by Zubeida Mustafa
IT is a debate that is unending and can go on ad infinitum. The object of this global controversy is the contentious hijab that has had as many supporters as detractors. The arguments draw references from religion, culture, social norms, human rights and, above all, feminism.
Last week, Canada’s largest circulated newspaper, had a catchy headline for its lead story: ‘Hijab or dejab?’ Women who defended the hijab asserted they were not coerced by their male relatives. To cover their hair was purely their own choice — an act of defiance, a political statement or a spiritual awakening.
Those who had let go of the hijab said they had felt suffocated by it. Others said after wearing it for some time they had found their identity being defined by the little piece of cloth and they found that unacceptable. Others found nothing to defy because no one ever looked at them “strangely” when they covered their head. One said her school friend had described it as an “interesting fashion”.
So why does the brouhaha go on? It is not clear what Tariq Ali, the author and activist, was referring to when he said at the annual Marxism festival in London, “I’ve spoken to many young women who wear the hijab and aren’t even religious — they do it because they’re told they can’t do it. In France particularly this is the case.”
To the best of my knowledge, no one has been stopped selectively from wearing a hijab in public places in any country — if we follow the finer definition of the term. The hijab, the most popularly worn by Muslims in the West, just covers the head and neck. Since 2004, French public schools have prohibited the use of all religious symbols — the hijab, the crucifix and the Jewish yarmulka — on their premises.
They militate against the constitutional secular traditions, the French claimed. What has, however, been the subject of a ban in France is the niqab that veils the entire face with a small area around the eyes left uncovered and the “most concealing” burka that “covers the entire face and body leaving a mesh screen to see through”.
The law that came into effect in April 2011 in France does not target the wearing of a headscarf, hijab or sunglasses “as long as the accessories do not prevent the person from being identified”, the French interior ministry said in a statement. It is the all-concealing head coverings, the niqab and the burka, that are the focus of the law.
Critics have interpreted the law as an expression of Islamophobia and are now waging a battle against it. Those so shrouded — and I had seen quite a few in the pre-ban years in France — have virtually disappeared from public view. There have been a few protests but they have not created more than a few ripples. I chanced to see one burka-clad woman being booked in a metro station in Lyon. Her face was fully concealed and obviously she could not be identified. She was probably testing the waters. The police requested her to step aside and she was probably fined.
What is intriguing about the spirited defence of this act of defiance is that this adolescent behaviour has no takers back home among those professing progressive views. Many of us hardly see it as a human rights issue.
For us, security is more vital and today an individual shrouded in a burka can be an unsettling sight even though women in all-concealing garbs have been a part of our cultural environment for ages. That tolerance has melted away ever since Maulana Abdul Aziz tried to escape disguised as a woman in a burka from the besieged Lal Masjid in 2007. Masked men committing crimes have also contributed to the fear of the burka.
Security concerns should require everyone to be identifiable. Of what use will the cameras installed on street corners be if all they can film — when they are working — are hooded women (presumably) in niqabs? If you can have laws prohibiting people from riding in vehicles with tinted glass, how can masked people not be considered a security risk?
For many years now, guidelines issued by Britain’s education department have not allowed women in burkas in educational institutions. Apart from security concerns, the court upheld a school’s argument that “the veil made communication between teachers and pupils difficult and thus hampered learning”. It was said that “teachers needed to be able to tell if a pupil was enthusiastic, paying attention or even distressed, but full-face veils prevented this”.
Nothing wrong with that if we really care for education. Some of our teachers have expressed similar views. In a lecture in Karachi a few years ago, Prof Pervez Hoodbhoy argued that he considers eye contact with his students essential for him to connect mentally with those he is teaching. Isa Daudpota, another well-respected teacher, says, “Good sense demands modesty from both sexes everywhere. Proper communication in society, and especially in an educational environment, requires that facial expressions are not hidden”.
Those arguing for the rights of Muslims will have to reconsider some of their strategies. The burka debate can be counterproductive. As for countering Islamophobia which is on the rise in some western societies and manifests itself in many undesirable ways, it is important that Muslims move out of their seclusion and try to intermingle with people of all races at a social level. Thus alone can barriers be pulled down.