To individual Muslim women who say wearing a head scarf or a head-to-toe burka is a personal choice, I say, I respect it. To Muslim women or men who pretend that the black seas with which the mullahs of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board have been flooding the streets of urban India in recent weeks — demanding scrapping of the Triple Talaq Bill and “non-interference in Shariah laws” — is simply a sum total of the individual choices of a multitude of women, I say, you are either ill-informed or you lie. There is no denying the fact that most women who “choose” to invisibilise themselves in public do so because they have been brainwashed into believing that such is Allah’s command.
Nothing could be further from the truth. All Islam asks, of both women and men, is that they dress modestly. So argued the Lahore-based Maulvi Syed Mumtaz Ali Khan in his book Huqooq-e-Niswan (Rights of Women) published well over a century ago, in 1898. Even the late Sudanese Hassan Al-Turabi — a religious scholar, an Islamist accused by some of promoting terrorism in Islam’s name — said the same thing in 1973 in a paper.
Yes, there also exists the burka of individual choice. But there is mostly the burka which has spread like an epidemic across the Muslim world in recent decades thanks to Saudi petro dollars. Now, surprise, surprise, comes the ruling of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman: “Women in Saudi Arabia need not wear head cover or the abaya (a burka variant), as long as their attire is ‘decent and respectful’.”
If there is no mention of the burka in the Quran, nor is there a word about skull caps and the beard. Yes, there is a Hadith of the Prophet about Muslims keeping the beard and shaving off the moustache. But Muslims would do themselves a world of good by learning to distinguish the substantial from the superficial. For example, the Prophet also said: “He is not a believer whose stomach is filled while the neighbour to his side goes hungry.”
In parts of rural Maharashtra (elsewhere in the country too) even today, it is impossible to distinguish between Muslims and non-Muslims, male or female, from the way they dress. The burka, the beard and the skull cap threaten this commonness. Does not the ulema’s promotion of an exclusivist, monochromatic “Muslimness” wherein culture and religion are fused together, help in caricaturing, stereotyping an entire community?
Allah knows there is a long journey ahead for Indian Muslims on the road to reform and modernity. Yes, everyone has the right to question questionable practices at all times. But in these times of virulent Hindu majoritarianism when far too many yesterday’s “liberal Hindus” have turned into today’s “Hindu nationalists”, genuine liberal democrats owe it to themselves to choose their words and their forum responsibly. In a religion-soaked society, the liberal also needs to be clear about whether he is battling intolerance, obscurantism and communalism in the name of religion or religion itself.
To the “Hindu liberal” who sees no difference between the trishul and the burka, I say, perhaps you can learn a lesson from a Norwegian example.
On the night of January 26, 2001, a 15-year-old African Norwegian school student, Benjamin Hermansen, was stabbed to death by two white-skinned neo-Nazis in Oslo, the country’s capital. This first-ever recorded racial killing in Norway “shook the moral self-assurance of this predominantly white-skinned country”. Hermansen’s murder triggered a “gigantic public outrage”. The Oslo Anti-racist Centre and the Norwegian Red Cross called for a torch-lit protest march on February 1. The turnout in response was such as Oslo had not seen since the anti-fascist mobilisation at the end of the Second World War.
Braving the biting cold, over 40,000 people — 8 per cent of the entire population of Oslo — turned up for the procession. The protest was headed by none less than the then Prime Minister of Norway, Jens Stoltenberg. Keeping him company was Oslo´s bishop, Gunnar Stålsett, and the city´s mayor, Per Ditlev Simonsen. “This is not our way, we shall not tolerate hate crimes,” vowed the prime minister at the rally. There were protests elsewhere in the country too. In the days that followed music concerts were held in many cities in memory of Hermansen.
As one report at the time observed, “In a tragic way, Benjamin has made Norwegian history. The Norwegian public has made a clear statement: This murder will not be forgotten. And it will have clear consequences”.
On January 17, 2002, an Oslo court sentenced the two accused neo-Nazis, Joe Erling Jahr and Ole Nicolai Kvisler to imprisonment for 16 years and15 years respectively. An accomplice, Veronica Andreassen, 18, saw Hermansen first and pointed him out as a suitable target for the group’s rage against “foreigners”, but she did not physically join the attack. She was sentenced to three years in prison.
Let’s return to the land of the Mahatma where nothing shakes “our moral self-assurance”. Norway in 2001 refused to forget one victim of hate crime. In post-Independence India, the victims of mass crimes are counted in hundreds at a time or with sickening regularity. And they are all too quickly forgotten.
By the United Nations’ definition of genocide, Indian democracy has the dubious distinction of subjecting its religious minorities to recurring genocidal attacks with the connivance, even sponsorship, of the state: Nellie 1983 (Muslims), Delhi and across India, 1984 (Sikhs), Bhagalpur, Bihar 1989 (Muslims), Mumbai 1992-93 (Muslims), Gujarat 2002 (Muslims), Kandhamal, Odisha 2008 (Christians), Muzaffarnagar, 2013 (Muslims). With the exception of Gujarat to an extent, the perpetrators and masterminds of the mass crimes elsewhere have gone unpunished. In recent years, we have evolved a new norm: Out-sourcing of violence to lynch-mobs.
Minorities in any democracy have three major concerns: Security, equity (non-discrimination) and identity (religion, culture). An Indian Muslim today feels more insecure than ever before. As the Sachar Committee’s report amply demonstrated, Indian Muslims have been victims of institutionalised discrimination for decades. With little security and lots of discrimination, clinging to identity seems to be the easy thing to do.
Muslims need to be told by their well-wishers that such defensive defiance is of little use; it detracts from the struggle for equal citizenship rights. But to a “liberal Hindu” who in today’s context says asking Muslims to keep their burkas and skull caps away from a political rally is a principled liberal position, I say, this is not liberalism but capitulation to Hindu majoritarianism. Go take a lesson from Norway first about what it means to be liberal.
And to the parties that call themselves secular, I can do no better than quote from what Suhas Palshikar wrote in these columns: “It is not sad that Sonia’s Congress appears set to abandon the Muslims, the real sadness is that the Congress for long intellectually failed to realise and politically failed to practise a robust combination of reform and citizenship.” What is true of the Congress holds equally true of all the other somewhat-secular parties, the Left included.
Ideas Series: The Minority Space
Ramchandra Guha-Harsh Mander debate about the invisibility of Muslims and reforms within continues