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India: The veil in the classroom

By Saurav Basu

September 15, 2009


A few months back, Justice Katju, an outspoken Supreme Court judge rejected the appeal by a Muslim student to sport a beard in a Catholic school out of religious reasons. But he was also apprehensive that succumbing to this mindset could propel Talibanisation since, “We don’t want to have Taliban in the country. Tomorrow a girl student may come and say that she wants to wear a burqa, can we allow it? I am a secularist. We should strike a balance between rights and personal beliefs. We cannot overstretch secularism”

Unfortunately, the pressure generated by Muslim fundamentalists through ‘secular’ media effectively compelled Katju to publicly backtrack from his progressive position.

Recently, a college in Mangalore directed a Muslim female student not to enter the classroom with a headscarf. The girl insists that she is obliged to wear the scarf in deference to her faith and refused to comply. Previously, she had been debarred from wearing the burqah. She further alleged that the college was acting under pressure from right wing student organizations who threatened to wear “saffron shawls” in protest. Secularists have predictably howled at the growing ‘culture of intolerance’ and conveniently harped on the Hindutva connection while ignoring the threats posed by Islamic separatism. They were in the queer company of the extreme pan Islamic fundamentalist Jamat-e-Islami Hind and the Students Islamic organisation, which threatened Indians that they would ‘seek the support of the Gulf Islamic Community if required,’ (sic) [link] Ultimately, the college withdrew its headscarf ban but remained steadfast on its decision to ban the burqah from their campus.

The debate over religious symbols in secularized classrooms has been hugely problematic for the secular state of India. Authorities have feigned helplessness in their inability to strictly enforce secular ethos in a highly religious society. Such argumentation is actually a smokescreen for hiding the intimidating instincts of Semitic faiths who unlike Hinduism theoretically and otherwise do not differentiate between public and private spaces.

 Islamists including India’s first education minister, Maulana Azad used to gloat on how their presumably totalitarian religion controls not only every aspect of life but also politics. No wonder, the sense of ‘denial’ of their religious freedom in secularized spaces emerges most vociferously from Muslim quarters. ‘Secularists’ and ‘liberals’ reinforce such regressive attitudes by politics of appeasement. In contrast, majority Hindus whose children of all ages routinely face hostility, abuse and even corporal punishment for wearing anything from bindis to kumkum in certain Christian institutions have not shown any willingness for organized protest. Neither have any liberals spoken for them.

Issues of equality, cultural freedom and secularism are the cornerstone of this debate. Muslims claim that democracy and secularism gives them right to practice their religion in any way they want. Ironically, both these values are otherwise considered un-Islamic by Islamic fundamentalists. Perhaps, that explains the state sponsored persecution of minorities in some Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia which includes forced veiling of all women, including non Muslim women.

Journalists like Burkha Dutt champion the rights of Muslims to pursue their religious obligations as Hindu religious symbols are not entirely absent in secular classrooms; they being most conspicuous in morning prayers. This is a sophistical argument since Hindu prayers are essentially non sectarian, abstract and universal. A Hindu prayer does not pour opprobrium on worshiper of ‘false gods’ nor do they have any business in denying those false gods. Instead, Hindu prayers promote cosmic harmony, peace, ahimsa, expansion of the self and universal growth and fraternity. Swami Vivekananda in his inaugural address to the World Parliament of religions had expressed hope that salvation from bigotry and fanaticism would come through universal Hinduism exemplified by the Rig Vedic mantra which considers all paths whether crooked or straight to lead to the same divine. This is what makes Hindu prayers compatible in multi-religious classrooms.

Similarly, kumkum and bindis are not religious but innocuous cultural symbols of an overwhelming majority which should be respected. Unfortunately, the confronting attitudes adopted by Catholic schools in this regard stemming out of their religious bias is unwarranted and a subversion of pluralism.

In contrast, veils and headscarf’s carry controversial connotations. Popular Western impression as evident in the French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s outburst condemns the veil as a symbol of women oppression. The veil of course, has a far more complex history than the simple sexed up opinions which prevails in the West and which has been exploited to sell everything from cigarettes to designer clothes. (The veil unveiled: Hijab in modern culture, Faeghey Shirazi, Florida, 2002)

Fatwa El Guindi has shown that the veil was prevalent in pre-Islamic Mesopotamian and Mediterranean societies. (Veil modesty, privacy, resistance, London, 1999) But that does not deter us from the well entrenched position that the veil is very congenial to Islam. An occasional pre-Islamic custom, it was institutionalized by Islam and imposed on all those societies which were subject to Islamic conquest. That veiling is enjoined by the Quran is certified by authors like Katherine Bullock, a white Canadian scholar who converted into Islam. (Rethinking Muslim women and the veil, 2002)

In Islam the veiling practices is the product of a religious code and considered necessary to protect the vulnerable female body from lustful men. Not surprisingly, the veil was enthusiastically adopted by the conquered populace whose women often found it to their sole protection against their new Muslim masters.

