IN A first, the Kerala-based Muslim Educational Society (MES), one of the largest such groups in the country with over 150 institutions, has issued a directive to colleges under its management to ensure that girl students do not wear veils covering their faces on its campuses.
“At present, no girl students under MES educational institutions attend classes covering their face. But this is a preemptive decision sensing what is in store,” said MES president Dr. P A Fazal Gafoor.
Gafoor said the MES circular on the move was issued on April 17 and had nothing to do with Sri Lanka’s ban on face veils this week following the blasts there on April 21.
In name of reform
The MES is a communitarian organisation that claims the legacy of the reformist tradition among Kerala Muslims. It has little sway over theological debates, shaped by Sunni groups who control mosques and madrasas. The MES has held the veil to be a foreign import, but the rejection is likely to be challenged by the clergy.
“Women covering their faces is not Islamic. It is a new culture brought from abroad and has little to do with religion. The practice of covering the face is a cultural invasion. Now, it has become widespread in Kerala,” Gafoor said.
The move, however, has been criticised by the Samastha Kerala Jamiyathul Ulema, the religious organisation of Sunni Muslim scholars and clerics.
“MES has no right to intervene in religion. The choice of dress is a girl student’s right and freedom of expression,” said Ulema president Sayyid Muhammed Jifri Muthukkoya Thangal.
“In a country, if a person can show nudity, no government or educational institution has the right to prevent a girl’s decision to cover her entire body. Can the helmet be banned on the ground that criminals are using that to mask their identity? Hence, this religious freedom cannot be banned,’’ he said.
The MES circular said that the group, which aims for the socio-cultural progress of Muslims, wants students in its institutions to maintain “utmost propriety” in dress. “We have to discourage unhealthy trends on campuses. The clothes, which are not acceptable to society at large, cannot be allowed even if such dresses are worn on behalf of religion or modernism,” it said.
According to Gafoor, the decision stems from a verdict of the Kerala High Court in 2018, which stated that the management of an educational institution can decide the dress code and that has nothing to do with the religion of students.
The verdict was delivered on a plea by the parents of two Muslim students of Christ Nagar Senior Secondary School, near Thiruvananthapuram, against the decision by the institution’s management — the Catholic congregation, CMI — to not allow the girls to wear full-sleeved shirts to classes while citing the dress code.
Gafoor said the MES has directed its institutions to incorporate the court order and state in their prospectus that they would not allow students to cover their faces.
Asked about criticism from Muslim organisations, Gafoor said: “Let orthodox elements in the community oppose. We don’t belong to any group. Our organisation stands for empowerment of women through education and public interaction, including politics.’’
“We are not talking about issues that should be addressed by or dealt with by the clergy. Our concern is only education and empowering women. Out of the over 100 principals heading our institutions, at least 40 are women. Our medical college principal is also a woman. Out of 1 lakh students in our institutions, 65 per cent are women. We will stick to the dress code,’’ he said.
Registered as a charitable organisation, the Kozhikode-based MES began operations in 1964 with the aim of improving the educational status of Muslims. Today, it runs schools, arts and science colleges, women’s colleges and professional institutions, including medical and engineering colleges, industrial training centres, hospitals, and cultural centers.