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Muslim group's burqa ban rakes up controversy in India

Bishop Mascarenhas says religious codes must be respected alongside security concerns

ucanews.com reporter, New Delhi

ucanews.com reporter, New Delhi

Updated: May 06, 2019 08:30 AM GMT
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Muslim group's burqa ban rakes up controversy in India

Burqa-clad women show their identity cards as they queue to vote at a polling booth during the 2014 Indian general election in Varanasi in this file photo. (Photo by IANS)

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A Muslim educational group in India has banned women from wearing outfits that cover their faces in its institutions, but not all are happy about the move.

The Muslim Education Society (MES) based in the southern state of Kerala issued a circular stating that female teachers and students in its 150 institutions should not wear the burqa, the garment Muslim women use to cover their whole body including the face.

“A dress code that is not acceptable to mainstream society cannot be allowed even if in the name of modernity or religious practice,” MES president P.A. Fazal Gafoor told media on May 3 after his April 17 circular became a media discussion point.

The circular said educational institutions, including schools, graduate colleges and professional institutions such as schools of nursing and engineering, should implement the circular from the 2019-20 academic year, making sure “students do not come to the class wearing any attire covering their face.”

Gafoor clarified that students in MES institutions do not generally cover their faces but it is a “pre-emptive decision sensing what is in store.”

The circular began to be discussed after some Hindu groups demanded a ban on the burqa following the terror attacks that killed 252 people on Easter Sunday in neighboring Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankan authorities on April 29 banned women in their country from wearing face masks under an emergency law as a security measure as it began hunting for Islamic terrorists who collaborated in the serial suicide attacks.

A pro-Hindu Indian political party, Shiv Sena, on May 1 demanded that the government should ban the burqa in public places as an “emergency measure” amid increasing fears of terrorists targeting public and religious places.

It is “an emergency measure to ensure security forces do not encounter difficulties in identifying anybody. People wearing face masks or burqas could pose a threat to national security," the party’s Saamana publication said in a May 1 editorial.

However Indian bishops’ conference secretary-general Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas advised caution in such demands.

“It is very important to understand what a religion and faith demands. If a particular dress is considered part of a religion’s code, then it should he respected,” Bishop Mascarenhas told ucanews.com.

“At the same time religious leaders should also be proactive in understanding security concerns and emergencies and advice their people accordingly.”

Religious leaders should also use their discretion to understand and teach their people how important a dress code is to their faith. “They should act on their own in emergencies rather than allowing outside agencies to interfere and demand changes,” Bishop Mascarenhas said.

Muslim groups are upset with the MES burqua ban and with increased Hindu demands to ban the burqa.

Samashtha, an orthodox outfit of Muslim scholars, said the MES circular was "un-Islamic" and should be withdrawn.

"As per the Islamic rules, the body parts of women should not be shown. The MES has no right to issue a circular banning the attire covering the face of women. Islamic rules should be followed," Umar Faize, a Samastha scholar, said.

Mustaq Mansoori, a Muslim activist and medical doctor based in Madhya Pradesh state, said no one should be forced to follow a dress code as citizens should have the freedom to wear what they like.

However, banning a dress one would like to wear violates freedoms that include choice of clothing and food, he said.

“Even if it is for security purposes, the traditions and customs of a community en masse should not be interfered with, particularly when police have the authority to check any suspicious person,” Mansoori said.

Veteran lyricist Javed Akhtar said on May 2 that he was not averse to enacting a law banning the burqa if it was accompanied by a similar action against Hindu women covering their faces with sarees in some parts of India.

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