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Veil (Hijab)  furor hides an arrogant bias



(aroon Siddiqui, the Star's editorial page editor emeritus, usually appears Thursday and Sunday.  He can be contacted by E-Mail at: )



Oct. 19, 2006. 01:00 AM



As in most discussions on Muslim religious and cultural practices, the arguments often turn to what the Islamic position might be on any given issue. This presumes that there is one definitive religious ruling for every issue. Obviously, there isn't.

The point is illustrated by the controversy over the niqab, the all-enveloping women's garment that covers the face as well.

Muslims have been arguing about it, and even about the hijab, the head scarf, for more than 1,400 years i.e., for as long as there has been Islam. They may continue unto eternity, as is their right.

The Qur'an does not instruct women to cover their faces. In fact, during the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, they are required to uncover their faces.

The scripture only urges modesty, for both men and women:

Say to the believing men that they cast down their looks and guard their private parts ...

And say to the believing women that they cast down their looks and guard their private parts and do not display their ornaments except what appears thereof, and let them wear their head-covering over their bosoms. 24:30-31.

Scholars are divided over what's meant by "ornaments," or "adornments," the other word used in translations. Is that a reference to a woman's natural beauty or to her jewellery or other fashion accoutrements? And what's the meaning of "what appears thereof"?

Nobody is sure. No one can ever be, as with all divine texts.

There's also a debate over another pertinent Qur'anic verse:

O Prophet! Say to your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers that they let down upon them their over-garments; this will be more proper, that they may be known, and thus will not be molested. 33:59.

One interpretation mostly by men, of course has been that women must cover themselves head to toe.

But even under such a reading, the results have varied from culture to culture the Taliban's all-enveloping burqa to the chador wrapped like a shawl over the body and the head, leaving the face exposed, as in Iran or parts of Pakistan.

Other relevant verses:

O wives of the Prophet! You are not like any other women ...

Stay in your houses and do not display your finery like in the time of ignorance (the pre-Islamic period). 33:32-33.

O you who believe! Do not enter the houses of the Prophet unless permission is given to you ... And when you ask of them (his wives) any goods, ask of them from behind a curtain; this is purer for your hearts and their hearts. 33:53.

The edicts are clearly addressed to the household of Muhammad, during whose lifetime many women outside his family did not wear the veil. Yet some theologians have held that the rule applies to all women, the argument being that emulating the Prophet's family can only be good.

Gender separation is sometimes cultural, depending on the region, where the practice may not be confined to Muslims.

In India, for example, many Hindu women have been segregated. As I approached adulthood, I was no longer allowed into the women's quarters of the houses of some of my Hindu friends. And when women of such households ventured out, they, too, were veiled or had the curtains of their cars or horse-drawn tongas drawn. The practice is petering out in today's India.

Elsewhere, sexual segregation is a function of middle-class values. Poor women, especially in the rural areas, have always gone out unveiled with their men to scratch out a livelihood. Even in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, the tribal or Bedouin women I've interviewed were not only not wrapped up but had no hesitation in conversing with a stranger once they, or the men of the family, had sized me up.

It is estimated that a majority of Muslim women do not wear the hijab, let alone the niqab, not just in the West but across the world.

This reality is at odds with the media's fixation with Muslim women in tent-like garments.

Not all those who reject the hijab are anti-religious. A handful are. The rest are not transgressing their faith.

Their action is not comparable to that of Catholic women who refuse to obey the dictates of the Vatican on contraception and abortion. Non-hijabi women are merely following liberal interpretations of the Qur'an.

None of the above, however, gives us licence to break the following principle: I cannot inflict my prejudice on those who voluntarily wear the hijab or the niqab.

And we as a democratic society cannot dictate to Muslims, or any other believers, which interpretation of their religion they ought to follow, so long as it does not conflict with the law. To think otherwise is to be presumptuous, arrogant and undemocratic.

More in my next column.


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