Mathrubhumi : ARTICLES Published: MONDAY, DECEMBER 15, 2014
Face Veil; a Human Right?
M N Karassery
December 10 was World Human Rights Day. Against this backdrop, it needs to be discussed as to how far violative or liberative is the face-covering veil worn by Muslim women.
A veil that covers a woman's face and her eyes is more than just a religious issue. When an individual's rights are violated it directly affects Human Rights of our society. Is the face veil, the 'Burkha' a violation of rights? If so, what are the rights that are being violated? Women wear a face veil by choice. That is their democratic right. True. So is the right to criticize. The right to criticize is equally democratic too! Further, one may wonder why criticize, after all it is out of their free choice!
What we understand as a woman's free will is in fact a socially mediated choice. The freedom of choice is exercised within the confines of the social pressure. The 'opinion' here stems out, not from informed choice but from the clouded understanding and lack of consciousness that develops through the socializing these women undergo.
For example, Sati was a mandatory ritual among several sections of the Hindu society. Sati required a widow to jump onto the pyre of her husband. This was banned in 1829 even though it happens in remote locations. Three decades ago when public opinion built up against this heinous practise, hundreds of Rajput women protested in Delhi demanding their right to observe Sati! What these women do not realize is that they are not speaking this out of their free will. This is a socially induced will that is thrust upon them. This induced will is our problem here. That is what we are criticizing. This criticism is aimed at freeing women who are the victims. Victims denied the freedom of uninfluenced, individual free will.
Look at the new forms this freedom denial is taking now. Dr. Fazal Gafoor, president of the Muslim Education Society, has been a relentless critique of the face-covering veils worn by Muslim women. As if the antics from the Muslim clergy and communal organizations are not enough, we have the State Minorities Commission pitching in with a brand new strategy. The chairman of the commission has served Dr Gafoor a notice asking him to explain why action should not be taken against him for making incendiary comments about 'the centuries old dressing styles of Muslim women which could incite widespread protests among Muslims thus violating their minorities rights'.
Even more alarming is the fact that this senseless notice has been served from an office functioning on the taxpayer's money under a democratic government. By virtue of being the Chairman of the commission, Adv. Veerankutty stands answerable to the public for these developments.
1. Dr. Fazal Gafoor has merely expressed his opinion. He hasn't done anything that should be considered objectionable. How can the commission question the freedom of expression that is equally endowed on all? 2 Dr. Gafoor's position is not an isolated one. There is a section among the Muslims who think like Dr Gafoor. While the commission will have to explain why it took sides with some sections, it will also have to explain the rationale behind the apparent indifference towards the minority's rights of Muslims who share Dr. Gafoor's opinion. 3 Dr. Gafoor has raised criticisms against the practice of women covering their faces not about their dressing style. The practice of women covering their faces does not have a history of centuries but of merely twenty years. The current position of the commission can thus be nothing but an exercise to please the orthodox Muslim Clergy. 4 The position chosen by the Commission smacks of sexism. The commission seems to have failed to see the rights of women in the minority community. The commission has with this notice declared that it speaks the language of some men in the Muslim community. This is a violation of the constitutional guarantee of gender justice and equality.
The same commission had turned a blind eye to the objectionable circular issued by the Principal Secretary of the Local Self Governance Department sanctioning the marriage of a sixteen year old (April 6, 2013) violating the law prohibiting child marriage in our country since 1978. Several Muslim organizations came together in Kozhikode on September 21, 2013 to form the Muslim Personal Law Protection Council to protest against the existing legal minimum age for marriage citing religious reasons. The commission that chose to ignore such regressive moves is whipping up legal notices to preserve the rights to wear the face veil!
The chairman of the commission, Adv. Veerankutty should resign taking responsibility for the violation of the constitutional spirit of freedom of expression and gender parity. Else the government should remove him from office. If there is at least a single legislator who does not shiver at the thought of vote banks, this issue should be raised in the state assembly. The Social Justice Ministry under Dr. M K Muneer will have to make his position clear regarding the commission's stand that women's rights are not part of minorities' rights. The chief minister is equally answerable to the citizens of Kerala who are concerned about the changing role of the Minorities Commission that seems to be resisting social reforms and encouraging religious fundamentalism.
DOES MUSLIM WOMEN NOT HAVE THE DEMOCRATIC RIGHT TO MAKE THEIR DRESSING CHOICES? Of course they do!
A woman's clothes have to be her own choice. That's democracy. The problem is whose choice is exercised here? Whether the consent to the religiously dictated clothing and the choice to follow or reject the diktats is manufactured or out of a woman's free and conscious will. There are no objections against the 'thattam' or (Dhuppatta worn as head scarf), the 'Hijab' or the 'Niquab'. The objections are raised only against the face covering veil or the 'burkha'. The Muslim religious learning centres till date taught its women to cover their entire body except the forearms and face. That has been a part of our local culture for years too. Unlike this, face veil is not a religious symbol and has a very recent history. Thus one can say that this has been imported by the fundamentalists to accentuate religious bigotry.
The face covering 'Burkha' or the 'Purdhah' as we call it, is a social measure to keep women inside the four walls of domesticity. Women deserve no public life; they should step out all covered in an air-tight, heat absorbing, black, flowing garment! Imagine the plight of these women on a street or inside an office or a bus! They find it difficult to eat or drink in a public place with the black wrap of religion on their faces. How can a veiled face participate in the political, educational, sports or art arenas of our society? These are subtle, covert means of confining women into domesticity , of declining her face and her identity in the public space.
The fast spreading veil culture poses problems not just for the Muslim women but also the general public. For example, 1.How do you recognize a Burkha-clad woman's face when she comes for voting? 2 How will one do a photo verification on a veiled woman for a passport? 3.On what identification basis will a bank allow them to open an account? 4 How far useful will an identity card be for a Burkha-clad woman. Will she be able to identify herself to a TTE for a train berth? 5 How can she walk into an interview cabin without showing her face for identification?
These are just a few examples of how women will be denied participation in public scene if she is veiled and kept under the wrap of religion. Imagine the consequences if a law enforcer demands a woman to raise her veil! The face veil, despite the religious sanction it has received now, could turn out to be a great aid to anti-socials. The chances of this clothing being used as a veil for smuggling, drug trade and prostitution cannot be ruled out. This will create serious security and law and order problems.
The veil is not an issue to be discussed and decided inside the confines of a religion or community. It has to be approached as a human rights issue. The earlier the fundamentalists and the general public recognize the grave nature of this seemingly harmless piece of cloth, so much the better.
After all, a human face is the reflection of her personality.