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Looking beyond the burqa

The heat and debate generated by the Sarkozy outburst against the burqa, which described it as a mobile prison and “a sign of subservience,” was on expected lines. But what surprised the neutral observer was the fact that the French President could hold such an extreme opinion about a dress code that only asserts the decency of a woman, writes A Faizur Rahman.

india Updated: Jul 04, 2009 02:37 IST
A. Faizur Rahman

The heat and debate generated by the Sarkozy outburst against the burqa, which described it as a mobile prison and “a sign of subservience,” was on expected lines. But what surprised the neutral observer was the fact that the French President, despite being a Roman Catholic, could hold such an extreme opinion about a dress code that only asserts the decency of a woman. “I am of Catholic culture, Catholic tradition, Catholic faith,” Sarkozy had said in his book, The Republic, Religions and Hope. Therefore, he should have known that the Church had always associated the veil with moral rectitude. No wonder all traditional depictions of Virgin Mary show her veiled. And according to Vatican protocol, queens or First Ladies who visit the Pope should dress in black and cover their heads with a veil. In April this year when Prince Charles took his wife Camilla to meet the Pope she was dressed in just that way. In any case it is demented logic to question the religious sanctity of a dress that covers the body while saying nothing about atavistic nudism. Hence, it may be easily concluded that Sarkozy’s crusade against the burqa is totally unwarranted and condemnable.

But the debate has raised the interesting question of whether or not a Muslim woman can be compelled under Islamic law to wear the burqa. A perusal of the Quran reveals that the word ‘burqa’ finds no mention in it. The terms used by the Quran are jilbaab, an outer wrapping garment which is to be worn around the body (33:59), and khimaar, a kind of head-covering which is to be extended to also cover the bosom (24:31). It may be noted here that jilbaab and khimaar denote just modest clothing and not a head-to-toe shroud with just a small opening for the eyes. Had this been the case the Quranic instruction to the Muslims (both men and women) to “lower their gaze” (24:30-31) would have made no sense.

The same can be said of the word hijaab which occurs eight times in the Quran (7:46, 17:45, 19:17, 33:53, 38:32, 41:5, 42:51 & 83:15) but interestingly, not once in the traditional meaning of ‘hijab’ as understood by the Muslims today. Hijaab in Quranic terminology actually refers to an imaginary or real barrier between people or things. For instance, verse 17:45 talks of a hidden barrier (hijaaban mastoora) between the non-believers and the Prophet, and verse 33:53 teaches social etiquette to the not-so-literate Arab guests of the Prophet by instructing them not to confront the women of his household directly for their requirements but to talk to them from behind a curtain (min waraayi hijaab) as a mark of respect. It therefore becomes clear that the expression of modesty need not always be in the form of an all- enfolding burqa because, as per such verses of the Quran, what is stipulated is a loose-fitting garment that hides the contours of the body.

Muslims therefore need not be so passionate about Sarkozy’s hypocritical comments on the burqa. A Muslim woman in France can still adhere to the Islamic dress code even if that country bans the burqa. There are millions of women, both Muslim and non-Muslim who do not wear the hijaab or the niqab and yet are modestly dressed. Justice Fathima Beevi, the former Governor of Tamil Nadu (who wears modest saris), is one such woman whose sense of dressing cannot be faulted from an Islamic point of view.

What the Muslim women really need to cudgel against is the gender bias prevalent in Muslim societies. They must realise that the Muslim patriarchy rallies around them when they demonstrate against issues such as the proposed ban on burqa (which could be easily circumvented), but the support of the clergy is conspicuously absent when it comes to pressing problems like instant triple talaq, hedonistic polygyny or child marriage.

Surprisingly, there are no protests in the Muslim world when a Saudi Court rules that the marriage of an 8-year innocent girl to a 47-year old man is valid, or when in India a woman is thrown out of her house by her husband just by pronouncing the word “talaq” thrice. One wonders how many Muslim women know that a former top Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Shaik Abdullah bin Baz,

re-introduced the banned muta marriage through the back door by legalizing through a fatwa, the ‘temporary marriage’ called Nikah Misyar (nikah bi niyathit talaq) which allowed men traveling abroad to “marry women with an intention to divorce them” just before returning home. Although many ulema condemned it, and it was pointed out to him that it amounted to deceit as the woman is not aware of her husband’s intention to divorce, Shaik bin

Baz justified Misyar by arguing that cheating a woman is a lesser sin when compared to adultery or fornication!

Not just that, Saudi Arabia officially employs moral police called the mutawwa (plural, mutawween) under the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice who enjoy sweeping powers to detain and even flog persons not attending prayers and women not wearing proper “hijab” or wearing excessive make-up. In 2002 when a girls’' school caught fire at Mecca, the mutawween closed the gates and prevented the girls from escaping just because they did not have their “hijab” on when they came running out! As a result 15 students were charred to death.

Oppressive Muslim societies do not seem to realise that the coercive imposition of their fanatic ideologies sullies the fair name Islam in the eyes of the world. And this is what needs to be challenged along with protesting against Islamophobes like Nicolas Sarkozy.

The question is: do Muslim women have the freedom and courage to take on medieval patriarchism?

(The author is a Chennai-based peace activist).