Hello World! Lifting the Veil…

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Lifting the Veil – Canada, France and India

Indian Muslims truly deserve appreciation for showing a tendency to move with the needs of democracy and for interpreting Islam in consonance with the needs of the times. The positive response of the Muslim population of India to the recent ruling by the Supreme Court regarding the veil is one more example of this. Muslims everywhere in the world are not so understanding and accommodative of democratic norms.

Of late, the veil has taken the centrestage of controversy in many countries. In 2007, the polling officials in Quebec in Canada (see report) wanted the veiled Muslim women to remove their face-veil before casting their vote. This demand was legitimate, since veil made it difficult to identify the woman who went to vote. This resulted in strong protests from the Muslim groups, who threatened violence against the polling officials. It generated a debate that went to absurd levels, in which it was even argued that a child in veil should be allowed to play soccer! So strong was the protest of the Muslims who were not willing to accommodate the democratic process that finally the Quebec Premier had to take back his move to support this decision of women removing their face-veil during voting. The Muslims of Quebec were simply not willing to understand that the democratic process requires the society to make certain kinds of reforms in their traditional systems. There is no point in having democracy in the first place if one is not willing to move away from the traditional practices which are not democratic in nature. In a sense, it was a failure of the Quebec democracy in conceding ground to a practice such as veiling in the polling process.

Recently, France has generated a storm by considering the option of making the legislation against Burqa in public places. The detractors of this proposal have argued that this is a political gimmick to win the right-wing votes. On the other hand, the counter-argument has asserted that the immigrant population should adjust itself to the host culture in public places. They have the right to practice their traditional culture only as long as it doesn’t disturb the basic democratic fabric of the host society. There is also an unfounded Islamophobia prevailing over the Western world which has brought forward this proposal. Again in France, there have been large-scale protests from the Muslims – which interestingly, include educated Muslim women’s groups, who advocate the practice of Burqa (see report).

Now the Supreme Court of India has ruled that Muslim women must remove their veil while voting and they have to get themselves photographed without a veil for getting a voters’ ID-Card. They need not vote if they do not want to remove their veil while voting (see report). This is a legitimate ruling since it has been passed in the light of the identification of the person required during voting. The intention is not to prohibit these women from practicing veiling. It is interesting to note that this plea was lodged not by a Muslim woman but by Ajmal Khan, a man from Madurai in Tamil Nadu. It shows how much a veil can be a tool in the hands of men rather than a privilege of women.

The most important part here is the response of Indian Muslims who, in contrast to the violent actions shown by Muslims in other countries, have supported the ruling by the Supreme Court. Amongst the prominent Muslim men who have issued a statement of support to the verdict are Kamal Faruqui, Chairman of the Delhi Minority Commission, who said that if they can get themselves photographed while going for Haj, they can do so even for voting, Islamic religious scholars like Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi, who said veiling the face is unislamic and academician Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer (see his biography), who said the veil is a mediaeval practice which is reflective of feudal and patriarchal mindset and has no place in the modern democratic society. They have urged the Muslim population of India not to oppose the Supreme Court’s verdict. It is certainly commendable that the prominent Muslims have upheld this verdict and have urged the Muslim community not to go against it since it hinders the democratic process.

Perhaps the democratic governments and the Muslims of other countries can take notes from the judiciary and the Muslims of India.

As an Indian I am comfortable seeing Muslim women in Burqa and this has never been an issue for me. I believe that the women should wear what they feel like wearing, without any compulsion of any kind from anyone. Thus, I am neither against the Burqa nor against any revealing modern dresses. However, I feel there does seem some validity in the argument that tradition should not encroach upon the democratic fabric of a society. If we practise this mindless support to tradition in India, then there is no need to argue for abolishing of caste and social equality. There is no need to argue against dowry. These will have to be allowed in the name of the right to traditional practice. Hence, it is important to see how far tradition has to be allowed and at what stage it begins to interfere with the democratic process, where democracy must precede over tradition. I am not arguing that Muslim women should not wear the Burqa, but I do feel that during events such as polling, academic sessions and official meetings a Burqa is out of place.