But in non Islamic societies especially in Assyria and parts of pre Islamic India, the veil was a marker of exclusivity, status, privilege and privacy. However, the absence of the veil, in classical Indian art, architecture and literature gives credence to the position that extensive veiling practices were contrary to the Hindu way of life. Although, Sheela Shah informs us that 11th century text Samayantrika by the Brahmin Ksemendra considers only prostitutes fit to wander without the veil. But it was an isolated opinion. Overall, the adoption of the Muslim rhetoric of ‘protection’ must have been paramount for what else explains the coincidence of the epidemic of Hindu veiling with Islamic invasions. Unfortunately, for some rural Hindu women, the custom of the veil persists as an instrument of subordination to their in-laws.

So does denial of the right to wear a veil in public institutions in non Muslim countries qualify as religious discrimination? Hardly! The question which liberals evade is that whether Muslim women subject to an ultra patriarchal dominant ideology have the necessary agency to make an informed decision to wear a symbol of seclusion which is intrinsically incompatible with modern workspace ethos which requires intersex participation and group bonding. An allopathic doctor in Peshawar confessed to this author on how painful it was for women like her in a hijab to treat male patients.

Moreover, one cannot overlook the violence which Muslim women have been subjected to for not conforming to Islamic ideology. In Kashmir, agents of Asiya Andrabi’s Dukhran-e-Millat threw acid and paint on Muslim women who refused to submit to the veil. Those wearing jeans were shot in the legs by similar fanatics. The Taliban finished off the last semblance of the independent unveiled woman who once served as doctors, engineers and lawyers in Kabul. In Iran, ever since the Islamic revolution, women face acute suppression through sex segregation mediated by the veil.

That the contemporary re-veiling movement in the ‘Muslim World’ is out of socio, economic, religious and political reasons is undeniable. Yet, Islam revivalism subsumes all. For Islamic fundamentalists, the veil serves as the collective expression of Pan-Islamic hostility against non Muslim cultures.

Despite these obvious realities, leftists feminists have been reluctant in their criticism of the veil. Jamie Glazov in his “United in Hate: The Left’s romance with tyranny and terror” indignantly questions that ”Why do radical feminists, who supposedly value women’s rights, ignore the suffering of millions of women living under Islamic gender apartheid?” Phyllis Chesler, a radical feminist who was once married to a Muslim and lived in Afghanistan under the veil has consistently charged fellow feminists of betraying their cause by maintaining a deafening silence against exploitative Islamic practices. (link)

The pretension that minorities can do anything they want in a secular country is mischievous and actually is a poignant reminder of how alienated is the concept of secularism from these Semitic faiths. The fact remains that it is precisely the minority status of Muslims and Christians in India coupled with a secular constitution which effectively denies them the right to practice those elements of their religion which are unfortunately, wholly incompatible with liberal, democratic and progressive values.

Liberal Democracy on the other hand is not about “doing what you want”, it means state commitment to ensuing protection of a system of ethical values which includes defending secular institutions from ultra religious encroachment. Also, it means resistance to religious ideologies which undermine women’s independence. All in all archaic religious sentiments of an orthodox minority cannot become reason for the secular state to succumb to their pressure. If the secular state could intervene in a small matter of a once in a decade rare presumably voluntary Sati in Rajasthan in the Roop Kanwar case and issue a stringent legislation against the same, then why cannot it act against the infinitesimally ubiquitous veil. The partisan Sachar Committee Report has conceded that Muslim women participation in the workforce amongst all socio-religious communities is the least. This trend is observed unanimously across several Islamic nations. But in India where Muslims are a relative minority, the problem is even more acute. Many middle class Muslim families do not allow their girls access to higher education and work outside their mohalla. It is considered inappropriate to the community’s ‘izzat’ (Sameena Khan, Exclusion, identity and Muslim women in Mumbai, New Age Weekly, Jan 20-26, 2008) That religious strictures mediated by the veil actively contribute to this malaise is an incontrovertible position.

On the other hand, Hindu activists need to refrain from tactless intimidating tactics. Wearing saffron shawls to counter the burqah is tasteless and perversion of the sacred colour which has for millennia epitomized renunciation, inner strength and valour.

A common sense intellectual engagement sans hatred is the need of the hour.