The Election Commission's submission in the Supreme Court — in response to a special leave petition to restrain it from publishing the photographs of purdah-clad Muslim women in the electoral rolls — that wearing a burqa by Muslim women is a religious custom and not an integral part of Islam is disappointing .
Wearing a burqa or hijab is not a custom as understood by many non-Muslims and Muslims. It is God's commandment in the Holy Koran. He says. “O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters and the believing women to draw their outer garments around them. That is more proper, so that they may be recognised and not bothered ...” (Qur'an 33:59). This is further emphasised and explained in another verse “… enjoin the believing women to lower their gaze and guard their modesty; not to display their beauty and ornaments except what normally appears thereof; let them draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their charms except to their husbands, their fathers, their fathers-in-law, their own sons, step sons, brothers, nephews on either brothers' or sisters' sides, their own womenfolk, their own slaves, male attendants who lack sexual desires or small children who have no carnal knowledge of women ...” Observing hijab is indeed an integral part of Islam.
Women are exhorted to observe purdah. The practice is very much an essential and integral part of Islam. But publishing photographs of purdah-clad women in the electoral rolls is a different issue. Those who do not want their faces to be displayed publicly can abstain from the electoral process. However when persons with criminal background are allowed to contest elections, the party ticket is sold, unethical practices such as media coverage for cash, free flow of liquor and money, etc., go unchecked, there is no reason why the Election Commission should object to a small concession to Muslim women.
According to Islamic principles, Muslim women are required to wear the burqa when they are in the midst of men. In some places, Muslim women cover their faces with a piece of cloth called niqab. While wearing the niqab is not compulsory, it is mandatory for Muslim women to wear the burqa. It is an integral part of Islam.
The Commission is right in saying “Article 25 of the Constitution does not confer unfettered rights to religious practice…” The minorities should not oppose progressive steps taken by the government.
Besides creating problems of identification in the polling booths, the burqa can also be misused by terrorists. Wearing of the burqa is a social issue and should be tackled at the social level. It is time Muslims placed reason above faith, and woke up to social reforms in the interest of their community.
Sayyad Sharief Naqvi,