During 2022, two protests-Pro-Hijab in Karnataka, India and Anti-Hijab in Iran – have made headlines. What do the protests portend? Are reforms within Islam empowering women possible? Do the fundamentalists and communalists within feel threatened by the surge of protests in Iran?
Let me, at the outset, briefly outline my latest observations of the “Hijab” issue while transiting through Dubai, UAE, on 3 October 2022. Common was the waiting area for Gates 31 (Hyderabad) and 32 (Lahore). Lahore Gate opened 10 minutes prior to the Hyderabad Gate. There were approximately 1000 passengers.
In the common waiting area, my wife was sitting next to a lady wearing a typical Punjabi dress – Salwar and Kameez (but no Dupatta). I was sitting in the opposite row with others. On the announcement of Lahore Gate opening, the majority of passengers sitting around me moved towards the Lahore Gate. Hardly, I noticed a single lady with either “Hijab or Burqa”. Only at the far end of the Lahore Gate, I saw three old ladies with covered heads (Not exactly like the Hijab) passing through the Lahore Gate. By contrast, there were a number of Muslim ladies/women fully covered with “Hijab/Burqa” in the Hyderabad flight.
Furthermore, hardly one can see any of the staff members in Dubai Airport or flight attendants on the Emirates Flights wearing “Hijab/Burqa”. When I carried out a review of Pak TV Channels coverage, hardly one noticed the Muslim women wearing Hijab/Burqa. Also, in the capitals of many Muslim countries like Cairo, Damascus and others, women can be seen moving as per their dress choice.
Only in Afghanistan, the Taliban has reversed the “Women’s status” as dredges of household and denied the girls opportunities for studies – back to 7th-century status and patriarchal autocracy.
Technology Age! Mankind is experiencing sweeping changes, particularly in cerebral powers. Cultures – mores of lifestyles – are rapidly altering. Dress designers are innovating different fashion styles for both men and women. What is branded wear this season becomes outdated for the next season and disposed of “on sale” next season. Such is the rapid pace of change sweeping mankind in the cultural domain.
Viewed in the dynamic flux, the Anti-Hijab and Pro Hijab protests can be termed as the clash of civilisations – cultures. The High Priests of the Supreme Court Constitution Bench may like to review the case based on dynamic developments in all fields.
My earnest appeal to the Chief Justice of India and his colleagues is to visit Lahore, Karachi, Dubai, Qatar, Cairo, Damascus and other capitals of Islamic states to ascertain the dress modes of women in their backyards prior to adjudicating the issue over allowing Hijab in the Schools.
Let me highlight the dress in vogue for Muslim women and their changes for the benefit of all alike both for the high priests of the judiciary and others: Hijab; Burqa; Niqāb; Chadors and Shaylas.
Let me recount that Muhammad is the last, perfect and final messenger of god. After the death of Muhammad in 632 AD, the revelations were brought out in text form as the “Quran”. Muslim scholars insist on preaching the Quran as was revealed to Muhammad in Arabic. Today, there are well over 1 billion Muslims who are unable to read or understand the Quran. So they have to blindly follow and obey what is told to them by mullahs (clerics). And, the Sharia (Islamic law) is based on the Hadith. The Hadith is the codification of all Islamic thinking and practice covering worship, prayer, social practice, military, politics and economics.
The Holy Quran does not mandate wearing of Hijab or headgear for Muslim women. Whatever is stated in the above Sūras, which is only a directory. Because of the absence of a prescription of penalty or penance for not wearing the Hijab, the linguistic structure of verses supports this view. As per Muslim scholars, the Holy Quran only states that “Women must cover themselves from the head to the feet”. Therefore, understanding the Hijab vs Burqa, as well as a few other variations of the Hijab, is important. While there are several variations of Muslim coverings, we’ll explore the most common ones here: Hijab, Niqāb, and Burqa.
Hijab refers to the head covering worn by Muslim women to cover their hair and preserve modesty. Though the traditional Hijab simply covered the hair and neck without much further regard, modern Muslim women have transformed Hijab into an art. There are so many fabrics, patterns, and styles to match any aesthetic.
Next, Niqāb is generally considered the “next step” above Hijab. In addition to covering the hair and neck, Niqāb also covers a woman’s face while sparing her eyes. Most Niqāb are black in colour, but variations can be seen depending on the setting and/or event. Niqāb is generally paired with abaya, a long robe that works to cover a woman’s body without bringing attention to shape.
There are two cultural variations of Niqāb: full Niqāb and half Niqāb. Full Niqāb refers to the complete covering of the face and hair, with only the eyes visible. A half Niqāb still covers most of the face, but spares the eyes as well as most of the forehead and sometimes the bridge of the nose.
Finally, the Burqa, which is the most conservative of Muslims, refers to the complete coverage of the face with fabric that usually drapes the entire body. In order to see, there is a mesh or grille that lies on top of the eyes.
So, Indian Muslim school-going protestors must rethink on what they desire – Pro Hijab or Niqāb or Burqa? The Judges of the Constitution Bench may note that the school-going protestors were wearing Burqa.
Viewed holistically, the clash is between “REGRESSIVE” vs “PROGRESSIVE” forces with various other shades in between. OR, fundamentalists/communalists representing status quo ante to the 7th century suited for nomadic tribes of the desert on one side and reformists of the technology age in pursuit of freedom to choose what they want appropriate to modern trends.
