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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2701

Beyond the veil

By Allabaksh - Syndicate Features

To veil or not to veil is the question that seems to have added fuel to the already fiery race relation—call it the ‘Muslim question’--debate in the UK and some other countries in the West. The genesis of the present controversy over the veil lies with a 23-year-old Muslim woman reportedly of Indian origin, Aishah Azmi, who had refused to comply with a request by her employers, a school in West Yorkshire, not to keep herself shrouded in the ‘burqa’ while teaching the young pupils.

Sitting here in ‘Hindu’ India where just about half the population is literate and which is many miles away from the ‘emancipated’ and ‘liberal’ Britain where almost everybody is educated and, hence, rational, it has been difficult to decide if the raging debate over a ‘Muslim’ issue--the veil—is tragic or comic. Actually in India a woman who insists on wearing the veil in public would not even think of taking up a job where she may have to face ‘males’ and also dress ‘immodestly’ and, so, there would be no controversy.

British controversy has a tragic dimension because it seems to have only hardened the feelings against Muslims among the ordinary whites (Christian) in the UK where the ‘Muslim’ veil is probably taken as a symbol of the wearer’s proximity to the fundamental lunatics and death-to-infidels chanting maniacs.

In India, the veil has long been a common sight to stir any public debate. Nobody equates that piece of women’s full outer garment as particularly offensive or dangerous, though quite a few within the Muslim community apparently discarded it long ago. Yet, the British controversy over the veil was transported to India within a jiffy and we saw a social activist and a respected film actress turned social activist at the centre of a storm when her views on the veil evoked a sharp response from some of the clerics. Why the controversy should be so hotly discussed in India when the veil is not an issue here?

The trans-continental dimension of the veil debate was baffling because at least in India it has been accepted that while wearing the veil may represent an orthodox practice, the realities of everyday life has already forced many, perhaps the majority, away from it. Those who continue to wear it—dare one say mostly housewives and elderly matrons who stay at home-- are left to their own devices. One could be wrong, but it is doubtful if any Muslim teacher in India enters a classroom covered from head to toe when imparting lessons to pupils.

Assuming that many Muslim workingwomen in India do wear the veil-- though it does not look like being true-- one does not remember ever having heard that it caused any problem between the wearer and the employer. It may be because the traditional ‘burqa’ clad Muslim women are strangers to the politics of defiance and would not take up jobs where they may have to work in male company.

In other words these tradition-bound women, most of whom perhaps with only limited educational qualifications, do not seek to provoke any controversy. Contrast this with what an educated and young Muslim woman in Britain did. She went for an interview to get a teaching job wearing a veil but had no hesitation in removing it when she was interviewed by a male governor. She gets the job and next you know she starts wearing the veil full-time, at least in school. The school management finds it odd, rejecting her contention that her veil is fine with her pupils, and tells her to come out of the veil when at the school. She says no, faces a suspension and before long everything has become a huge worldwide controversy.

An ugly controversy with overtones of what the community felt was Muslim-bashing. A former foreign minister of Britain equated the veil with ‘separateness’. A junior minister jumped into the fray to denounce the defiant young Muslim teacher, who, he said, should have been sacked. It led to charges of unwanted and ‘reckless’ interference by a minister. The shadow (Conservative) home secretary, David Davies, thought the practice of wearing the veil could risk a ‘voluntary apartheid’.

In fact, Davies had lots of other things to say about the Muslim community in Britain that are certainly not designed to ease relations between the white majority and the Muslims in ‘multi-cultural’ Britain. According to him the Muslim community in the UK was ‘excessively sensitive to criticism’, unwilling to engage in ‘substantive dialogue’. Some Muslim leaders, he added, wanted to be protected ‘from criticism, argument, parody, satire and the other challenges that happen in a society that has free speech as its highest value.’

Some of his observations may not be entirely baseless but given the context in which they were made they sounded inappropriate and would have only helped to widen the gulf between the whites and the Muslims in Britain. He was wrong if he had assumed that speaking about some harsh truth would lead to a sobering inter-faith debate or a dialogue within the Muslim community.

The pungency of his comments drew some equally prickly response from leading Muslim organisations like the Muslim Council of Britain and the Islamic Society of Britain and also the usual suspects- clerics and politicians like the Labour peer Lord Nazir Ahmad and Member of Parliament Shahid Malik, both of Pakistani origin. Nazir Ahmad saw it all as part of a ‘constant theme of demonisation of the Muslim community’ and he accused both the politicians and the journalists of joining hands to jump on to the anti-Muslim platform. He advised the British politicians, meaning presumably the white ones, to concentrate on addressing the problem of ‘Muslim deprivation’ instead of bothering about the veil.

If Davies and his ilk made a mountain out of a molehill, men like Nazir did no better. If critics brought ‘extraneous’ matters into the veil debate, so did the defenders of the faith. It is not clear how, for instance, addressing the problem of ‘Muslim deprivation’ is related to the veil controversy or recalling the alleged extra sensitiveness of the Muslims. Yes, there are ‘deprived’ Muslims in Britain, but so are men and women from all other communities in Britain, including—surprising as it may seem-- the whites.

The Muslims who are only too eager to inject this business of ‘deprivation’ in any debate that touches their community are overplaying their cards. Consciously or otherwise such people are advancing justification for violence and worse to which some members of the community have become prone.

Likewise, it hardly helps to broaden the debate on each and every ‘Muslim’ issue and talk about the Muslim community’s lack of appreciation of the ‘highest value’ of freedom of speech in Britain.

- Syndicate Features -

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