16 Responses to “Hello World! Lifting the Veil…”
  1. Sundaram says:

    The last time we had heard something similar to this debate was on Muslims and contraception – with the puzzled innocent, secular citizen wondering why don’t ‘they’ understand the simple necessity of living in a modern, rational and democratic society?

    And lest we forget, that family-planning move was thrust by Sanjay Gandhi and his ilk. Emergency was in fact characterized by many such modern things force-fed.

    The liberal people – along with Kamal Farooqi, Engineer Saab – are posed with this question and obviously they have to say yes to this rational demand.

    And here is how the hegemony is created – not only win the debate, but also in how to frame the debate.

    This question of whether Muslim women should come out of veil takes several a’ priori assumptions – that all muslim women across regional-cultural and economic boundaries wear veil, they are deprived of opportunity to vote with veil being the primary cause, that non-muslim women in feudal surroundings do come and vote.

    I would say not only the answer, but also the question here tends to reinforce the stereotypes. And also its timing – why there were no such debates when modern citizenship was actually coming into existence – in immediate post-independent India or in early modern Europe? Why only when the entire farcical ‘clash of civilisation’ paradigm reigns?

    If asked in yes or no, sure people like me will say yes, lift the veil and vote. but will also add that it’s almost like asking other such questions – should muslims clap when pakistan wins cricket? Meaning whether you answer in yes or no, you help them in making sure that the debate remains around Islam and muslims…and not empire. This is what called agenda-setting.

    And it is here that hegemony wins and leaves us only with yes/no answers.

  2. Mahmood says:

    I agree with maulana Thanvi cited above and am completely against the veiling of face by Muslim women under the false impression that this is required by Islam. In fact, it is against Islam to cover the face. I am citing some examples below from the early history of Islam –

    1) This is a Hadith from Bukhari, the most frequently Hadith Book – Once Asma bint Abu Bakr visited Aisha (PBUH) wearing transparent clothes. The Prophet (PBUH) saw her and said that when a woman reaches adulthood, no part of her should be seen except face and palms.

    2) There is this famous verse in the Holy Quran, which has been partially quoted by many, which says to “Believing men and women” to lower their gaze. The important part here is that not only the women but also the men are asked to lower their gaze and be modest in their dress and behaviour. Men do not follow this injunction because they are misusing their superior position in society to bypass the injunction on them to be modest with women.

    Another aspect of this is that the actual effect of this verse can take place only if the face of the woman is uncovered. If her face is covered, why should the men lower their gaze? This means that the Quranic verse expects the women to keep their face uncovered and therefore, expects the men to lower their gaze. But men do not want to follow the injunction of this verse, hence they have misused their authority to force the women to cover their face.

    3) The Prophet (PBUH) established a relationship of brotherhood between Abu Darda and Salman Farsi when he with his Companions (PBUT) migrated from Mecca to Medina. Once Farsi went to Abu Darda’s house and saw his wife Umm Darda in worn out clothes. Her husband was not at home. He asked her why she was wearing such clothes. She said her husband was always engaged in spiritual pursuits, so they didn’t have money to afford proper clothes. This verse shows that not only could a man go to another man’s house when the owner was not at home, but he could converse with his wife and obviously, he saw her without full veil to be able to aske her such questions. This was not prohibited in the Prophet’s (PBUH) time.

    The above is a Hadith from Bukhari. Muhammad al-Gazzali of Egypt has used this Hadith to justify his stand that face should not be covered in islam.

    4) Tarikh-al-Tabari narrates an incident that Khalifa Umar (PBUH) once went to the market disguised as an ordinary person and saw a woman selling milk. She wanted to mix water into the milk, but her daughter said to her this was not the right thing to do. Khalifa Umar (PBUH) asked the woman to visit the Khalipha’s court the next day. When she went there, he instituted some monetary allowance for her maintenance and offered to marry her daughter because he had liked her honesty. The women in the early period of Islam could sit in the market to do business without a male protector, they could talk to stranger men and they were not expected to veil their face and stay indoors all the times as the advocates of Burqa propound nowadays.

