ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Why Is the Veil Such a Contentious Issue?

Wearing of the veil among the Arabs, much after the spread of Islam, was more a matter of social status than a religious injunction. It was only later, when western colonial rhetoric began touting the veil as an expression of Muslim backwardness, that it began to be seen as a symbol of retaliation against colonial arrogance. Besides, is the opposition to it out of a concern for women's rights or is it a desire to conform to western thinking?

O n the face of it, the controversysparked off by Shabana Azmicalling for a debate on the veilwould appear to be simply a controversyover the shariat and its interpretation. Thisis how it was represented by Muslim clerics who raised the objection that Azmihad no religious education and could notpronounce on the veil.Are the shariat and its interpretation reallycrucial to this controversy? Or, are thereother factors responsible for making theveil such a contentious question, not onlyin India but in other parts of the Muslimworld as well? As far as the shariat is concerned, there exists clear theological andhistorical evidence that the veil is hardlydemanded by the shariat and was not acommon practice in Arab society whichsaw the emergence of Islam. The Quranicverse which the Muslim clerics cite as endorsing the veil amounts to no more thana recommendation that women should dress modestly and go about with circumspectionin the public domain.Veiling was not a common practice inArab society for a long time after theadvent of Islam. Veiling existed in pre-Islamic times and was not introduced byMuhammad. As among the Greeks, Romans, Jews and Assyrians, who too practised veiling, it was connected with socialstatus. Only the women of the upper socialstrata wore the veil. Commoner Muslims neither wore nor were obliged to wear it.Even Muhammads wives did not go aboutwearing the veil. Accounts of early Islamicperiod tell us about Aisha and another ofMuhammads wives carrying water to menin the battlefield, their garments tucked upand their anklets showing.This freedom came to be curtailed for Muhammads wives as he aged and hisstanding required that his wives should bedistanced from commoners. A series of verses were revealed requiring his wivesto wear the veil (darabat al-hijab) which was interchangeably meant to denote boththe veil and separation. In fact, in thehadith literature the expression she hastaken the veil meant she has become the wife of Muhammad, which goes to showthat veiling was restricted to his wives andwas not practised widely. It was only later,by which time Islam had travelled to territories where seclusion of women was an established practice, that the promotion ofMuhammads wives as models for other women to emulate and growing prosperitythat veiling came to be practised morewidely, but was never an issue of publicdiscourse.

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