Kerala Body's Veil Ban Reignites Debate on Muslim Women's Rights and Beliefs

Shiv Sena has also called for a burqa ban in what is being seen as part of attempts to "other the Muslim identity."

Kozhikode: The debate around Muslim women seems never-ending. Now, a circular by a Muslim educational group in Kerala is making waves.

The circular in question was issued on April 17 by P.A. Fazal Gafoor, president of the Muslim Educational Society (MES), a leading educational group in the state with 150 institutions. The circular, sent to the secretaries and principals of all the colleges under the MES, asked them to ensure that the “female students don’t attend classes wearing any attire that covers their face”.

The circular says the MES cannot accept any dress that is “unacceptable” to the general public, even if the clothing in question carries the symbol of “modernity” or “religious practices”.

The MES circular, which is restricted to the colleges under the group, was issued much before Sri Lanka’s similar ban on veil and is not connected with the latest anti-Muslim rhetoric from some Hindu hard-line organisations.

The Sri Lankan government’s decision, announced after the series of bombings at churches and hotels in the country, was a move that attracted both praise and alarm. When some Muslims supported the move, others condemned it. Raising an alarm on human rights issues, Amnesty International said that at a time when many Muslims in Sri Lanka fear a backlash, “imposing a ban that effectively targets women wearing a face veil for religious reasons risks stigmatising them”.

“The ban violates their rights to non-discrimination, freedom of expression and religion,” the rights group said.

‘Niqab is not Islamic’

The MES circular, however, specifically asked to implement the dress code “without giving a chance to controversy”. However, it has already become controversial with individuals and groups coming forward to comment on it.

In effect, the new circular will prevent any MES student from wearing niqab, or a veil – worn by a minority within the Kerala Muslim women.

In Kerala, however, the MES’s move to ban “any attire that covers face” has already attracted sharp responses.

Shabna Ziyad, a senior journalist, said she does “completely disagree” with arguments suggesting “the MES circular would solve all the problems of Muslim women”. But she added that she “doesn’t understand why women who can’t reveal their own identity should go for education”.

Also read: From Colonial Algeria to Modern Day Europe, the Muslim Veil Remains an Ideological Battleground

Fathima Thahiliya, the vice president of the Muslim Student Federation, wrote that such a ban will “only help keep those women, who go out with their face covered, home”. She said a blanket ban on the veil is “excessive use of power”.

Afeeda Ahamed, the state president of Girls Islamic Organisation, is another Muslim woman activist who has condemned the MES circular. “One’s dressing is part of one’s religious belief, let it be purdah, niqab or wimple of nuns,” she said. Ahamed said the MES circular needs to be particularly resisted in the prevailing ‘fascist atmosphere’ when there are efforts to “other the Muslim identity”.

Hudha Ayub, a recent graduate of BA English Literature from K.M.M. Government Women’s College, Kannur, said she doesn’t support the circular. “It’s not about whether I am a person who is wearing it or not, but I feel like this is restricting the fundamental right of a citizen to follow a religion. To wear a niqab is a choice one makes in her religion,” she added.

O. Abdulla, a veteran Muslim intellectual who is known for his Islamist views, however, said the ‘niqab is not Islamic’.

In a widely-shared Facebook post published after the Sri Lankan ban on veil, Abdulla said he welcomes the ban. Citing examples from Islamic history, Abdulla said “Islam is not supportive” of niqab.

Responding to the media after the controversy, Fazal Gafoor, however, indicated that the MES will not withdraw the circular. He said women empowerment is an objective of the MES and that the new guideline is supported by a Kerala high court verdict. “We, as a renaissance organisation in the state, don’t support the veil, which is not practised by 99% of Muslim women,” he said.

Around 85,000 students are enrolled in various institutes of the MES, which include seven women-only colleges located in northern Kerala, where Kerala’s Muslim population is largely concentrated.

Muhammed Sabith is an independent journalist and academic.