Monday, November 28th, 2022 10:01:08

Behind Burqa

Updated: May 1, 2010 1:42 pm

The anti-burqa furore sweeping France, Belgium and other parts of Europe has imparted to it the makings of a so-called civilizational clash. Last summer French President Nicolas Sarkozy called the full veil “a sign of subservience and debasement ” rendering women into faceless creatures. He called it “an affront” to “our (secular) values” and contrary to “our idea of the dignity of the woman”.

            Back in 2004 his predecessor President Jacques Chirac had sought legislation to ban all conspicuous religious signs like Islamic head scarves, Jewish skull caps and extra large Christian crosses worn by students in state schools and other public institutions. This year a cross-party committee of French parliamentarians called the burqa “a veritable challenge” to the republic. Its recommendations bar burqa-wearing women from using public services like buses, hospitals and schools, but short of a total ban on wearing burqa in public. One MP, though, unsuccessfully called for the imposition of a 750-euro (about $800) fine on anybody wearing a full veil anywhere outside home or private dwelling.

            And all this furore over just about 2,000 burqa-wearing women in a Muslim population of about five million in all of France? No, for the French it is a matter of secular principles and constitution which must not be allowed to be diluted. It also means no grant of French citizenship to anybody wearing a veil, according to an incoming new decree. In neighbouring Switzerland, people recently voted in a referendum to ban any more tall minarets for mosques.

            But in much of Asia there is no such furore. Indian secularism, for instance, accommodates all symbols and practices without imposing restrictions on any one. It is inclusive rather than exclusive, within limits. The Indian Supreme Court, for instance, recently agreed with the Election Commission’s rejection of a full burqa-wearing woman’s right to vote without allowing her photograph to be taken for identification purposes. No photo identity, no vote, said the Election Commission and without passing any final judgement, the Supreme Court upheld the Election Commission’s view that the purdah or veil was a mere custom and that it could not be considered an integral or essential part of Islam.

            The burqa in its varying length and body cover has long been a part of the Muslim cultural and social scene in parts of the Indian sub-continent, Arabia and elsewhere. I saw it as a child in pre-Partition Muslim-majority Punjab as I see it now in Pakistan’s Punjab, parts of India, Afro-Asia and even Europe. It was the head-to-toe wear or gear of a microscopic minority among Muslim women. For the majority of women everywhere it was and is not feasible to wear it as it interferes with working life at home or outside. In fact, it was—and is more in prominence on special occasions like shopping trips, visits to festivals and mosques where maulvis (priests) demanding strict observance of rituals.

            Very largely the pattern remains so even today but with an important difference. It is in much greater spotlight today than ever before thanks to the resurgence of puritanism in the name of Islam and in reaction to the creeping Islamophobia in the West. Islamophobia itself gained currency

as a reaction to the 9/11 attack on New York, the heart and symbol not just of the USA but of the entire Western world. The 9/11 attack by al-Qaeda followers who were spawned as a disparate force to eject the Soviet forces and their protégés from Afghanistan, were themselves encouraged and armed by the US in alliance with General Zia-ul-Haq’s Pakistani regime. Al-Qaeda has, of course, an even earlier origin as a reaction to the spread of American influence and dominance in oil-rich Arab power centres. Nevertheless 9/11 became a defining moment for anti-American forces, including elements like Taliban, in the name of Islam.

            Like it or not , al-Qaeda-Taliban ideology or view of an anti-American Islam has made substantial impact on a minority of Muslims right across the Islamic world. And this view is not just anti-American, it is anti-West not merely in political or economic terms but in cultural, behavioural and dress code, mores. And burqa, like beards for men, has become the badge of an assertive identity among a determined minority of Muslim women. It has become a declaration of defiance and rejection of all things Western and the West’s criticism of Islamic imagery and symbolism.

           HIJAB STORY

cover_story-pic_aSome governments encourage and even oblige women to wear the hijab, whilst others have banned it in at least some public settings.

