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What It Means To Live Under The Airless Veil

What It Means To Live Under The Airless Veil

Author: Balbir K. Punj
Publication: Outlook
Date: February 25, 2008
URL: http://www.outlookindia.com/full.asp?fodname=20080225&fname=Column+Balbir+%28F%29&sid=1

Introduction: Islamic orthodoxy is a blight on our enlightened times. Why no protests?

Tennis prodigy and India's hope for the world tennis crown, Sania Mirza, says she won't be taking to the Indian tennis courts in the near future. Reason: she is "tired" of the constant criticism of her sports uniform and other off- and on-court behaviour by orthodox Muslims. In the follow-up, several newspapers have lambasted this orthodoxy and asked the liberals why they were so silent. Had it been some hothead from the Hindu extremists, the entire liberal "secular establishment" would have jumped on the critic bandwagon and, for good measure, dragged in the BJP into their web of opprobrium.

India is a secular country because of its ancient, pluralistic and catholic Vedic traditions, now reflected through its Constitution. Yet Islamic orthodoxy is able to threaten its members into falling in line with its own warped version of conduct, including the dress code writ in its religious laws.

In such situations, the 'secularists' generally either remain silent or line up with the fundamentalist sections, a la the Shah Bano case, the Vande Materam debate...the list is endless.

Religious scriptures (of all faiths) generally reflect the wisdom and noble sentiments of the period and socio-geographical milieu in which they were "revealed" or composed. No doubt most of the wisdom in the scriptures is ageless and eternal and helps the faithful evolve as better human beings. However, it's true that some parts of the "holy books" have become outdated and are inconsistent with contemporary times and values.

In a healthy society, through dialogue and debate, problematic paradigms are either reinterpreted or even dropped, generally without hurting the feelings of the majority of the faithful. For example, over the last two hundred years, Europeans have coopted most liberal traits (found in abundance in the much abused Brahminical literature) into their culture, bypassed many of the Biblical injunctions and still managed to retain their Christian identity.

Within Indian society, there have been many debates on the various facets of Hinduism (it's an ongoing process). Laws against child marriage, untouchability, dowry and abolition of Sati fall in this category. But in the case of Islam, no such efforts have been made. All such exercises are nipped in the bud, termed "anti-Muslim" and a threat to the "secular fabric" of the country. Even chance interventions, such as the Supreme Court ruling in the Shah Bano case, are promptly negated by the 'secularists'.

To further strengthen the backward mindset in the Muslim community, the state funds the expansion of the madrassa network. Special funds are allotted to help these religious schools "modernise". There's little doubt that such efforts will in no way help the madrassas. Instead, these modern tools (such as computers) are most likely to be used to perpetuate the medieval mindset. A case in point: all the 19 pilots involved in 9/11 knew how to fly ultra-modern planes. Likewise, Osama Bin Laden had lived in the West for a long time and is said to be somewhat of a whiz with modern gadgets.

Sania's decision recalls the number of horror stories emanating from Muslim countries on the state of their societies in general, and women's place in them in particular. A recent write-up on Afghanistan in Time details the state of girls' education there. Though the Hamid Karzai-led government has opened up education for girls, the Muslim orthodoxy and the lack of resources for constructing schools are together taking a toll. School enrolment of girls is still at marginal levels. Meanwhile, a new wave of Taliban militancy has struck fear among those parents who do want to send their girls to schools. Several schoolgoing girls have been killed and the Taliban has warned off parents with female wards.

During the Taliban regime, women were confined to their homes, denied education and barred from all professions on pain of death. The "liberation" of the country has meant freedom for Afghan women to go to schools, get jobs, even go abroad. But the Time report says the Muslim tradition of prohibiting women mixing with unrelated men "still defines large swathes of Afghan society...even in urban areas like Kabul". The report also quotes Muslim parents as insisting that they'd rather their girls went without education than be taught by a male teacher.

