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The Muslim Woman Unveiled

by S.M. Murshed
(Calcutta, India)


Internationally, considerable controversy has been stirred up by Jack Straw’s recent views on the wearing of the veil by Muslim women. He regards it as the expression of a separate identity for themselves. He discourages this practice. He found support in Tony Blair. But inIndia, a controversy is still raging about the remarks made by Ms. Shabana Azmi in London recently, when she went there to receive the Gandhi Peace Foundation Prize. She said that nothing in the Quran requires a woman to cover her face with a veil of any description. A rejoinder came from Imam Bukhari of the Jama Masjid, New Delhi, the soi-disant leader of Muslims in India, questioning the authority by which Ms. Azmi dared to interpret the Holy Book, implying thereby that the task of interpretation is best left to Ulemas like himself. The Book, according to the learned Imam, does prescribe the veil for Muslim women.

I am afraid the Imam is wrong. Verse 31 of Surah 24 of the Quran may be seen in this connection. Both in Yusuf Ali’s and Marmaduke Picthall’s translations, this verse prescribes that modesty be observed by women and that they should draw a veil over their bosoms. The face is not mentioned as a part of the anatomy to be veiled. Verse 59 of Surah 33 further speaks of the necessity for women to wear an outer cloak when outdoors. The outer cloak has turned out to be in practice the ‘hijab’ worn by many women in India and abroad. It is a cloak partially covering the body, but does not include a veil for the face. It is meant to guard women against molestation by unknown men. The rigours of the burquah, extending from head to foot with an aperture for the eyes, are nowhere prescribed in the Quran. And the Quran does not mention either a veil or covering for the body anywhere apart from verses 24/31 and 33/59. These are the only two verses of any relevance in the Quran.

In India, the saree, if properly worn, covering the bosom, and not exposing, for example, the midriff, and the shalwar, kamiz with a dopatta covering the bosom will be de rigeur of the Quranic injunctions regarding modesty. And Muslim women, thus apparelled, need do nothing more.

My friend Nayeem points out that in Mecca women do not wear a veil. He is absolutely right. During the Haj, when hundreds of thousands of men and women congregate at Meccaand the Kaba (the holiest place in Islam), I do not remember seeing a veil covering a single face. This should be conclusive evidence on the debate whether a veil must or must not be worn.

This brings me to the consideration of the question posed by Imam Bukhari as to who has given Ms. Azmi the authority to interpret the Quran. One would like to ask in return who has given him, and others of his ilk in the Muslim clerical cadre, this authority. Islam has no church boasting of a pope who holds sway over all members of the community. The interpretation of the Quran is left to individuals who read it and who, in cases of doubt, consult people with knowledge. Imam Bukhari’s knowledge is displayed in his misinformed ranting about the veil.

It must be realised that the bane of Muslim politics lies in the clerical cadres, which seem to have mushroomed alarmingly. Islam recognises no established hierarchical order among its clergy and no official spokesman for the Muslim community and no official leader of Muslim thought. Imam Bukhari sometimes arrogates to himself the role of a leader of all Muslims inIndia. But in truth his writ does not run beyond the precincts of his mosque. It does not run inDelhi; much less across the country.

Ms. Azmi (and a host of other Muslims) is sufficiently well educated to understand, and interpret for herself, the meaning of the Quran and she does not need an Imam Bukhari to help her in her understanding. But what do other Muslims – by far the majority – who are illiterate do? They have to fall back on people of understanding. The job of the latter is clear cut, namely to take verses of the Quran and explain their meaning, if necessary by drawing on the sayings of the Holy Prophet (hadith). Nothing more. But they have not stayed within this strait jacket. They have wandered beyond it and expounded a myriad of things not known to the Quran by means of ‘fatwas’ and in course of time they have established an absolute ascendancy over the minds of simple people, who begin to regard them as demigods in matters of faith, blindly following all their edicts. And in some cases, their ‘fatwa’ on any subject, divorced from Quranic teachings, can be bought.

A classic example of this kind of tyranny was seen recently in the case of Imrana, a 29 year old woman and a mother of four children, in the district of Muzaffarabad in Uttar Pradesh. She was raped by her father-in-law. A local council held, by a specious reasoning, that the effect of the rape was to convert her status into that of her husband’s mother and, the instant that it took place, automatically dissolved her marriage with the result that she could no longer stay with her husband and must move in with her father-in-law. She would have none of this draconian, and plainly lugubrious, verdict. She, therefore, betook herself to her parents’ village, from where she filed a complaint with the police against the rapist, who was convicted of the offence by the local sessions court and sentenced to 10 years’ rigorous imprisonment with a fine.

There is nothing in the Quran which will support the argument of the village council against Imrana. Its verdict must be regarded as perverse in the extreme. It exemplifies the absolute tyranny of the clerical establishment over the minds of simple, and unsuspecting, folk. The sooner the emancipated class among Muslims rises to end the rule of various Imams and mullas, the better it will be. The Imams are meant to lead, and conduct, congregational prayers at their mosques and they should adhere to this role without venturing beyond it.

(Published in The Statesman dated 17 November, 2006, under the title What the Koran Says About the Veil)

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