            Some Muslims believe hijab covering for women should be compulsory as part of sharia, i.e. Muslim law. Wearing of the hijab was enforced by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and is enforced in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Taliban’s Islamic Emirate required women to cover not only their head but their face as well, because “the face of a woman is a source of corruption” for men not related to them. While some women wholeheartedly embrace the rules, others protest by observing the rules in slipshod or inconsistent fashion, or flouting them whenever possible. Sudan’s criminal code allows the flogging or fining of anyone who “violates public morality or wears indecent clothing”, albeit without defining “indecent clothing”.

            Turkey, Tunisia, and Tajikistan are Muslim-majority countries where the law prohibits the wearing of hijab in government buildings, schools, and universities. In Tunisia, women were banned from wearing hijab in state offices in 1981 and in the 1980s and 1990s more restrictions were put in place. The Turkish government recently attempted to lift a ban on Muslim headscarves at universities, but were overturned by the country’s Constitutional Court.

            On March 15, 2004, France passed a law banning “symbols or clothes through which students conspicuously display their religious affiliation” in public primary schools, middle schools, and secondary schools. In the Belgian city of Maaseik, Niqāb has been banned. (2006) [edit] Non-governmental enforcement of hijab is found in many parts of the Muslim world.

            Successful informal coercion of women by sectors of society to wear hijab has been reported in Gaza where Mujama’ al-Islami, the predecessor of Hamas, reportedly used “a mixture of consent and coercion” to “`restore` hijab” on urban educated women in Gaza in the late 1970s and 1980s.

            Similar behaviour was displayed by Hamas itself during the first intifada in Palestine. Though a relatively small movement at this time, Hamas exploited the political vacuum left by perceived failures in strategy by the Palestinian factions to call for a ‘return’ to Islam as a path to success, a campaign that focussed on the role of women. Hamas campaigned for the wearing of the hijab alongside other measures, including insisting women to stay at home, segregation from men and the promoting of polygamy. In the course of this campaign women who chose not to wear the hijab were verbally and physically harassed, including stonings, with the result that the hijab was being worn “just to avoid problems on the streets”.

            In France, according to journalist Jane Kramer, veiling among school girls became increasingly common following the 9/11 attack of 2001, due to coercion by fathers and uncles and brothers and even their male classmates” of the school girls. “Girls who did not conform were excoriated, or chased, or beaten by fanatical young men meting out Islamic justice. According to the American magazine The Weekly Standard, a survey conducted in France in May 2003 reportedly “found that 77 per cent of girls wearing the hijab said they did so because of physical threats from Islamist groups”.

            In India a 2001 acid attack on four young Muslim women in Srinagar by an unknown terrorist outfit, was followed by swift compliance by women of all ages on the issue of wearing the chadar (head-dress) in public”. In Basra Iraq, “more than 100 women who didn’t adhere to strict Islamic dress code” were killed between the summer of 2007 and spring of 2008 by Islamist militias (primarily the Mahdi Army) who controlled the police there, according to the CBS news programme 60 Minutes. Islamists in other countries have been accused of attacking or threatening to attack the faces of women in an effort to intimidate them from wearing of makeup or allegedly immodest dress.

 By Uday India Bureau

But is this symbolism and imagery of Talibanised-al-Qaeda Islam, which has no room for girls education or jobs and participation of women outside the four walls of kitchen and home, an essential part of Islam? Or is it a mere accretion over periods of history? Is it part of the Quran as revealed to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) or Hadith (traditions) and Sunna (practices) flowing from the Quranic surahs (chapters) and ayats (verses)? Or is it part of Fiqah, the prescriptions based on the interpretations of latter day qazis (priestly judges) and ulemas (scholars)?

