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The 'burqa' controversy - to cover or not to cover
Nov 3, 2006, 19:00 GMT

New Delhi, Nov 3 (IANS) Muslim clerics may have been harsh on Bollywood actress and social activist Shabana Azmi for her remark that the Quran does not ask women to cover their faces, but most intellectuals back Azmi's argument and say insistence on the 'burqa' (veil) is a wrong interpretation of the holy book.

Muslim academicians and intellectuals say the Quran has not asked women to cover their faces and the practice of women wearing 'burqa' or 'hijab' was a later-day decision of the clergy. Interestingly, they point out there is a dress code for men too - which no one talks about.

'Wearing a burqa or covering the head or face is an issue that is best left to the individual,' says Mohsina Kidwai, a Congress party leader.

'The Quran gives certain advices to women to dress up modestly and with simplicity,' Kidwai points out.

The Quran instructs Muslim men and women to dress up modestly, without exposure of intimate body parts: 'Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them: And Allah is well acquainted with all that they do' [24:30]'.

For the women it says: 'Say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms ... ' [24:31].

A few clergymen have reacted sharply to Azmi's remarks saying she should confine herself to the 'entertainment business'.

The Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid, Syed Ahmed Bukhari, pointed out that the holy book has clear instructions for Muslim women to wear a veil.

But Haris Beeran, a lawyer at the Supreme Court, says the 'veil' is subject to interpretation. 'The Quran advises women to cover their body except face and palms to be modest. One can interpret the veil in different ways. A full-sleeve salwar kameez with a dupatta to cover the head is absolutely ok.'

'It is an extremist interpretation that women should cover their face in Islam,' Beeran says.

According to Beeran, the holy book has been subjected to many interpretations. 'As it is written in Arabic, even the Arabs find it difficult to explain. It depends on which school of thought you follow.'

This could be the reason why many Muslim countries do not ask women to wear a 'burqa'. Islamic countries like Turkey have even banned the burqa.

Eram S. Rao, a food scientist and a reader at Bhaskaracharya College of Applied Sciences, agrees with Beeran. 'The word 'burqa' has not been mentioned in the Quran. The word there is 'hijab'. The Quran asks men too to dress in a particular way. But no one insists on them following the dress code!'

Pointing out that Islam is a progressive religion Rao says the instruction to dress up modestly has been misinterpreted by many.

'I feel the burqa system in India may have been influenced by the local customs and traditions. The women in Rajasthan, for instance, have been using a veil to cover their faces.'

Rao says the Quran just asks women to dress up modestly. 'The Quran wants women to ensure that their dress code does not invite the male gaze.'

'Such practices have a direct link with the literacy rate. No truly cosmopolitan woman would wear a burqa. Also, it does not mean that a woman in a burqa is more pious than others,' she argues.

Qasim Rasool Illyas of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board says there is no controversy at all over the burqa.

Illyas quotes verses 33:59: ''O Prophet! Tell thy wives and thy daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks close around them .. Allah is ever forgiving, merciful.''

'Some clerics interpret it as covering the entire body including the face. Some say it does not include the face. In many countries, including Iran and Pakistan, there are women who follow both schools of thought. Nobody criticises the other,' Illyas told IANS.

'If Azmi is of the view that there is no need to cover the face, it's all right. It is not a controversy at all,' he added.



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