Equality or Oppression ?

It is said that we live in a multicultural, globalized and free world. States and people are regarded to be free in spirit and essence. Then how does one justify the recent ban on the full veils and headscarves worn by Muslim women as a part of their attire. The French Government passed a legislation in March, 2004 banning conspicuous religious symbols in schools and the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in French public. And recently a ban has been issued on the wearing of full veils by Muslim women in public transport and other places. The French authorities justify their action on the basis of the French law on security and the constitutional  requirement of laïcité, that is, the separation of state and religious activities

The French President had remarked in this context that “burqas are not welcome in France.” Along with France, Tunisia and Turkey are other countries which banned the hijab in 1981 and 1997 respectively…

Hence, Muslim  women in France and in the other two countries do not have the freedom even to dress as they choose. Hijab or niqab as the headscarves in Islam are traditionally known have different cultural connotations for Muslims in different countries.  In Islam, the hijab, is not a religious symbol analogous to a yarmulke or the cross. Rather, for many Muslim women, it completes an overall commitment to modest dress as mandated, according to some, by religious texts. The vast majority of the Muslim women who cover their hair do so out of a strong personal conviction and not to make a political statement.

For them, the hijab thus becomes a part of their identity and their being.

We  need to note that hijab is not mandatory in Islam. It depends on the individual choice of a woman whether she prefers to cover or not cover her face and her hair. As such no individual, organization or even the government and the state can give diktats to them asking them to do either way.    Nor should they view the headscarf worn voluntarily as a threat to political or other institutions.

Issuing a diktat to not wear a headscarf or a burqa in simple words is – the state commanding  its citizens to adhere to a particular dress code. But we in the contemporary times live in a free world where states have the responsibility to let the citizens live as they please, exercising only negative rights from time to time. We as individuals have rights, like, the right to life of dignity and well being, the right to freedom, the right to freedom of religion and other cultural rights. And according to these rights we are endowed to live our life as free citizens; practising the religion we choose to and dressing up the way we want to. Thus consequently, the state cannot and should not interfere in these areas and allow the individual to live their life according to their own principles.

If analysed, the matter of the hijab or niqab is entirely a matter of perspective. A section of people oppose it because they say that it oppresses women. But from the perspective of Islam a veil or a burqa liberates the women as it prevents the opposite sex from treating them as an object, more precisely a sexual object. A burqa is intended to be loose so that it does not reveal a woman’s figure and in that way it is supposed to help the women safeguard their integrity, by preventing themselves from becoming the prey of someone’s lust.

However again, wearing or not wearing a veil is absolutely a matter of individual choice. No authority or organization has the power to impose dictatorial dress code principles on any section of people whatsoever.

I am a Muslim woman and I choose not to wear a hijab and no Government can force me to wear one. Similarly if another Muslim woman does choose to wear a burqa or a hijab then no Government or organization can or should force her to do otherwise.

The ban on hijab has a similar effect on Muslims as it will have if the Sikh people are forbidden from growing their hair and wearing a turban. We as members of an educated and cosmopolitan society need to realize that a religious dress or symbol is more of a personal nature than political or otherwise. It is a part of the culture of the respective people. Like the hijab there are other religious symbols belonging to other religious communities. For instance, the carrying of the kirpan by the Sikhs, the wearing of the cross by Christians etc. But we need to acknowledge these symbols and respect them. All people have the right to practice their religion as they choose to, whether explicitly or implicitly.

The French government had justified its ban on the basis of the principles of secularism. However that fact of the matter is, if France is a secular state in the truest sense of the term then, it should allow all people the freedom of religion and instead not oppose it.

The French authorities claim they want to establish equality through this step of theirs. But the issue is, whether this is equality at all? Instead, rather this measure is an oppression, as it is coercing group of people unduly against their will, to do against their culture and traditional norms. Equality prevails when all people are treated equally, not when one section of people is discriminated against.

We as members of the global community need to adopt a multicultural approach to all people and religions as well as communities. That is, we need to respect and acknowledge all religions and all cultures, though they may be distinct or even contradictory to one another sometimes. The ban on hijab has been widely opposed by many including non Muslims on various grounds, the most important among them being on the ground of human rights and racism. In fact, the ban does exhibit racism in clear terms as it targets people of one race and culture.

We as a world community need to go ahead on the road to unity and mutual peaceful existence. But it seems that we are moving backwards. As mentioned, some people say that they want to liberate Muslim women from this handicap of hijab. Well, if it is so there are other areas where Muslim women need to be truly liberated as in terms of education, employment, and rights including maternity and reproductive rights. These are the actual areas where handicaps of Muslim women need to be removed and they need to be liberated. If the government can do something in these areas it will only be a welcome move and not otherwise. And as far as dress issues are concerned, well it is high time the women made the decision for themselves.

 

SABRINA IQBAL SIRCAR
Research Scholar
Dept of Political Science
Gauhati University.
 
E-mail   – iqbal.sabrina@gmail.com
Phone    – 98645-11433
 

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