            Eminent scholars from Egypt to India find no mention of face-covering burqa in the Quran. Nor has anybody claimed it to be part of Hadith. As Syeda Saiyidain Hameed, member of India’s Planning Commission, points out in her article in a newspaper: “ In the Quran there are three references to dress code and none of them refers to the naqab, or veil.” Quoting surah and verse, she points to the 24th surah Al Nur (The Light) which reminds both men and women equally to dress modestly: “Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and be modest (ayat 30). Tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest (ayat 32).”




“Why do Muslim women have to cover their heads?” This question is one that is asked by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. For many women it is the truest test of being a Muslim.

            The answer to the question is very simple. Muslim women observe Hijab (covering the head and the body) because Allah has told them to do so.

            “O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters and the believing women to draw their outer garments around them (when they go out or are among men). That is better in order that they may be known (to be Muslims) and not annoyed…” (Quran 33:59)

            Other secondary reasons include the requirement for modesty in both men and women. Both will then be evaluated for intelligence and skills instead of looks and sexuality. An Iranian school girl is quoted as saying, “We want to stop men from treating us like sex objects, as they have always done. We want them to ignore our appearance and to be attentive to our personalities and mind. We want them to take us seriously and treat us as equals and not just chase us around for our bodies and physical looks.”

            A Muslim woman who covers her head is making a statement about her identity. Anyone who sees her will know that she is a Muslim and has a good moral character. Many Muslim women who cover are filled with dignity and self-esteem; they are pleased to be identified as a Muslim woman. As a chaste, modest, pure woman, she does not want her sexuality to enter into interactions with men in the smallest degree. A woman who covers herself is concealing her sexuality but allowing her femininity to be brought out.

            The question of hijab for Muslim women has been a controversy for centuries and will probably continue for many more. Some learned people do not consider the subject open to discussion and consider that covering the face is required, while a majority are of the opinion that it is not required. A middle-line position is taken by some who claim that the instructions are vague and open to individual discretion depending on the situation. The wives of the Prophet were required to cover their faces so that men would not think of them in sexual terms since they were the “Mothers of the Believers”, but this requirement was not extended to other women.

            The word hijab comes from the Arabic word hijab meaning to hide from view or conceal. In the present time, the context of hijab is the modest covering of a Muslim woman. The question now is: What is the extent of the covering?

            The Quran says: “Say to the

believing man 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.

            “And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; and that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what must ordinarily appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands…” (Quran 24:30-31)

            These verses from the Quran contain two main injunctions: (1) A woman should not show her beauty or adornments except what appears by uncontrolled factors such as the wind blowing her clothes, and (2) the head covers should be drawn so as to cover the hair, the neck and the bosom.

            Islam has no fixed standard as to the style of dress or type of clothing that Muslims must wear. However, some requirements must be met. The first of these requirements is the parts of the body which must be covered.

            Islam has two sources for guidance and rulings: first, the Quran, the revealed word of Allah, and secondly, the Hadith or the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad who was chosen by Allah to be the role model for mankind. The following is a tradition of the Prophet:

            “Ayesha reported that Asmaa the daughter of Abu Bakr came to the Messenger of Allah while wearing thin clothing. He approached her and said: ‘O Asmaa! When a girl reaches the menstrual age, it is not proper that anything should remain exposed except this and this. He pointed to the face and hands.” (Abu Dawood)

            The second requirement is looseness. The clothing must be loose enough so as not to describe the shape of the woman’s body. One desirable way to hide the shape of the body is to wear a cloak over other clothes. However, if the clothing is loose enough, an outer garment is not necessary.

            Thickness is the third requirement. The clothing must be thick enough so as not to show the colour of the skin it covers or the shape of the body. The Prophet Muhammad stated that in later generations of his ummah there would be “women who would be dressed but naked and on top of their heads (what looks like) camel humps. Curse them for they are truly cursed.” (Muslim)

            Another requirement is an over-all dignified appearance. The clothing should not attract men’s attention to the woman. It should not be shiny and flashy so that everyone notices the dress and the woman.

