Beyond the veil: What’s the general pulse of the nation?

On Wednesday, Maharashtra’s Shiv Sena raised hell by declaring it was time for India to adopt a blanket ban on Muslim women covering their faces in public, saying “Ram’s Ayodhya” should follow “Ravana’s Lanka” in limiting headscarves. This move was with reference to the recent law enacted in the southern island nation following the devastating Easter bombings by Islamist groups.

Both the Sena and Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena have cited national security as a clause for this move.

Also read: Sri Lanka’s veil threat: Formal ban on covering faces in public enforced

In the controversial editorial published in its mouthpiece, Saamana, the Sena, which is in coalition with the BJP government in Maharashtra, urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to follow Sri Lanka’s suit in making the burqa illegal. It also said that the triple talaq ban, currently sub judice, is alone not enough—the burqa must be banned at public spaces to reduce security threats.

It also mentions New Zealand, France, Australia, and UK as examples to highlight the link between banning articles of clothing that cover the face in the wake of rising terror threats across the world. 

Responding to the sharp criticism it drew from various quarters, the Uddhav Thackeray-led party later clarified it was the writer’s personal opinion and did not in any means reflect the Sena’s stance on the matter. The demand also didn’t resonate with the BJP, which said that a ban on the garment was uncalled for.

Earlier this month, however, members of the ruling party had notably sought a burqa ban in Uttar Pradesh, alleging men are casting fake ballots against the BJP in burqas.

What else happened

Shiv Sena’s article hit the news a day before a massive row was triggered in Kerala, where a college in the Malappuram district banned the burqa on its premises. The decision, in this case, was taken by the Muslim Education Society (MES) in Calicut, days before the Sri Lanka attacks, in a Muslim majority region in the state, covering 150 institutes.

According to a fresh report, it has emerged that the body did not just ban the burqa but jeans, short tops and leggings as well, citing these as western wear that have no place in Indian culture. Several organisations in Kerala have condemned the circular and said that the burqa ban goes against religious tenets and sentiments of the community, and that MES has to consult various organisations before taking such decisions.

Amidst this controversy, lyricist and poet Javed Akhtar offered fresh ammunition by asserting in a press conference on Thursday, that banning the niqab (face veil) or the burqa should be about female empowerment and not targeted at specific religious communities.

Outlawing the burqa, he said, should necessarily follow a similar ban on the ghoonghat, the Hindu equivalent of a headscarf, worn primarily by married women as a show of modesty in Rajasthan.

What’s behind the ‘veiled’ political attempt?

Targeting clothing is more than an attack on the community’s culture. It has xenophobic undertones and suggests intolerance for visible religious symbols. In Sri Lanka, as per Qrius‘ analysis, the ban was a convenient diversion for civilians who blame the government for its intelligence failure in pre-empting the bombings. With the entire country on edge, therefore, a ban on the burqa cashed right in on the surging animosity for the nation’s Ahmadi Muslims, who account for 10% of its population.

But the movement to limit women wearing headscarves, especially Muslim women, has been growing in Europe over the last decade. The driving force behind politicising the veil lies in the ‘othering‘ of foreign cultures.

The past few years have seen the burqa being banned in several countries with a sizeable Muslim population, but powerful anti-immigration right-wing governments; the UK, France, Belgium, Norway, Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands are all against the covering of faces to varying degrees. While some have a uniform national policy, others impose specific restrictions.

Closer home, in China, the marginalised Uighur Muslims are prohibited from keeping long beards or wearing veils. But unlike the Chinese Communist Party, which bans workers in public spaces, such as stations and airports, from fully covering their bodies and faces, and expects employers to report on deviants to the police, the penalty for violating the ban in Sri Lanka is not clear yet.

Veil as a contested site of gender controversy

Sometimes, popular antagonism towards Muslim veils in Europe is rooted in an exclusionary ‘enlightenment liberal’ mindset. “These clothes prevent good communication, which is important for students to receive a good education,” said Norway’s education minister on the veil ban for Muslim students and employees.

The immigration minister echoed, “Clothes covering the face, like the niqab and the burqa, have no place in Norwegian schools. It is a fundamental value to be able to communicate with each other.” Javed Akhtar, who admits hailing from a family where women never wore veils, seemingly subscribes to this school of thought.

But the veil is much more. It is often a predictor and tool to perpetuate social bias and reductive stereotypes. It also serves as a symbol for unification, inclusion, and solidarity. Muslim women in the US, for example, “come to rely on Islamic women’s friendship networks that form around the veil”.

This recognition has been followed by several attempts to normalise and de-stigmatise the look, as representation of women in hijabs in pop culture, fashion, television, and commercials has admittedly grown, without tokenising or misappropriating the tradition. We are now seeing politicians, businesswomen, television reporters, and other successful hijabi women in visible roles, and that is the message we need to be sending.

Nike came out with its burkini line after the infamous controversy over a woman wearing one at the French seaside. Following New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern’s lead, many non-Muslim women of the country expressed their solidarity with the survivors of the Christchurch mosque massacre by wearing hijabs themselves; it was the first time the headscarf was used to condemn Islamophobic terrorism. Recently, an iconic image of a Muslim woman in a headscarf photobombing an anti-Islam demonstration went viral.

Still, as an identity marker for Muslim women, the veil remains a highly contested site for feminist debate. While opponents of the ban call it an infringement of the woman’s right to wear whatever she wants, its proponents cite examples of numerous cases where Muslim women are often forced to don the veil. The Saamana editorial raised this latter point; the MES’ rules regarding what female students should/not wear testifies it.

Studies have suggested that those with strong secular beliefs often critique religious practices, such as veiling, circumcision, and the ritual slaughtering of animals, not necessarily because of racial stereotypes or profiles attached to these constructs, but because they reflect cultures that support extreme submission to religion and, therefore, do not allow individuals to hold secular values. At the same time, there is reason to believe that a burqa ban may end up pushing more Muslims to extremism.

All things considered, the answer ultimately lies beyond the veil. The final say over body politics lies with individual women, each of whom negotiates with their own set of personal codes and holds the right answer to this conundrum.

Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius

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