France, historically the upholder of the rights of the marginalised, will marginalise at least some French citizens with its decision to ban the veil.

In 1947 my mother and other women of the family decided to shed the burqa. Our family comes from Panipat, which was at the time a flourishing district of Punjab with a large population of Muslims.

The distinguishing feature of this erudite, Sufi-dominated town was the primacy of women. Our homes were known by the name of the woman of the house; for example, Bi Maimuna ki Haveli (much later I was pleasantly surprised to see in Marrakesh the same formulation: Riad dar Maimuna). The decision of these Panipat women to remove the veil was accepted and respected by the men of my family. They were agents of their own fate. When several of these women reached Pakistan (per force they had to migrate), they did not revert to the veil. They were not asked to wear them or remove them, either by the state or their families.

Sixty-three years later, on July 13, 2010, France's Lower House of Parliament voted to ban the wearing of face-covering veils in public places. The vote was passed 336 to 1, with the Left parties abstaining. In its report, the French parliamentary committee said that requiring women to cover their faces was against the French Republican principles of secularism and equality and deemed such practice as a “a symbol of the repression of women and of extremist fundamentalism.”

What is the link between Panipat and France on the issue of Muslim women and burqa?

France is the classic upholder of human rights. I, as many of my generation, grew up on stories of the French Revolution, the Storming of the Bastille, ‘Liberty Equality, Fraternity', Montesquieu', Robespierre, Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and the ubiquitous guillotine.

Panipat was the place where caravans of Sufi scholars migrated to from Afghanistan and Iran to spread their teachings among a populace which was ready and willing to learn. Many schools of Islamic jurisprudence flourished there; people openly debated religion and followed their own maslak, each according to his or her light.

Today, Panipat is a flourishing town where all the obvious signs of development hit you in the face. But the very fact for which it was distinctive has become its greatest bane; its neglect of gender issues gave it one of the lowest sex ratios in the country. From the high regard in which women were held, it has become the district with one of the worst CSR in the country.

And France, the upholder of the rights of the marginalised, has decreed that of the quarter million Muslim women, the 1,900 who use the face veil will be fined $190 if they emerge in public wearing the veil. Men who force women in their family to wear full face veils will be fined $37,754 and jailed for a year. If this Bill is cleared by the Senate, it will become the law of the land. In this manner, it will irretrievably ‘disempower' at least some French citizens. In the 1960's when its economy was booming, France waived all visa requirements and opened its doors to immigrants from its erstwhile colonies. These immigrants contributed cheap labour to France's service industry and, as is convenient and customary, were concentrated on the outskirts of the capital in ghetto settlements.

There were relatively few opportunities for social and economic integration. Many of these immigrants were Muslims. It is the women from these areas — the poorest — who will be hard hit by the ban. Muslim women in France will, thus, be caught between two hardships: the hardship at home, where they prefer to adhere to “traditional” dress codes for a variety of reasons; and the hardship outside, where the state requires them to throw off the very same dress code. This fallout is certainly not going to fulfill the avowed objective of the French government of empowering and dignifying Muslim women.

The assumption is that Muslim women wear the burqa always as a result of coercion. Such a construct strips women of all agency. Sometimes, Muslim women choose to veil themselves not as a symbol of their religious identity (nor in protest against western imperialism) but because they want to become more pious. The body becomes a site for action. Is it not possible that the act of veiling is reflective of an inner dialogue with the self (whether we agree with the finer points of the dialogue is quite another matter)? Is it not a coercive state which quells that inner dialogue? Is it also not a rather ignorant state which interprets bodily embodiments in such simplistic ways? If a Muslim woman's conscience impels her to wear the veil as an act of piety, the veil is no longer a symbol; it becomes an integral part of her. What role does the state have in violating her integrity? There is the experience of the Muslim doctor in Amsterdam. She is one of the thousands of veiled women of Europe. After she donned the burqa, she noticed that everyone around her became more patronising. Shop attendants spoke to her slowly, repeating words as to a child. If she went to return a faulty gadget to a shop, she was scolded by the manager for her inability to operate something “modern”. While the manager's Islamophobic attitude will remain untouched, it is the woman who, if she stays true to herself, will be unable to go to the shop. One of France's few Muslim politicians, Senator Bariza Khairi, fears that some of the women thus targeted will withdraw into themselves, stay in the house. “Instead of doing education projects, we are doing a ban, which I regret,” she has said.

As a believing, practising Muslim woman, I choose not to wear the burqa, hijab or veil. It is my choice. Islam is very clear in its injunction La ikrafiddin. There is no compulsion in religion. There is no dress code in Islam. Its only injunction is that women and men should dress in a dignified manner. I, therefore, protest any edict imposed by any body or organisation about my practice or dress code.

If a Muslim woman chooses to practise Islam within the hijab she should be free to do so, if she wants to practise without the hijab, there should be nothing preventing her.

Hazrat Ali, the Fourth Caliph of Islam said: “Be wary of him/her who has nothing to lose.” These women who are being deprived are the poorest Muslims; they have nothing to lose. Their sensitivities are being needled by such discriminatory legislation. The state needs to engage with those who wear the burqa as well as with those who abhor the burqa. A culture of engagement might be more empowering than a decontextualised recourse to human rights and secularism.

The example of Panipat, that place of religious engagement and debate, is before us.

(The writer is Member, Planning Commission)

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