This originally appeared as my weekly column BAAGHI in Daily Times on April 17, 2011
“Shame on France. Hijab is our identity” — read a placard held by a burqa-clad, seven years old girl. She was part of a protest rally against the ban on burqa that took affect in France on April 11, 2011 after around two years of legislative deliberations within French parliament.
France became the first European country to ban full-face veil from general public space on Monday last week only to risk worldwide protests by Muslims supported by the followers of other religions who believe in democratic principles of equality and freedom of expression. Like all unified history that is textualised to suit a particular power agenda, this one also ignores some important peripheral histories. An important peripheral history to this particular event is that all protesting or detesting the ‘big ban’ are not fanatic, misogynist, bigoted Muslims. The protests have a wider range of spectrum than one would like to imagine while living in monochrome Samuel Huntington world.
Those protesting against the ban can be distinguished into three categories. One: European Muslims who believe hijab, burqa and face veil are essential part of their faith. Two: Muslims living around the world for whom this big ban is a manifestation of Islamophobia and an incursion on Muslims’ right to express and follow their religious beliefs. These Muslims might or might not be observing purdah in their families, but take Muslim religious symbols as essential part of their identity. Three: those who do not believe in purdah or in burqa or veil, but consider it Muslims’ (or any religious community’s) right to choose their attire. This group constitutes not only Muslims, but most secular individuals and groups as well, belonging to other religious communities.
Dealing with this mix of anti-ban rainbow may seem a bit complex. It involves dealing with theist belief system, ages old stereotypes, basic human right to self-expression, feminist view of women’s status in societies, secularism and democratic plurality. Complex it may seem, it is essential to examine the issue with a lens that allows you to see through all these prisms while not barring the vision in favour of species’ subjugation — may it be women or a particular religious community.
First group, for example, seems to believe in one disputed version of scriptures allowing veil (or making it obligatory) upon women. Even a cursory view of works by a wide range of Islamic scholars makes it clear the veil is a highly disputed matter, the validity of which is yet to be proved through Quran or hadith. A feminist’s take would be to review the concept under ijtihad even if proven to be a part of holy scriptures. The proposition has due weight. Saner sections of Muslim scholarship might be urged to deal with the issue and resolve it once for all.
The second group, which insists on face veil or burqa, is the one that takes this subjugating covering as a symbol of their identity. In its intent, this concept seems highly divisive of a modern world’s society that has to be plural in its formation in order to give communities equal footings in one particular territorial unit. This propensity of religious communities’ insistence on ‘specificity’ and ‘otherisation’ not only disfigures pluralistic social order, but also becomes a contrivance for victimisation of their own selves. Muslims especially need to overhaul their system of ‘identity management’. The politics of identity must not be played at the expense of women’s emancipation. Face veil, howsoever it is taken — as cultural expression or identity — objectifies women in most perverse manner just as a bikini ad does, even worse. Muslims must, repeat must, get rid of such symbols of utter ignorance, stone-age patriarchy, fascism and misogyny. Women need to be celebrated, not feared to damage a society’s moral code if they appear in public space with their faces visible. Moreover, it is political Islam that is getting hyped up throughout the world using this ban and through veil.
The third group speaking against the ‘big ban’ comprises even progressive, secular and egalitarian people from multiple religious identities. Over last week, I tried to interact with diverse groups of people on different social networking sites and initiated the discussion using ‘shock and awe’. I displayed a weird picture as my display picture on Twitter, with an image of burqa clad woman showing half of her body completely nude. Followers from Pakistan (not all of them) were concerned about my morality in displaying such a picture and wondered whether I could wear such clothes myself.
Very interesting reaction came from Pakistani seculars/progressives and Indian right-wingers as well as centrists. While the right-wing Indians were cheering my pro-ban statements, Sonali Ranade, an Indian trader, was intrigued by it and said: “Love to see our ultra orthodox righteous cheering on @marvisirmed’s rebellion against purdah. Wud they support it for the women at home?” (sic). She further elaborated her point with a blunt statement: “Hope to see the same activism against our khap panchayat imposed ban on jeans & mobiles for girls!” (sic). Renowned South Asian journalist from NDTV, Barkha Dutt stated: “Huge problems with its enforcement. But I say no to Sarkozy’s enforced policing too.”
Pakistan’s promising youth and leading figure in anti-dictatorship protests during 2007 movement, Samad Khurram, was worried about those who observe veil as their personal choice. On my reminder of the social conditioning that might have resulted in observing a subjugative practice, Samad raised an important question: “A new form of conditioning in response to another conditioning is okay?” The discourse, here, missed the point that a voice of dissent against pervasive exploitation should not be diluted by the ‘conditioning’ label. It should rather enrich the debate with alternative point of view. Undeterred by the polemics, journalist Raza Rumi reminded: “Correction. Burqa has nothing to do with Islam. During Hajj, Divine injunction is not to cover their faces.” Rumi goes on to ask: “Would you also condemn the banning of suttee by the British in 19th century because it was freedom of choice?”
The secular viewpoint, to sum it up, revolves around the ‘right to choose attire’ which has been usurped in France by this big ban. Burqa or veil, I am afraid, is more than ‘attire’. It is misogynist coating on body and soul of women, the devastating effect of which could not be reduced to concepts like ‘freedom’ and ‘right’ to choose attire or to express. If it is about the right to suppress women, or women’s ‘right’ to choose subjugation, a progressive modern mind of whatever religious leaning should detest. Protesting a burqa ban must not take precedence over enforcement of purdah by the Saudi and Iran governments. The educated minds must choose their fights carefully.
Post Script: France might have become the first European country to put a public ban on veil, it must be remembered that it was Turkey to put a ban on headscarves for women in public sector jobs. The Turkish ban could not be lifted despite the fact that wives of both the president and the prime minister wear headscarves.