Kerala got a respite from communal passions triggered by the 28 September Supreme Court verdict allowing women of all ages entry into the Sabarimala Ayyappa temple after the Lok Sabha polls on 23 April. But it is back with a bang with a major Muslim education group banning hijab (a headscarf that most Muslim women wear in public) on its campuses.
Kozhikode-based Muslim Education Society (MES), with its 100-odd educational institutes and a student strength of about a lakh, issued a circular to all its heads asking them to not allow students with any dress covering their face from the next academic year. The move has got traditionalists in the community up in arms.
The Samastha Kerala Jem-Iyyathul Ulema, a powerful body of Sunni Muslim scholars and clerics, has termed the MES move as an incursion into the religious rights of the members of the community and vowed to resist it tooth and nail. "Women covering the face is part of Muslim faith. The MES has no right to dictate terms to believers. There are religious bodies to take decisions on matters related to faith," said Syed Muhammad Jiffiri Muthokoya Thangal, state president of Samastha.
Even Muslim student organisations have not taken kindly to the move. The Samastha Kerala Sunni Students Federation (KSSF) has described it as an encroachment into the religious freedom of the members of the community and warned that they will not allow the organisation to stop any woman staffer or student at its institutions if she decides to wear a dress that covers her face.
The Muslim Students Federation (MSF), the student wing of Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), has also come out against the hijab ban by the MES. MSF national vice president Fathima Thahiliya said wearing a dress that one finds comfortable is the choice of an individual and nobody can question it.
“I have not been wearing hijab. Nobody has questioned my right not to wear the dress I find uncomfortable. We should also allow the same freedom to women who like to cover their face,” says Fathima.
She feels that hijab is suitable in the present times when dust is choking the cities and towns. Both men and women in the urban areas are covering their head to escape from the dust. She, therefore, feels hijab is relevant even otherwise. Fathima fears that the ban on hijab may force devout Muslims to remain indoors. This, she said, will only push Muslim women into backwardness.
Rubbishing the argument, MES president Dr P A Fazal Gafoor said wearing hijab may limit the choices of Muslim women in pursuing modern courses and careers. He said it may make women difficult to access jobs that require interaction with the public.
"A patient likes to see the face of the doctor whom he/she is consulting. If a Muslim woman wearing hijab refuses to show her face she may not get patients. We had this problem in our medical colleges. We have taken the decision to ban face veils to help Muslim women to access opportunities for growth. I am sure this will empower the women," says Gafoor, who himself is a medical professional.
Liberals have welcomed the decision. Khadeeja Nargis, a leader of the Mujahid Girls Movement, said covering the face will hide the identity of the person. This, she said, could lead to several criminal and clandestine activities. She said there have been several instances of such misuse in the state.
"There is nothing Islamic in the dress code. Islam does not ask women to cover their faces while offering prayers. Even women undertaking Haj do not cover their faces. Therefore, the demand by a section of the community for women to cover their faces is ridiculous even if it is from the religious standpoint,” she said.
Working Muslim women have also supported the ban. Mubeena, a software engineer at Infopark in Kochi, said that hijab was a hindrance at workplaces. She said that most Muslim women in the information technology industry did not comply with the dress code as it was uncomfortable for their job. Mubeena, who does not wear the face veil, believes that the dress is not suitable for students as teachers need to see their faces to understand whether they have grasped what they have taught. “Therefore, I consider the MES decision rational and everybody should support it," she added.
However, a section of the liberals has sounded caution on implementing the ban. Ashraf Kadakkal, assistant professor, Islamic and West Asian Studies in the Kerala University, said that the ban could be used by groups to create a communal divide. "When a Muslim body bans religious practices, it will encourage others to follow suit. This could spell trouble in society. We know how the verdict by Supreme Court on Sabarimala was used by political parties to create a communal divide,” he added.
Hijab was not part of Muslim culture in Kerala. Islam only insists the believers wear modest dresses. More than 95 percent of Muslim women in the state do not cover their faces, Fazal Gafoor claimed. He asked how a progressive institution like MES could promote dresses that are unacceptable to mainstream society, whether they are modern or religious.
The MES decision is based on a high court verdict giving freedom to educational institutions to decide on their dress code. The December 2018 verdict was issued on a petition filed by two Muslim girl students questioning imposition of uniforms by a Christian educational institution. The court dismissed the petition saying that the petitioners could not seek the imposition of their individual right as against the larger right of the institution.
However, the courts have not been unanimous in their opinion on hijab. In 2016, the high court had allowed Muslim women candidates to appear for the All India Pre-Medical/Pre-Dental Entrance Test (AIPMT) wearing hijab with the observation that the dress was an essential part of the religion.
The Supreme Court, however, had upheld the dress code for the same entrance test in 2015 saying that no discourtesy would be shown to any religion by not wearing the headdress for the duration of the test. The court even termed the insistence on wearing the headdress during the test as an "ego issue".
Many believe that hijab had become part of Muslim women’s attires in the wake of the interaction of Muslims in the state with the Arab world. The dress became popular after large-scale migration of Keralites to the Middle East following the oil boom. The migrants believed Arabs who practised the dress code was real Muslim and, therefore, forced the women in their families to ape them.
Professor N A Kareem, former pro-vice chancellor of Kerala University said that hijab had now become high a fashion costume with an increasing number of women wearing the costly headscarves. The loose body and head covering garments were plain clothing earlier. It is now couture embellished with a synthesis of materials and embroidery making it a costly piece of garment. Shops selling such costly attires have sprouted throughout the state following the Gulf boom.
Like migration, the trade lobby has also contributed to re-invention of the hijab in Kerala. Any attempt to ban it could lead to huge resistance and communal troubles.
Updated Date: May 03, 2019 14:48:40 IST