In addition there are other requirements:

  1. Women must not dress so as to appear as men. “Ibn Abbas narrated: ‘The Prophet cursed the men who appear like women and the women who appear like men.'” (Bukhari)
  2. Women should not dress in a way similar to the unbelievers.
  3. The clothing should be modest, not excessively fancy and also not excessively ragged to gain others admiration or sympathy.

            Often forgotten is the fact that modern Western dress is a new invention. Looking at the clothing of women as recently as seventy years ago, we see clothing similar to hijab. These active and hard-working women of the West were not inhibited by their clothing which consisted of long, full dresses and various types of head covering. Muslim women who wear hijab do not find it impractical or interfering with their activities in all levels and walks of life.

            Hijab is not merely a covering dress but more importantly, it is behaviour, manners, speech and appearance in public. Dress is only one facet of the total being.

            The basic requirement of the Muslim woman’s dress apply to the Muslim man’s clothing with the difference being mainly in degree. Modesty requires that the area between the navel and the knee be covered in front of all people except the wife. The clothing of men should not be like the dress of women, nor should it be tight or provocative. A Muslim should dress to show his identity as a Muslim. Men are not allowed to wear gold or silk. However, both are allowed for women.

            For both men and women, clothing requirements are not meant to be a restriction but rather a way in which society will function in a proper, Islamic manner.

(The Institute of Islamic Information and Education, Chicago )



A recent protest by thousands of Muslims in Shimoga and Hassan (Karnataka) resulted in the death of two people, and the injury of another 50. Scores of cars were damaged and many stores were set on fire. The violence broke out when a local daily, the Kannada Prabha, published an article attributed to dissident Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen in which she says that Muhammad was opposed to veil. We reprint here an article by Asghar Ali Engineer, head of the Mumbai-based Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, titled “Muslim Women and Change”.

Most people think Muslim women are oppressed, forced to wear the veil and confined to the four walls of their houses. This is mainly because every day they read in newspapers that the Taliban force women to wear the veil and burn down schools for girls. They see women always wrapped in black garments from head to toe. The controversy over the burqa in France has reinforced this image of Muslim women.

            This image would be justified if all Muslim women adhered to this strict dress code, which evolved in the Middle Ages, and which some Muslim theologians keep on justifying even today. However, there is a big difference between what is argued on theological grounds and what is grounded in reality. I could be wrong, but I dare say that Muslim women have been defying theological codes for more than a century now. Now a century later, they have gone even further in their public achievements.

            Whilst it is true that even today, some Muslim theologians are arguing over whether women are naqisul aql (intellectually inferior) or not, the reality is that many Muslim women have gone further than many Muslim men in a number of fields. In Saudi Arabia, where women are not even permitted to drive cars, a woman has become a licensed pilot and has been flying planes.

            Now, we get news from Malaysia that Farah al-Habshi, an engineer by profession, has become deputy weapons and electrical officer on the KD Perak, a Malaysian naval warship. Today she is wearing the white and blue uniform of the Royal Malaysian Navy; interestingly, she is also wearing a hijab to cover her head, though not her face. She feels her hijab in no way comes in the way of performing her duties.

            Malaysia is an Islamic country and orthodox ulama exercise a great deal of control over people’s lives. Recently, even the Government of Malaysia has had to back down when the ulama took a stand against Christians using the word Allah in their religious literature or press. In this country, Muslim women also face other problems at the hands of conservative ulama with respect to family laws for example. However, this is in the same country in which a woman was commissioned as a naval officer on combat duty. Even in India, women have not won the right to be on combat duty in the Navy, or fly fighter planes, or serve in combat units. They are not even allowed to be on warships, whereas Ms Farah al-Habshi has recently participated in the MILAN naval exercise along with other women.

            Ms Farah is highly articulate and answered all the questions put to her by journalists. Her example is not unique; there are several more. Many Muslim women have excelled even in the field of theology, quite independently of traditional theologians. They have shown courage to challenge orthodox ulama.