How non-Muslims are treated in a Muslim majority country came to light in the recent happenings in Malaysia. The Tamil Hindu population there had to take to the streets because their rights were being trampled on. A stray incident during this time also showed up how Islamic laws are used to harass non-Muslim minorities. The Associated Press reported in the last week of January that a Hindu mother has been denied the insurance money of her dead son because he had converted to Islam. Rukumony Muthiah's son had named her as the beneficiary in his insurance policy.

The report says "Islamic authorities have argued in court that under the country's religious laws...a non-Muslim cannot claim inheritance from a Muslim." The mother's lawyer says that though Malaysia's constitution prescribes equality before law for all citizens, while "a non-Muslim cannot inherit from a Muslim, a Muslim can inherit from a non-Muslim". The report also says: "Malaysia's non-Muslim minorities say a spate of court cases in recent years, involving disputes between Muslims and non-Muslims, have usually ended with the Muslim side winning."

Another report from the same nation highlights the plight of non-Muslims because of these arbitrary actions. When a 74-year-old of a family in Nigeri Sembilian died, the authorities "snatched" his body for burial claiming the man had converted to Islam. The Islamic Sharia court ruled that the man had converted in 2006 but the family points out that he was already a stroke victim then and could not even speak. "His conversion papers were also flawed because they were not signed," the family said. The report said further that "Opposition leader Lim Kit Siang urged the government to put a stop to the body-snatching cases to help preserve racial harmony". Malaysia has both ethnic Indian and Chinese minority communities while native Malays are largely Muslims.

The plight of women in Muslim majority countries was again internationally highlighted in an incident in Saudi Arabia where a Muslim woman was sentenced to 250 lashes for being seen with unrelated males in a car. The woman had complained of rape but the incident was turned against her under provisions of the Islamic law. The rape was overlooked and the fact that she was seen with other men pinned on her. After her husband raised an international ruckus and several governments in the West condemned the lady's indictment, the Saudi King, a Western ally, "pardoned" her.

But, as the international press has written, the basic injustice underscoring Islamic laws against women remains untouched. Similar incidents in Pakistan found a rape victim sentenced while her tormentors were let off. In Afghanistan, a Muslim, 41-year-old Abdul Rehman, was ordered to be executed because he had the gumption to become a Christian. The event once again raised a storm of protest in the West. The Afghan president saved the situation by allowing the condemned to go to Italy where the government gave him asylum but the harsh death sentence for conversion remains.

Of course, harsh and unjust laws, especially against women, are not the monopoly of Islamic countries alone.

Several other countries too have legal positions that hurt women in one way or the other. There are in addition social customs and traditions like honour killings. But in most countries where laws are based on rights, there are strong movements for reform and periodic changes are made in the laws to protect women, especially in issues like inheritance, dowry, domestic violence and property rights. It is only in Islamic countries that laws are claimed to be derived from Islamic tradition-as crystallised in the Sharia-and therefore rendered immutable and unchangeable. The world outside the closed circle of Islamic countries is aghast at the retention of these barbaric and tribal customs in laws like the amputation sentence for theft, stoning to death for the crime of being immoral etc.

How difficult it is for anyone to call for reform was demonstrated once again in Afghanistan where a Muslim journalist, Syed Parvez Kaambaksh, is facing a death sentence for having downloaded some articles from the Internet criticising Sharia laws and its slant against women and distributed them among friends. The entire modern world has expressed its horror at this sentence but the Afghan parliament still endorsed the sentence. Not one of our so-called secular political parties has condemned this hugely unjust action against the journalist. In the wake of the jehadi wave sweeping over Muslim majority countries, laws there are becoming even more attuned to a retributory, barbaric and anti-women past, meant to strike holy fear and thereby gain compliance. Nearer home, we have Taslima Nasreen. The celebrated Bangladeshi author has been forced out of West Bengal by the Left Front government, under pressure from Muslim fundamentalists who constitute a sizable votebank and also have the potential to set Calcutta ablaze. However, none of these events seem to stir our jholawalas and self-styled secularists to any anger. It's a matter of both concern and shame.

(The author can be contacted at punjbk@gmail.com)

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