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Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Being a man, it is always a struggle for me to write about the issue of the hijab, abaya or burqa. Women who wear these or those who choose not to, are more suited to comment on this. But this hasn’t stopped many men in Muslim-majority countries from becoming the most vocal advocates of such headgear. One can draw potent insights in this context from the studies on the topic by some perceptive Muslim women academics and authors.

On January 13, 2019, Dawn reported that the vice chancellor of the University of Agriculture of Faisalabad (UAF) proudly announced that male students at the university will be encouraged to gift hijabs and abayas to women pupils on the campus on this year’s Valentine’s Day. For almost a decade now, as Valentine’s Day approaches, certain groups suddenly emerge waving scarves, hijabs and abayas at women, especially those who choose not to wear one.

Interestingly, such groups are mostly made up of men. Two years ago, on a petition (also by a man) the now-sacked judge of Islamabad High Court, Shaukat Aziz, banned the celebration of Valentine’s Day in public. Even though Aziz was dismissed by a judicial council due to vastly different and more serious allegations against him, the manner in which some men become hijab/abaya enthusiasts just before Valentine’s Day suggests that this day is as serious as the allegations against the sacked judge.

In our country, women are free to choose or discard veiling in public, yet it is advocated on public platforms from time to time

After going through the writings of various women authors and scholars on the subject of veiling (for or against), one can notice that the issue and debate of veiling was most intense in Muslim countries where veiling in public was sanctioned by the state (such as in Iran, Sudan and Saudi Arabia); or in certain non-Muslim countries where it was largely banned (such as Belgium, France, Austria, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Germany, Holland and Norway — even though the degree of bans vary in each of these countries).

This may come as a surprise to many, but veiling has never been a major issue in Pakistan. Indeed, it sort of emerges on Valentine’s Day, but this is precisely why it does. Some segments want the state to incorporate it in its discourse and use such occasions to bring this up. But there are no laws whatsoever on the issue of veiling in the country. In Pakistan, as far as the state is concerned, women are free to choose or discard veiling in public. So, in a rather paradoxical manner, those advocating it from a public platform, such as our pious vice chancellor of UAF, do not have the right to do so. And yet, at the same time, they can.

There are various interpretations of what the Quran says about veiling. It is thus almost impossible for a state to formulate a single interpretation without offending those who hold different meanings of the same verses. That’s why a majority of Muslim countries have left it to the women to make their own decision in this respect.

None of the many studies on the subject authored by Western and Muslim academics mention Pakistan. So maybe this bothers some Pakistanis. Therefore, the debate on veiling, when it does crop up in Pakistan, is sporadic, largely ill-informed (both on a theological and secular level) and sometimes entirely ridiculous. For example, some folk want chocolates and roses to be replaced with hijabs and abayas on Valentine’s Day.

As I said earlier, the most interesting and dense debates can be found in Muslim countries where veiling is mandated by the state and in those European countries where it is banned. But then there is also the case of Muslim-majority Turkey, where some very informed academic narratives on the subject have emerged. This is because veiling in general was aggressively discouraged by the state and then banned in public institutions after Turkish nationalist Kamal Ataturk discarded the decaying, conservative caliphate and declared Turkey a secular republic in 1923.

In her book, Modernity, Islam and Secularism in Turkey, Turkish academic and author Alev Cinar writes that, even though veiling was thoroughly discouraged by the Turkish state and explained as a ‘sign of backwardness’ it was not officially banned. However, in 1972, women civil servants and lawyers were officially disallowed to observe veiling. Then 10 years later, in 1982, veiling was banned in most other state, government and educational institutions as well.

According to Cinar, veiling became a ‘political issue’ in Turkey in the 1990s. An attempt was made in 2002 by the ruling centre-right AK Parti of Erdogan to amend the constitutional decree banning the veil in public institutions. But it failed. In 2008, the government was able to introduce an amendment which constitutionally allowed women to wear the head scarf in educational institutions, if they chose to.

Harvard University’s Laila Ahmad, in her book A Quiet Revolution, writes that veiling among women in the Muslim world saw a steep decline in the 1950s and 1960s. She adds that discouraging women from observing the veil by the state was rampant in countries such as Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and Turkey during the mentioned period. Ahmad writes that an interest in veiling began to trickle back from 1973 onwards, when Saudi Arabia replaced Egypt as the most influential country in the Muslim world.

Ahmad cites the reasons why an interest in veiling returned. These included veiling campaigns by Saudi-funded political and social organisations; finding a new Islamic identity in an increasingly chaotic world with overlapping and even contradictory religious and secular trends; and a swelling in the numbers of petty-bourgeoisie women joining the workforce in male-dominated areas.

In Turkey, Cinar sees the emergence of new Islamic movements from the 1990s onwards as the reason behind the propagation of veiling. These groups see veiling as a reaction against the country’s strict anti-veiling laws, and as ‘the best way to protect a woman’s modesty from the male gaze.’

But, Cinar writes, many Turkish women activists opposed to this narrative lament that it asks women to stoically accept male dominance in social and work spaces instead of demanding action against the ‘male gaze’. They say men threatened by the entry of women in male-dominated spaces have imposed a precondition that a woman must be veiled. Wonder if Mr Vice Chancellor, too, is feeling vulnerable because of the growing number of women students at a once very male university?

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 20th, 2019