    5) Some people came to Khalifa Umar’s wife (PBUT) and said to her that the Khalifa (PBUH) didn’t want her to go to the mosque to pray. She asked why he didn’t say it himself. They said this was because the Prophet (PBUH) had commanded his followers not to stop the women from going to the mosque to pray. She replied that if the Prophet (PBUH) himself had given this command, then there was no need for her to stop going to the mosque by listening to the Khalifa. This is a Hadith, which shows that women were forbidden to be secluded by the Prophet (PBUH) and could even defy their powerful husband and go out to the mosque. The restriction symbolised by the face-veil did not exist then.

    Those who think that they are doing a service to the minorities in India by supporting the culture of veiling the face are mistaken and they should not indulge in this kind of dangerous politics.

  3. oby says:

    First I would like to congratulate India on having far more guts than Canada on this topic. As a Westerner I am deeply vexed by Canada’s decision to back down from requiring women to lift the face veil for identification in such situations as voting. I do not feel that women should have any special dispensations due to a religious requirement which isn’t one at all. If a person wants to vote they need to prove who they are. One person-one vote. That is the way it works. What is to prevent someone from making several votes while wearing the covering? Not that they would do that but everyone else who would like to vote must be identified and counted and I don’t feel that if you chose to wear an article of clothing that obstructs your face you should have the right to vote unless you are willing to comply with the rules. Who makes the rules anyway? And if we have them why are we bending them for those that just don’t want to follow them? It is an act of cowardice to, in effect say, well the rules don’t count for all. If the veiled ones don’t have to follow it why should anyone else? If not having a man see their face is so important then why can’t a woman check their ID against their face and then allow them to vote? If it is to prevent the ladies from being seen by unrelated men then this job can be done by a woman…

    In this way I think India is far ahead of the rest of the Muslim crowd as they understand it is not that their rights are being trampled on, as it is only being required of them in very specific circumstances. In fact, perhaps I am conjuring up conspiracy theories, but I almost have to wonder if the women refuse it to see just how far they can push the Western tolerance and are making a statement…not about privacy and rights or religion but about defiance and forcing their Islam down the West’s throats under the pretense of religious sensitivity and freedom.

  4. sunil balani says:

    ” tradition should not encroach upon the democratic fabric of a society”

    I think the line says it so nicely. It is naive and immature to bring the religious ethos into each and everything. Times change and people must change according to time at least in social context they should, their personal life though is their own prerogative….

  5. Hilal Ahmad says:

    Dear Archana,
    You have given a very good insight on the issue mr mahmood has given a very authentic referances. I personally feel that there is nothing wrong in lifting veil to get yourself identified to vote or for any other rule. Here the question is not whether to veil or not to veil, this is very personal and no one has right to impose on any one whether one should veil or reveal. The Islam is very clear on it that one should not reveal unnecessry or wear any seductive out fit.

  6. John Burgess says:

    Sundaram: You seem troubled that the state has hegemony. Who, then, should have it? After all, that’s the purpose of state: to have one, central authority that issues rules and laws by which all citizens are bound. If the citizenry doesn’t like the laws, then in a democracy they can change them rather easily–though not to everyone else’s satisfaction. In non-democracies, it’s often harder.

    States with constitutions must keep their laws within the terms of that constitution. Courts will overrule legislatures or executives if they exceed those bounds.

    States, though, have a very real need for identification, if only to tell who’s a citizen and who is not. Today’s security situation sets a stronger need to have positive ID. That is part of the ‘contract’ that people give their government, delegating power to the government in order that they be protected against certain harms.

    I think that if we look at the history of veiling, around the world, we see that it’s as much of a cultural artifact as food preferences are.

    Among the Tuareg of N. Africa (Muslim, btw), it’s the men who veil, not the women. All along the Mediterranean Sea, women of all religions had a tendency to veil or cover their faces in the presence of strange men. Christians in Spain, Italy, Greece; Jews in Turkey. Christianity and Judaism both require ‘modesty in dress’ but neither specifically requires veiling.

