more socio-cultural than religion oriented. The MES in Kozhikode has banned dresses that cover the face for girls in educational institutions under its control. However, the circular issued by the body in this regard does not specifically mention burqas. Dr Gafoor's approach is indeed the right one.
Dr Shaukat Ali is author of Marriage and Divorce in Islam and The Empowerment of Women in Islam