By Zeenat Shaukat Ali
May 12, 2019
Any covering of the face that "hinders the
identification of individuals in a way that threatens national security"
is banned in Sri Lanka. This diktat came into practice after the terror attacks
that left 350 dead on Easter Sunday in the island country.
The order specifies that the base criterion for
identification is the ability to see the face of an individual clearly. It
applies to anything covering the face, which could include Burqas, Niqabs and
helmets or masks. World over, people have been divided over the ban on the
Burqa and other face-covering veils. For many women, it is a threat to their choice
of wanting to wear a Burqa or not. Public and political response to such
prohibition proposals is complex, since by definition that would mean the
government decides on individual clothing. Some non-Muslims, who would not be
affected by a ban, see it as an issue of civil liberties, as a slippery slope
leading to further restrictions on private life.
There is no suggestion in the Quran, where women are asked
to lead a cloistered existence or be kept apart from world affairs. On the
contrary, the Quran references to the participation of women in all respectable
enterprises and professions.
It is often forgotten that in early Islam, women were
political activists, went to war, defended the nation, nursed the wounded, gave
sanctuary to men, participated in debates, were scholars, legalists
contributing to society just like men.
The use of the word "Burqa" is unfamiliar in the
Holy Quran. It is necessary to state that there is some confusion regarding the
subject even among Muslims. There is no clarity if there is a difference in the
meaning of the words Hijab (screen or barrier), Khimar, Jilbab (dress or
cloak); all these words are generally understood as kinds of veils. The Arabic
word "Khimar" (plural Khumur) does not simply imply a head-covering (and
certainly not a face-covering ) for women as commonly understood. The Quran
states that the word 'Khimar' or 'Khumur' comes from the root
'Kh-Mim'Ra' which means something that veils or conceals. "It was a veil
worn in pre-Islamic times more or less as an ornament and was let down loosely
over the back; and since, in accordance with the fashion prevalent at the time,
the upper part of the woman's tunic had a wide opening in the front, her bosom
Significantly, Islam did not introduce veils and segregation
to the Arab region nor are these institutions indigenous to Arabs. It was a
general regional practice. Long before the advent of Islam, these traditions
appear to have existed in the Hellenistic-Byzantine area and among the
Sassanians of Persia. In ancient Mesopotamia, the veil for women was regarded
as a sign of respectability and high status, decent married women wore the veil
to distinguish themselves from women slaves and unchaste women, indeed the
latter were forbidden to cover head or hair.
Successive invasions brought into contact Greek, Persian,
and Mesopotamian empires and the Semitic peoples of the regions. The practices
of veiling and seclusion of women appear to have subsequently been established
in Judaic and Christian systems. Gradually, these spread to Arabs of the urban
upper classes and eventually, to general urban communities. Veils of Arab
Muslim urban women became, more pervasive under Turkish rules as a market of
rank and exclusive style. By the nineteenth century, upper-class urban Muslims
and Christians in Egypt wore the "Habarah," which consisted of
a long skirt, a head cover and a Burqa, a long rectangular cloth of
transparent Muslin placed below the eyes, covering the lower nose and the mouth
and falling to the chest.
The revival of the term in the 1970s emerged when the veil
became the centre of feminism, identity, and nationalist discourse in Egypt
during British colonial occupation.
The Muslim Educational Society (MES) state president Dr
Fazal Gafoor says that "All undesirable practices on the campuses should
be discouraged." As pointed out by scholars, the modesty of dress and
outlook for both genders is religion based whereas veiling, particularly of the
face as pointed out by scholars is more socio-cultural than religion oriented.
The MES in Kozhikode has banned dresses that cover the face for girls in
educational institutions under its control. However, the circular issued by the
body in this regard does not specifically mention burqas. Dr Gafoor's approach
is indeed the right one.
Shaukat Ali is author of Marriage and Divorce in Islam and The Empowerment of
Women in Islam