            One example is Amina Wudud, who teaches Islamic Studies in Washington, United States. She believes that women can lead mixed congregations in prayer. A few years ago, she actually led a Friday prayer and delivered the khutba (sermon) before a group of about 100 people, men and women, something quite unthinkable in the traditional Muslim world. It raised a storm of protests and even Yusuf Qardawi, an otherwise moderate theologian from Qatar, wrote an article, opposing a woman leading a mixed congregational prayer.

            After a great struggle, some Kuwaiti women were elected to the Kuwaiti parliament, eventually fighting for the right to sit in the house without having to wear the hijab. They took their case to the Supreme Court of Kuwait and won. Many more examples can be cited of Muslim women daring authorities for their rights.

            However, the media, which is interested in sensationalising issues, has refused to highlight the achievements of Muslim women. They continue to portray them as submissive to traditional authorities, meekly accepting their situation. This image of Muslim women has to change; reality, which is much more complex, has to be understood.

            This is not to deny that Muslim women face difficult problems in many countries. Their liberation is not a foregone conclusion. However, it is also true that many of them are fighting and refusing to submit meekly. What gives us hope is their continued struggle and defiance of traditional authorities.

            It should also be mentioned that many ulama and jurists also have realised that medieval Shari’ah formulations about women cannot be easily enforced anymore. Some of them, like Muhammad Abduh of Egypt, Maulavi Mumtaz Ali Khan of India and Maulana Umar Ahmed Usmani of Pakistan, have expressed serious reservations about traditional theological formulations on women.

            The determined struggle by Muslim women will force many more theologians to revise their position and use the Qur’an, not medieval theology, as the basis for the views on women’s issues.

By Mary C Ali

Most importantly it does not find any direct mention, except by way of references to preserving one’s modesty, as an edict of the Prophet. How could it be? How could the Prophet, who married a businesswoman, Khadijah, his first wife, have even thought of face covering burqa as a woman’s dress? Clearly she could not have carried on

a successful business, as she did, by hiding behind a veil, certainly not a face covering veil, naqab or hijab. By all accounts, she was an eminently successful merchant who struck deals with other traders, hired assistants like the Prophet himself, after discussing the finer details of purchase, transport, marketing and sale of her merchandise. If the Prophet’s wife herself wore no burqa, how could it become part of essential Islam as the Taliban and al-Qaeda ideologues arrogate to themselves in the name of Allah, Islam and the Ummah or the global Islamic nation?

            The face-covering veil is certainly an accretion of later ages, scores if not hundreds of years after the Prophet’s times. Coming to our modern times, year after year we see the solemn spectacle of thousands of women performing the annual Haj pilgrimage in Mecca without any veil covering their face. Saudi Arabia’s opening of the co-educational institute, The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, last September was rightly hailed as a step reaffirming the same principle. Mullahs from Saudi Arabia to India who issued fatwas against the university and the king were roundly condemned by a wide cross section of people in the Islamic world.

            The notion of burqa, naqab or hijab, especially the face-covering veil, belongs to pure fiction authored by self-appointed protectors of modesty and opportunist rulers who had nothing better to show for their credentials than raising the cry of Islam in decline and danger—much like the doings of late lamented General Zia-ul-Haq of Pakistan and his Taliban inheritors. Yet the small minority and it is a microscopic minority—who still want to wear the burqa as their badge of separatist identity—are free to do so as long as they don’t proclaim it in the name of Islam. The enlightened families throughout the Islamic world, as in Pakistan and India, don’t foist it on their sisters, daughters and wives. It’s time they openly came out against the mullahs and liberate the rest of their women folk from the seclusion and restrictions imposed by the false interpreters of Islam.

            Whatever the definition of modesty, the face-covering burqa has no sanction of the Quran. Nor can it be honestly invoked in the name of the Prophet and Allah.

            Subhash Chopra is the author of the recently published Partition, Jihad & Peace. His last book, India and Britannia An Abiding Affair, was published in 2003.

By Subhash Chopra

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