July 2009 
Year 15    No.142
Cover Story

Nothing but tradition 

Not love of god nor free choice


My earliest memories of the burkha are indeed as ancient as me myself! In my native place, all the women in the family wore the burkha, the black all-covering garment under which if they wore nothing else no one would ever know!

My late father left his home town in search of a better future and landed up in what was then Bombay almost immediately after he received his engineering degree. His job took him to some of the most beautiful hill spots in Maharashtra. All the employees of the company posted in a particular place lived with their families in the company’s residential colonies built near the worksites. That was an eye-opening experience for my mother who still has vivid memories of how difficult it was for her in the beginning to do away with the burkha.

I recount this to emphasise a reality that has been significantly overlooked in the debate on the burkha/hijab: the burkha in most cases is a "family tradition" that inadvertently became a habit as it was passed down through generations. Hence it must be clearly noted that there is no love of god or making a choice involved in this.

I have heard since childhood that Islam is more about intent – to become a good, god-fearing human being – rather than the peripheral rituals that change from place to place and culture to culture. When, for instance, one is praying to god almighty, it is actually the connection with the supreme creator that is at the centre of it all. The way one prays is perhaps of lesser consequence but a certain method and manner have evolved over the years for the sake of uniformity and possibly even for the health benefits to be reaped from the exercise.

After the presidents of France and the USA gave their verdict on the burkha, and even before that, various interpretations of the Koran have been doing the rounds, each one claiming to be authentic and well researched. So we now hear that the burkha was meant as a respectful covering only for the prophet’s wives. The others were supposed to be modest (and decent) in dress and bearing. But this divine message of modesty was applicable to both men and women.

Much to my amusement, I find men very vehement in their fight for female "modesty and rights" in choosing to wear the burkha. But sadly, their voices seem to choke when it comes to family planning, triple talaq, a widow’s right to the guardianship of her minor children and other such matters.

Yes, indeed women must have the right to choose, as some benevolent men are suggesting in the context of the hijab or burkha. President Sarkozy’s diktat is being equated to the Talibanisation of cultures that has taken place in some parts of Asia in the recent past. President Obama has chosen a middle ground on the issue, saying the United States does not dictate what people should wear. (Well, the US has other, more barbaric things to do – but that is another story!)

The question is: are these gentlemen – Sarkozy and Obama, and all those who comprise the Taliban – religious or even humane representatives of the oppressed people, in this case, the "religiously imprisoned women"? I think it would be worthwhile to note that they are all politically motivated power-hungry people. Just as the Taliban cannot be deemed to be friends of Islam for what they are doing, Sarkozy cannot be pronounced an enemy of Islam. They know, as indeed we all do, that it is essentially none of their business whether a woman wears a burkha or shuns it.

Also, like it or not, and forgive my bluntness here, the fact is that the burkha has of late become more of a fashion statement for the dollar-and-dinar-rich, kitty-party kinds who can spend a fortune on clothes and accessories (remember, wasteful and extravagant expenditure is prohibited in Islam), the burkha being a recent addition as a "religious" adjunct.

At the heart of my debate is the basic right of a woman to choose, to be able to use her intelligence, as my mother did: when she had the opportunity to choose, she stopped wearing the burkha. I think most genuinely liberated women would do the same if their minds were not stuffed with the fear of "Allah’s wrath" falling upon them and the fires of hell burning the "exposed" portions of their bodies.

I wonder why we do not hear any such diktat in the context of men.

(Zohra Javed, who lives in Navi Mumbai, strongly believes that there is no religion other than insaniyat – humanity.)


Pak judge bans veiled lawyers in courtrooms

A senior judge in Pakistan has ordered women lawyers not to wear veils in courtrooms, the newspaper Daily Times reported.

"You are professionals and should be dressed as required of lawyers," Chief Justice Tariq Parvez Khan of the Peshawar High Court told veiled lawyer, Raees Anjum, ordering the ban on veils.

"We (the judges) cannot identify veiled women lawyers and suspect that veiled lawyers appear to seek adjournment of proceedings in other lawyers’ cases," said the chief justice, who added that he could barely hear the pleas by the lawyer, Anjum, made from behind her veil.

She later told the newspaper, "I was embarrassed when the chief justice asked me not to wear the veil in the courtroom. I feel more confident in my hijab."

Anjum described herself as "a progressive Muslim woman... living and working in this conservative society". "Hijab reflects a woman’s modesty," she added.

Anjum said several female judges in the conservative North-West Frontier Province, where the Peshawar High Court administers justice, hold court in the veil. And women legislators of the Islamic alliance that rules the province wear the veil without exception, she pointed out. She told the Daily Times that the judiciary in the province held differing views on the issue.

November 4, 2006

Courtesy: Indo-Asian News Service; www.thestatesman.net


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