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Home / Opinion / Views /  There exists a way to lift the hijab over divisive politics

The hijab row in India has placed in stark focus divisive politics over a mere piece of clothing. It is ironic that a moral brigade which had equated atrocities against women with allegedly inadequate attire has protested a garment that does the opposite.

The world’s most fundamentalist Islamic country, Saudi Arabia, had made a categorical statement prior to reforms undertaken there: “Sharia laws stipulate that women wear decent, respectful clothing like men. This does not particularly specify a black abaya or a black head cover. The decision is entirely left to them." Symbolically, this was seen as a harbinger of progress in a society that had lost it in the 12th century CE. More freedom for women is on Riyadh’s policy agenda.

Till the end of the 11th century, Islamic societies had been citadels of progress, home to some of the world’s most valuable intellectual explorations and scientific discoveries. More than two-thirds of the sky’s stars have Arabic names. Algebra, algorithms, azimuth, nadir, alchemy, alcohol, elixir and other words in common use trace their origin to breakthroughs in that period. It all changedafter an influential Muslim theologian, Hamid al-Ghazali, proclaimed all science as evil, ended a rationalist era of advancement, and progress in the Islamic world froze.

Islam came to India around 620 CE, during the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad (570-632 CE), with the arrival of Malik Deenar, one of the first known Muslims to visit South Asia to spread the faith. The Chera Dynasty allowed him to build India’s first mosque in 629 CE at Kodungallur, Kerala. Interactions with Arabs occasioned by the spice trade across high seas led many in the state to embrace Islam.

As a tradition across India, women have long covered their heads while entering temples and gurdwaras as a mark of respect to divinity. In north India, heads are often kept covered in front of elders. Hindu and Christian wedding rituals require brides to cover their heads. So how would a Muslim woman covering her head become an offence instead of a mark of respect? Is it because of its Arabic name, hijab? Or is politics at play here?

Till about the late 1970s, Muslim women in India rarely wore an abaya (burkha or purdah as it is alternatively called), apart from a few elderly ladies who had gone for the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, perhaps mistaking the Saudi traditional attire as Islamic. But in recent years, the burkha trend has picked up dramatically, what with so many Muslims working in Gulf countries and adopting the traditional attire of those countries. This is no different from the influence of Western fashion on the choices of Indian women. What women wear, we mostly agree, should be left to their sartorial preferences; but not if it is Islamic-sounding, right?

Some argue that the hijab is different as it has a religious dimension, a garment said to be ordained by faith. But is there evidence that piety among Muslim women has risen, or they have started sporting holier-than-thou attitudes? Islamic clerics, no doubt, have taken the row as an opportunity to preach how the abaya and hijab are Islamic practices, and some people do see attire as a way to display their faith. Yet, Islam has no compulsions on either purdah or Prada, as long as the attire covers a woman ‘appropriately’ and not provocatively.

The Qur’an does not specify anywhere what women should wear or not wear. It only states that women should draw down their shawls over them (33:59). The Arabic word used here is the plural of “jilbaab", which means a long shawl that covers a woman. Essentially, it means a woman shall cover herself so that her body is not on display to strangers.

Now, before feminists say such advice is discriminatory, the Qur’an advises “hijab" for men before its advice to women: Believing-men should lower their gaze and be modest in front of women who are strangers.

Ideas of modesty and appropriateness are relative and vary from one culture to the next. For instance, in a nudist colony, modesty may be a bikini, and in a highly orthodox society, it would be the other extreme.

Our research finds that one of the major reasons for Islamophobia is a lack of understanding on Islam. This is partly the doing of Muslims themselves. Yet, in essence, all religions have the same value system. The pandemic has shown that no one has a problem wearing a face-mask. So why should a veil cause so much anguish? Politicians, of course, have their own reasons to make issues out of things they see as attention and vote getters.

While one’s dress is a personal choice, which should be respected, Muslim women could literally help lift the veil over Islam and the moral police by shedding the Arab culture of hijab, and embracing local-wear such as the salwar-kameez-dupatta. This would reduce a gaping division between them and others and also stop the political exploitation of issues best kept in the private domain.

One of the most used words in the Qur’an is “think" and this can only be practised when people get better educated in science, math, literature and the like. Many Muslims misconstrued one verse in the Qur’an that asks them to distinguish themselves from the rest. Those who think would recognize that the Qur’an asks for differentiation in the form of good deeds and not by symbolic gestures like one’s appearance or manner of dressing.

There will probably never be a call to ban the dupatta, which serves the same modesty function as the hijab. If the controversy lasts, Shakespeare would be turning in his grave.

M. Muneer is the co-founder and chief evangelist at the non-profit think tank Medici Institute. Follow him on Twitter @MuneerMuh

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