To veil or not to veil!

There is a furor among minority groups on the issue of the dress code introduced by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) that barred candidates appearing for its July 25 All India Pre-Medical Test (AIPMT) from wearing scarf and full-sleeve shirts. AIPMT was reconducted in the backdrop of alleged irregularities in the exam held in May 2015. The Supreme Court (SC) had ordered to impose a strict dress code, banning any kind of jewellery, head scarf or veils, shoes, watches and electronic devices in the second test. The Board of CBSE has taken stringent measures to make sure candidates don’t resort to cheating during this exam, as it was found that question papers had been leaked during the exams that were held on 3rd May this year.

The dress code caused a great inconvenience to people coming from religious background. In this regard a catholic nun refused to take the test as she was asked to remove her head scarf along with her Holy Cross for mandatory checking before entering the exam hall at a centre in Kerala.
Reacting to this incident, Kerala PCC President, V.M.Sudheer critisized the decision of the authorities and termed it as unfortunate. Further he stated that the decision went against the constitutional right given to citizens to preserve their faith and follow (religious) practices. Moreover he asked the government to take necessary steps to avoid these kind of moves that would hurt the sentiments of followers of a particular faith. The ruling Congress government and its major coalition partner, IUML in Kerala who had come out against this issue echoed similar sentiments, IUML National Secretary and MP, ET Mohammed Basheer expressed that the SC’s decision on the Hijab was not right, it involves certain issues of faith as well.

The incident involving the nun was disturbing and raises questions regarding the rights of a citizen, said Cardinal Basilios Mar Cleemis of Malankara Catholic Church. “ We do not wish to rake up a controversy over the issue but it is disturbing to note that the nun was not allowed to wear her religious paraphernalia even though she was ready to undergo security check. What is that is being targetted- religious symbols or exam malpractices?” he added.

When a petition was filed by Students Islamic Organisation and some other Muslim organisations asking the court to intervene on this matter, insisting that some matters including Hijab and veil were part of their essential religious practice but the court refused to entertain the plea. A three judge bench of the SC, headed by Chief Justice H.L.Dattu dismissed the pleas to allow students to wear the traditional “hijab” saying that,” faith is something different from wearing some kind of clothes”, and “some reasonable restrictions” were required.

Bovas Mathew, official spokesperson of the Syro Malankare church said, “ It’s really unfortunate that the central government is not doing anything to resolve this issue”. Further he added, “The constitution guarantees a person to hold on to his belief and customs. The judiciary should not have gone to this extent.

A notification issued by CBSE barring the items like belts, cap, scarf etc to exam hall invited criticism from the minority groups. Saleem Engineer, General Secretary, Jamaate Islami Hind, said , “ With such a circular CBSE is trying to cover up its failure to conduct an examination in a proper manner. The board needs to understand that AIPMT is not the only examination conducted in the country. When such rules are not in place for Civil Services and Engineering Entrance Examinations, why are they showing such a communal mindset towards the medical exam”. Saleem’s views were echoed by other minority leaders like Iqbal Hussain, President of Students Islamic Organisation (SIO) and Md Thomas director of Institute of Peace and a Harmony Studies. Iqbal Hussain said, “the order issued by CBSE promotes curtailment of religious freedom of an individual”, Thomas added, “CBSE’S intentions behind the circular to put its strict measures in place to avoid cheating during examination are justified but the regulations announced by them were not deliberated upon well. The board has no right to tamper with constitutional rights”.

In support of the SIO, Senior Advocate Sanjay Hegde said that the dress code sought to meddle with the religious practices of a particular community. “If I had to adhere to my religious practices, I will have to give up on my exam, he said. In response with this statement the bench said, “it was nothing but ego”.

CJI, H.L.Dattu said it on a day when you have to sit for an exam, you are being asked not to wear it. Your faith won’t disappear if you appear for the exam without a scarf”. Besides it was a “small issue” and the court doesn’t need to interfere in such matters.

Manorama reports that the issue has triggered curious debates as whether the SC verdict violates the norms and sentiments of certain communities. However the larger picture of why the CBSE was to bring in the dress code and why SC backed the bold decision is not being pondered upon much.

The decision hurts the religious sentiments of Muslims as they believe in the word of God, where Quran has given clear instructions on women’s attire saying “ O Prophet enjoin your wives and daughters and the believing women, to draw a part of their outer coverings around them. It is likelier that they be recognized and not molested. Allah is most Forgiving, most Merciful”. (33:59)

“Say to the believing women that they should cast down their glances and guard their private parts (by being chaste)……” (24;30)

“And not display their beauty except what is apparent, and they should place (khumur) veil on their bossoms” (24;32)

These are the specific verses which address the issue of clothing. Basically the main principle behind these verses is that of modesty. Women should guard their modesty and honour and it is the best means of respectful interaction between men and women. The purpose of covering oneself is to be recognized (as a decent women) and not harassed” Quran says. The women who are in hijab observe that men are more respectful towards them.

Generalizations about Islam and Muslims are replete in today’s media. Hijab and Muslim women are being targeted in chat rooms. They are regarded as oppressed and fanatics. This misconception is being spread to create malice against the system of hijab in Islam. However due to these controversial issues many people around the globe are curious to know what is there behind the screen, this inquisitiveness has helped the non-Muslims to learn more about Islam and the Quran consequently giving them satisfaction and making them appreciate the wisdom behind Allah’s commands in the Holy Book.

Moreover hijab brings the tremendous responsibility on women for the decent clothing, it also symbolizes a commitment to piety. “Self or Inner morality is what gives meaning to the external scarf”, commented a reverted Muslim, she also added, this can be pursued from the overall demeanor of any Muslim woman, how she acts, dresses, speaks so on. In a land where misinformation about Islam and Muslims abounds, Muslim sisters have the opportunity to portray Islam in its true light”.

Sameena Faheem Hashmi