    Lest one think that the issue of state violations of the concept of modesty pertain only to Muslims, here’s an interesting case that involves a Jewish woman in the US who, for religious reasons, didn’t want to uncover her hair for a prison photo. Her religion required her to keep her hair covered; the state required that she be photographed without head covering. The state won. Do read the link, though, as it also cites another case in which a Rastafarian challenged the state on its requiring him to cut his hair before a photo. The state lost that one.

    So too, in the US, UK, and I believe Canada, Sikh men have won the right to retain their beards, to wear turbans, and in some cases, to carry their kirpans.

  7. manchitra says:

    That was a nice write up Archana.
    I feel one can always follow a tradition in own’s country. But when we are in foreign land I think one has to follow the rules and similarly for identification purposes too one must be flexible

  8. Chitra Nayak says:

    That was a nice write up I too agree with you that tradition and customs should not hamper the identification purposes.

  9. Archana says:

    Thanks to all of you for your comments, coming from different perspectives.

    In fact veiling has never been uniform across different cultures. Please see this interesting post – http://clouddragon.wordpress.com/2009/02/05/women-dress-and-undress-and-religions/

    Even within India, Muslim women in different parts of the country follow different practices. In the eastern India, they do not wear any kind of veil at all. In southern states like Tamil Nadu, they wrap themselves in an embroidered chadar. On the other hand, Burqa worn in north-western India and Deccan has different fashions – sometimes it covers the face and sometimes it does not cover the face at all. And then of course, there are the educated, modern women from all over India who do not follow this practice in any way.

    Some of them are pride of the nation such as Sania Mirza.

    Hence, this entire issue of women having the right to cover their face during voting is absurd. Besides, we must keep in mind John’s example of Muslim men from Tuareg in North Africa who practice veiling rather than women.

  10. Archana says:

    Hi Sundaram,
    Thanks for your very theoretical comment. However, I do not agree with you as I feel there are problems with your postulations.

    First, neither the court’s verdict, nor the Muslim scholars’ stand cited above follows the “a priori” assumptions that you have mentioned – I don’t think that there is any presumption in this that all Muslim women wear the veil, nor does it presume anything about non-Muslim women, nor is the parallel with Indian Muslims clapping for Pakistan cricket team an apt parallel since that’s not a legal issue tied with any process such as voting or official identification. By the way, I am not a Muslim and I always clap for Pakistan cricket team if they play well. I clap for any cricket team that plays well for that matter. I had backed Australia against India in the World Cup in which India was defeated by Australia.

    Why was this never a debate before in India? In fact it is still not a debate even today. This was a case filed by one single misguided person. It’s not as if large groups of Muslims are protesting against this as it has happened in Canada or in France. The purpose of this post was to show how these countries handle this issue in different ways because of their different social environments. As far as the majority of Indian population – Muslim or non-Muslim is concerned, it’s not an issue even today.

    Yes, it is true that the media has created a hype about it because this is a big issue in the West. That’s because the media has to sell news, a tendency that has to do more with the profit-making venture of the media as an industry than with the “Empire and hegemony.”

    By insisting that this is a case of some kind of hegemony being created over the Muslims of India by the State, one forgets that the Muslim population itself is supporting the Court verdict and imagines the Muslim people in a particular image – as a group of people who want to remain in their archaic social set up, who don’t want to follow modern lifestyle and who don’t want to believe in the democratic norms. The truth is that the Indian Muslims very much believe in democracy, they want to follow a modern life and they don’t necessarily subscribe to the image created by these theories. By imagining the Muslims in this theoretical model, we don’t do any service to them as Mahmood said above.

    I think it’s high time we move away from these theoretical models which no longer explain or do any service to the society.

  11. Archana says:

    Thanks for that very interesting comment. I went through your links about the inmates in the US being photographed for identification and their religious beliefs.

    I used to joke about men veiling rather than the women since it is asserted that women’s attractiveness makes men stray. I didn’t know that there are actually such Muslim men in this world, who veil!