Despite the ongoing cacophony in the Indian visual media by a cabal of spokespersons speaking in high decibel volumes over the “SPLIT” judgment delivered by the two-judge Supreme Court bench, they provide differing perspectives.
As one spokesperson highlighted that the Key Issue to address is exercising the right of Muslim girls to “Wear Hijab in the School”. Let me recount the outbreak of Pro-Hijab protests in the state of Karnataka in January 2022 to allow the Muslim school-going children to exercise the right to choose a Hijab whilst attending school, but contained.
However, on the larger plane, massive anti-Hijab protests in Iran following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in Iran’s morality police custody on 16 Sept 2022 have almost snowballed into a national uprising, but yet to surge towards revolution to achieve its ends. As per media reports, protests are continuing with a large number of protestors killed and injured – nearly 200 killed, over 2500 injured, and unspecified numbers arrested. For Iran’s current regime, protests are a regular feature on various issues that have been suppressed with brutal force.
At the same time, there is an outpouring of sympathy for the protestors on the global plane, with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch activists voicing concern at the atrocities committed by the autocratic Iran regime and expressing support for the protestors. Iranian-German model/actress of “Sacred Games’ fame, Elnaaz Norouzi stripped from “Burqa To Bikini “and even losing the Bra, supporting Anti-Hijab Protest.
Let me recall the Hijab issue in Iran. In 1963, Reza Shah banned the veil and encouraged Iranians to adopt European dress in an effort to promote nation-building in a country with many tribal, regional, religious, and class-based variations in clothing.
For all those anti-Hijab protestors and their global supporters and sympathisers, the key issues to address are simple: Women’s Human Rights” and gender equality.
The late Asma Jahangir, a former UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, had stated that the “use of coercive methods and sanctions applied to individuals who do not wish to wear religious dress or a specific symbol seen as sanctioned by religion” and indicates “legislative and administrative actions which typically are incompatible with international human rights laws”.
Human Rights Watch opposes both policies of forced veiling, and blanket bans on the wearing of religious dress as disproportionate and discriminatory interference with basic rights.
Let me highlight the point raised by one of the spokespersons in the debate about “Digambara, (Sanskrit: “Sky-clad,” i.e., naked), one of the two principal sects of the Indian religion Jainism, whose male ascetics shun all property and wear no clothes. Should they exercise their right to comply with their customary practice sanctified by religion and appear before the “High Priests of the Constitution Bench” as spectators, would they be allowed?
Exercising the “Right to Choose Dress” as a fundamental right under the Constitution under Article 14 – Equality Before Law – cannot be overplayed beyond a point. My question to the “High Priests of Judiciary” is simple. Why continue the British Dress Code for the Courts? Allow every Lawyer to appear before the Judges in whatever appropriate “Indian Attire” “Dresses” they choose.
On 22 September, 1921, M K Gandhi, Barrister-at-Law, changed his attire to dhoti and shawl – half-naked Fakir in Tamil Nadu. Gandhi had stated that “I wear the national dress because it is the most natural and the most becoming for an Indian. I believe that our copying of the European dress is a sign of our degradation, humiliation and our weakness; and that we are committing a national sin in discarding a dress which is best suited to the Indian climate and which, for its simplicity, art and cheapness, is not to be beaten on the face of the earth and which answers hygienic requirements.”
M K Gandhi even refused to compromise his attire for King George V at Buckingham Palace: “In any other dress I should be most discourteous to him because I should be artificial.” High Priests of Judiciary may also please note M K Gandhi’s views on the subject.
That brings me to the issue of continuing the colonial inherited “Dress Code” for the Judges and the legal community even after 75 years of gaining Independence? It clearly reflects the continuing slavish mentality.
In retrospect, even the Judiciary can ill afford to allow free for all dresses in the courts. After all, the decorum, dignity and discipline of the courts must be upheld. Enforcing discipline is an imperative. So, never too late for the Judiciary also to take a call on redesigning suitable dresses for “Indian Climatic conditions” to be enforced in the Courts. Discipline and Equality on the basis of uniformity must be the criteria.
After all, even the Judiciary is not infallible. They, too are susceptible to human failings due to emotions and sentiments. Few of them in the past have allegedly succumbed to the lure of post-retirement rehabilitation and favoured ruling party needs. The Constitution Bench must rise above all prejudices and biases and deliver their verdict, keeping in view the changes seeping mankind.
If the Judiciary favours the pro-Hijab ruling, its fallout will naturally lead to similar demands from all others. Instead of promoting cultural identity, unity, homogeneity and harmony, it would only further enlarge the chasm between religious and racial communities. For example, Pinarayi Vijayan, CM of Kerala, Stalin, CM of Tamil Nadu and even political leaders of Karnataka and Telangana would demand that the “Dhoti” and Turbans (resembling Dr Radhakrishnan Turban) that are their traditional attire be adopted as the attire for all occasions.
To sum up, may appeal to Indian Muslim brothers and sisters is simple. Understand the need for change from the patriarchal system. Avoid regression to 7 Century AD social customs and culture like the Taliban in Afghanistan. Abandon Hijab, Burqa and Niqāb. Ensure “Gender Equality” in all fields. Don’t persist with using women as “domestic drudges”.
Viewed holistically from all dimensions, it is high time that India sheds its colonial inherited customs and practices. High time to identify and formulate “Decolonisation Strategy”, not just the educational institutions and armed forces in a myopic/jaundiced manner, but in a calibrated manner across the full spectrum to create, promote, consolidate and advance unity and integration of diverse society.