The Hindustan Times baffles me, often leaving me clueless as to what merits its editorial space. In just a fortnight, it published five articles on its edit page on the burqa. The burqa has not been banned in any of the European countries where their leaders are debating openly and honestly about what features of immigrant life bothers them and why. Nor has India banned the burqa that HT must work itself into frenzy. It is almost a non-issue in India. By grafting what really is a domestic French issue onto our news agenda HT strengthens the assumption that what happens to Muslims elsewhere is compulsive concern for Indian Muslims too.
This again leads to the theory that the Muslims are a monolithic community and therefore what happens to one part of the monolith hurts the rest of the monolith. The secession of Bangladesh proves that religion is not what homogenizes the Muslims. Indonesian Muslims take pride in staging the Ramayana ballet that is blasphemous in Saudi Arabia. Indian Islam has its unique features of identity based on absorption of indigenous cultural attributes. The Kerala Muslim is different from the Kashmir Muslim in a hundred ways. The Quran and the Mosque are the only features common to Muslims all over the world. Not even Urdu is common to Indian Muslims.
Why is HT discussing burqa so out of season? The elected president of France shared his distress with an elected parliament, an unquestionable democratic exercise. 'Ours is not to question why.' Karan Thapar rightly said, writing in the Hindustan Times. After all, France can't, even if it wishes to, ban the burqa in India. The French people did not discuss Shah Bano or the uniform civil code. Why then tear our hair about it?
Nearly all newspapers in India published Sarkozy's speech as they would legitimately any other news item. No problem about it. But the attention it received in HT made me believe that the country is about to ban the burqa. One of the five articles it published was by a non-Indian and needs no mention, like the Guardian article in the Hindu by Stuart Jeffries. Two articles written by men, Karan Thapar and Faizur Rehman, boldly condemned the institution of burqa that really is an invention of clerics and the Muslim male.
Ironically, Barkha Dutt, twice calling herself a feminist and liberal in her article In My Space, said, after much hemming and hawing, that the burqa is a matter of choice. It is pure escapism, Barkhaji, knowing as you do that it is not a choice for a majority of Muslim women. In DNA, Javed Ansari said, 'In Saudi Arabia, everybody has to be covered from head to toe. People accept it, even if they don't like it, because it's part of Saudi culture and not following it would grate against the sensitivities of that country. If it's OK to accept the Saudi way in Saudi Arabia, what's wrong if the French want to do away with the burqa,' he asked.
Barkha said Sarkozy is xenophobic. Pray, why? When people immigrate they do so agreeing to abide by the laws of that country. You go there to escape the harsh laws in your country, like Ayan Hirsi Ali, go to seek work and escape starvation and yet fling mud at the host country? Why do Indian liberals and media intellectuals not ask these questions? I am reminded of M.J.Akbar's exasperation with such equivocation. He said in an article in the Times of India (Will India ever have a Muslim code?) 'It is a paradox of secular India that one definition of secularism has become the right of minorities to retreat into conservatism.'
In another article in HT, Soumya Bhattacharya said that Sarkozy's remarks were a threat to the secular fabric of France. According to him, in Europe the word secular is used in a way rather different from how we use it. True, people in India misuse it to absolve themselves of political crime. It is unfair, he said, to assume all the women who do wear the veil are being coerced into doing so. Did he ever check how many do it voluntarily?
Though I am not comfortable with the inquisitionist fervor of Thapar in his Devil's Advocate interviews, I admire the research that informs his encounters. 'Ours Is Not To Question Why' he said in his Sunday column for HT. 'The more I read (Sarkozy's speech) the more sense it seemed to make,' he said. Thapar agreed with Sarkozy that burqa is not a religious matter. In fact, it is more backward than the ghunghat (veil).
Again, it is a Muslim male Faizur Rehman who wrote in Hindustan Times, 'What the Muslim women really need to cudgel against is the gender bias prevalent in Muslim societies. They must realize that the Muslim patriarchy rallies around them when they demonstrate against issues such as the proposed ban on burqa (which could be easily circumvented), but the support of the clergy is conspicuously absent when it comes to pressing problems like instant triple talaq, hedonistic polygamy or child marriage.'
In this conservative domain populated by liberal women, Akbar's cry for change is a cry in the wilderness. Akbar wants change. He said in his TOI article, 'A modern nation is defined by four non-negotiable rights: equality of citizenship across origin and gender; secularism; liberty of speech; and economic equity. But Jawaharlal and Rajiv (Gandhi) were also guilty of one massive failure. Nehru refused to offer Indian Muslims the gift he had given to Indian Hindus; there was no Muslim Code Bill. Will Rajiv's son Rahul Gandhi seek what might be called a Shah Bano moment, or will the need for votes sabotage the compulsion of reform once again?'
Akbar pointedly made a reference to burqa. He said, 'the price of compromise is rarely paid by the powerful. The girl child who is thrust into the seclusion of purdah and driven into forced marriage before she has learnt to discover her social and economic potential pays it. The visible rise of the veil in Indian Muslim communities requires little elaboration.' I agree with Nikhat Kazmi (TOI) when she says, "bans surely are not the way out Mr Sarkozy. Specially not in a democratic society.'
There is a creeping Arabization throughout India based on the illusion that it makes one a better Muslim. A community of people, who are immodest enough to call themselves intellectuals, liberals and (that vacuous term) secularists, has misappropriated the Muslims in India. This community has encouraged the Muslims to fortify themselves in ghettos in the name of identity. Before a serious debate could begin on Akbar's demand for a Muslim code, Sarkozy's remarks only helped HT columnists to invent a non-issue like burqa to silence the likes of Akbar and insulate their constituency against poaching. In an op-ed article in the New York Times, Mona Eltahawy said, 'I am a Muslim, I am a feminist and I detest the full-body veil, known as a niqab or burqa. It erases women from society and has nothing to do with Islam but everything to do with the hatred for women at the heart of the extremist ideology that preaches it.'
Again, see how everyone interviewed happened to be a Muslim male. PTI spoke to the clerics exclusively: 'Sarkozy's statement on burqa is a direct attack on Islamic identity and shows the level of hatred he has towards Islam and Muslims,' said Shahi Imam of Delhi, Ahmed Bukhari. All India Muslim Personal Law Board spokesman SQR Ilyas asked the Indian government to lodge a strong protest with the French government.
Influential Darul Uloom Deoband's spokesman Maulana Ashraf Usmani said, 'Purdah is part of Islamic identity. How can it be banned?' Not a single Muslim woman was among PTI interviewees.
IANS spoke to Maulana Abdul Khaleeq Madrasi, pro- vice chancellor of Darul Uloom, Amir Ali, associate professor of political science at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Mufti Muqarram Ahmad, a senior cleric in Delhi. IANS said it talked to some young Muslim women in Delhi and those 'some young women' happened to be just Yasmeen Khan, a student of Jamai Millia. Two Times of India reporters, Meenakshi Sinha and Nandita Dasgupta, talked to many women and lo, all of them praised burqa!
Governments, BJP or Congress or Leftists, will never work for Muslim women's rights for fear of denting their vote bank. The extraordinary lengths to which Rajiv government went to undo Supreme Court judgment in Shah Bano case are an example. Akbar's Muslim code will remain a dream unless more Akbars join him. Not just the Muslim code, secular governments in India will not even offer shelter, say, to a Taslima Nasreen.
The writer is a retired assistant editor of Patriot and a former associate professor at Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi. He can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org .