NationalVOLUME 17 ISSUE # 14

Hijab, a matter of basic human rights

Sarwat Gull Agha, an executive in a private firm, wears an abaya and a headscarf, but not purely for religious reasons. She says she wears it as she feels more comfortable and secure in it. She recalls that a particular incident, taking place almost 16 years ago, made her realise the usefulness of a robe, covering her body from head to toe.

The sky was overcast on that particular day when she, along with her colleague, left her office after the closing time in Main Market Gulberg, Lahore. They were to cover a small distance to reach the terminal to board a bus to reach their homes. However, they were caught by a sudden downpour, and were totally drenched when they reached the bus stop.

A small shed at the stop was already occupied by half a dozen men, and they had no choice but to stay in the open to wait for the bus. At once she noted that most of the men standing under the shed were staring at her, as almost all her body was visible in her wet shalwar-kameez. Even her dupatta, also wet, was too small to cover her body. However, her colleague, wearing an abaya and a headscarf, appeared to be more confident, for being safe from the staring, piercing eyes.

From that day onwards, Sarwat Agha has always donned an abaya and a headscarf whenever she goes out of her house, no matter in her own car or a rickshaw. She says she agrees with religious intellectual Javed Ahmad Ghamdi that Islam is a ‘natural religion’. All its commands best cover human needs in a natural way, the business graduate in her early 40s tells Cutting Edge. She says Islam has a specific command about the way women must dress themselves, and she had found that dressing very comfortable and natural for herself and all women at least in the subcontinent.

Rubab Hassan, a religious scholar and a teacher at a madrasa in Lahore, says the Quranic command about a dress code for men and women offers a broader perspective.

In Surah Al-Ahzab, the Quran says: “O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves (part) of their outer garments. That is more suitable that they will be known and not be abused.”

Ms. Rubab says hijab, abaya, headscarf and a particular dressing are more to do with culture and traditions of a region or a family, a tribe, than the religion. She says imposing restrictions on women about wearing hijab in the name of religion, especially Islam, is totally unjustified. “If women of a particular region or country, or those observing a particular religion, wear some specific dress, that might be due to their personal likes or ease of carrying themselves in society,” the scholar in her mid-thirties tells Cutting Edge. She says it must be taken as a matter of basic human rights and personal liberties, and should not be banned anywhere in the world in the name of Islam, or any other religion.

Agha Intizar Ali Imran, a Supreme Court of Pakistan senior lawyer, fully endorses Ms. Rubab Hassan’s viewpoint on hijab and women’s way of dressing in public. He says currently a case is being heard by higher courts in India, after a girl student, Muskan, wearing hijab, was confronted by Hindu extremist elements on campus and its video went viral on the social media.

The senior lawyer says that wearing a hijab is even protected by Indian law under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution, which guarantees the right to freedom of speech and expression. He quotes the Indian Constitution as having said that a right under Article 19(1)(a) can only be limited to the “reasonable restrictions” mentioned in Article 19(2). That included sovereignty and integrity of India, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of courts, defamation or incitement to an offence.

Agha Imran Advocate wonders that how come a student silently wearing a hijab/headscarf and attending classes can in any manner disturb the “public order” and is only a profession of their faith. The Supreme Court of Pakistan lawyer argues that the ban on headscarves violates the fundamental right to equality since other religious markers, such as a turban worn by a Sikh, are not explicitly prohibited. He argues that the rules prescribed wearing of a dupatta for women and the state cannot dictate the manner of wearing that dupatta if a student wishes to cover her head with it.

The senior lawyer says it is a good omen that voices against the orders banning hijab are equally strong, being raised in almost all parts of the world. He says over a thousand feminist and civil rights democratic organisations from across India have collectively released a statement recently, condemning the targeting and exclusion of hijab-wearing Muslim students from educational institutions in their country. He believes these voices would snowball with the passage of time and help protect basic human rights of women in India, and other countries of the world where a ban on hijab has already been imposed.