    You are right that States must keep their laws within the boundaries of their constitutions, otherwise judiciary will have to over rule the legislature and the executive. This has been the case in India more than once, when the Supreme Court has had to become the vanguard of democracy and do the job of the legislature and the executive. Fortunately we have such a judiciary so far, rather than one that gets carried away into grating “rights” that negate the entire meaning of democracy. And thankfully, majority of the Indian population is still sane enough to follow the judiciary.

  12. lynn says:

    very interesting article

  13. Suyash says:

    यहाँ अच्छी बहस हो रही है।

    धर्म ने इनसान की क्या हालत बना दी है! लोग बुर्के में फ़ोटो कैसे खिंचवा सकते हैं!? अब यह कोई रॉकेट विज्ञान तो है नहीं। अगर इतनी छोटी-सी बात लोगों की समझ में नहीं आ रही है तो मामला कुछ गड़बड़ है।

    जो लोग समाज में ‘जिसकी लाठी उसकी भैंस’ के सिद्धांत को समाज में अच्छी तरह से लागू करना चाहते हैं वे दो जून की रोटी के लिए हड्डी-तोड़ मेहनत कर रही जनता के हाथों में ऐसे मुद्दे शताब्दियों से थमाते आए हैं। अर्चना जी, आपकी बात सही है कि भारत में रहने वाले मुसलिमों ने इन मुद्दों को ज़रूरत से अधिक महत्व नहीं देकर अपनी समझदारी का परिचय दिया है।

    सऊदी अरब में कठमुल्लों की बात नहीं मानने के लिए कोड़े खाने वाली औरत और भारत में दहेज के लिए जला दी जाने वाली औरत के बीच केवल धर्म का अंतर है। सच्चाई तो यह है कि हर धर्म में औरतों के शोषण की पूरी व्यवस्था की गई है और हज़ारों सालों से शोषित औरत कभी-कभी इस व्यवस्था को ही जीवन का सच मानकर अपनी ज़िदगी गुज़ार देती हैं।

  14. Archana says:

    Hi Suyash,
    Thanks for your very insightful comment that every religion has a discriminatory outlook towards women, whether it is Islam or Hinduism and whether it manifests in Saudi Arabia or in India. You are also right that those who want to establish the rule of might and divert people’s attention away from real issues such as poverty and unemployment, give undue importance to such meaningless issues and Indian Muslims have shown their wisdom by not giving much importance to this issue.

    As you say, this is not rocket science and it’s not possible for women to get themselves photographed in a burqa.

    Thanks, Lynn, Chitra and Manchitra.

  15. Aafke says:

    Very good article, and the comments are very interesting as well.

    France passed a resolution prohibiting faceveils in certain public places,only. Like government institutions and security sensitive places where nobody is allowed to hide their face. After all: your face is your identity. These places hahve allready a ban on being ”masked” in my country.

    Neiither was it a play by the rightwing parties: it was a referendum to which almost the whole of the French citizens approved, regardless of political affiliation.

    And why is so much fuss made about what women wear? Culturally and historically such restrictive dresscodes to any part of a population are always related to suppression. No matter what religious sugercoating you like to give it.
    Uniformity of dress forced onto groups is always a means of obliterating individuality. These practises are very much against the modern ideals in developed democratic countries.

    France, and Germany and the Netherlands are countries with their own valuable culture and practices. To resist suppression and the obliteration of individuality is a very important part of these cultures and I think they have been far too weak in defending these attainments. I think it’s high time the western democracies stand up for their achievements which were not come by easily.

    India seems a very relaxed country, where everybody (or almost everybody) seems to have their heads screwed on right!

  16. Archana says:

    Hi Aafke,
    Thanks for your very insightful comment and also for the information that almost everyone in France supported the resolution.

    You are very right that practices such as veiling and uniform dress code for a group are against the notions of individuality and modern democracy. In traditional societies, community matters more than the individual, but when these groups go to live in individual-oriented modern democracies, they should not impose their restrictive practices on the host country.

    Thanks for appreciating the Indian people, though we too have our share of orthodox people in all religions – and India does have all the religions of the world! But yes, there is also a large number of people who have their head screwed right as you say! 🙂

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