Above: The niqab ban imposed by the MES has sparked a huge controversy in the state/Photo: UNI
The ban by the Muslim Educational Society for students and faculty members on its campuses has invited sharp criticism from orthodox sections who say it infringes upon freedom of expression
By NV Ravindranathan Nair in Thiruvananthapuram
The ban on face veils for students and faculty members on the campuses of 152 educational institutions under the Muslim Educational Society (MES) has invited sharp criticism from Muslim clerics and orthodox sections of the community in the state.
The MES is a powerful and influential organisation functioning in the education sector in Kerala and lays emphasis on the empowerment of Muslim women. On April 17, it issued a circular imposing a ban on the niqab, effective from June 1, ie, the beginning of the next academic calendar.
While a section of clerics and orthodox Muslim outfits interpreted the decision as emulating the Sri Lankan government’s order banning the niqab, following the serial blasts which killed nearly 300 people, right-wing groups and fundamentalist elements in the community have tried to paint it as an attempt to infringe upon the freedom of expression and practice of religion. Even several Muslim women sharing the same ideological line criticised the ban.
However, PA Fazal Gafoor, president of the MES, told mediapersons: “The MES circular banning niqab, issued on April 17, had nothing to do with Sri Lanka’s ban on face veils following the blasts there on April 21. In the educational institutions run by MES here, no girl students attend classes covering their faces. We have the authority to decide the dress code for students and faculty on our campuses as per the High Court order.” He said the MES would not withdraw the circular, and women’s empowerment was an objective of the MES. The new guideline, he added, was supported by a Kerala High Court verdict. “We, as a renaissance organisation in the state, don’t support the veil, which is not practised by 99 percent of Muslim women,” he said. This is the first time that a social organisation of the Muslim community has come out with a direction against wearing face veils on its campuses.
The MES, which claims it follows the reformist tradition among Kerala Muslims, however, has very little control over the Sunni clergy which administers mosques and madrasas. It also has no sway over deciding ideological debates within the community. While the MES has held the veil to be a foreign import, the Muslim clergy claimed it is a symbol of their religious faith. Gafoor explained: “Women covering their faces is not Islamic. It is a new culture brought from abroad and has little to do with Indian Islamic tradition. The practice of covering the face is a cultural invasion. Now, it has become widespread in Kerala.”
Gafoor said that the MES decision stemmed 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 it has nothing to do with the religion of students. The MES has directed its institutions to incorporate the Court order and state in the prospectus that they would not allow students to cover their faces.
The move, however, has been criticised by the Samastha Kerala Jamiyyathul Ulama, a religious organisation of Sunni Muslim scholars and clerics. Its president, Sayyid Muhammed Jifri Muthukoya Thangal, said: “The MES has no right to intervene in religion. The choice of dress is a girl student’s right and freedom of expression.”
Despite sharp criticism from Muslim organisations, Gafoor said: “Let orthodox elements in the community oppose. We don’t belong to any group…. Out of the over 100 principals heading our institutions, at least 40 are women. Our medical college principal is also a woman. Out of 85,000 students in our institutions, 65 percent are women. We will stick to the dress code. We just want our students to maintain decorum in their attire,” he said.
On December 4, 2018, the Kerala High Court dismissed a writ petition filed by a Muslim girl praying that she be allowed to wear a headscarf in a school run by the Church. The Court said every institution can enforce a dress code but only if it is published in its admission prospectus.
The MES has received support from certain influential sections of society. O Abdulla, a veteran journalist and intellectual known for his hardline Islamic views, has said that the niqab is un-Islamic. In a widely shared Facebook post published after Sri Lanka’s ban on the veil, Abdulla welcomed the ban imposed by the MES. A scholar of Islamic history, Abdulla said: “Islam is not supportive” of the niqab.
Asked about the stance of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) on this issue, its Muslim Youth League state general secretary PK Firoz said the party had decided not to make any comment. “The state leadership of the party has instructed us not to make any comments (on the ban) for the time being,” he said.
Till the beginning of the 1980s, very few Muslim girls were fortunate enough to go to schools in Muslim-dominated districts such as Malappuram, Kozhikode and Kasaragod. Even rarer was the sight of Muslim women covering their faces with a veil in Kerala. But, ironically, when Muslim girls started going to colleges and professional institutions in large numbers, the trend changed with more and more women adopting the purdah and burqa. Several educated Muslim women wear both as a mark of class identity and “resistance” to right-wing forces.
Rights groups such as Amnesty International have also raised concerns and said that “imposing a ban that effectively targets women wearing a face veil for religious reasons risks stigmatising them”. “The ban violates their rights to non-discrimination, freedom of expression and religion,” it said.