Burqa: Principle, Prejudice and Preference

By Anjum Altaf

What is the difference between the yarmulke and the burqa besides the fact that one is minimally small and the other is maximally large?

By now the controversy over the burqa is well known. In France, President Sarkozy has said: “The burqa is not a religious sign. It is a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement… It will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic…. In our country we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity.”

In Cairo, President Obama has said: “I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal…. and I respect those women who choose to live their lives in traditional roles. But it should be their choice.”

I am going to set these remarks against the backdrop of Bertrand Russell’s observations on the tyranny of the majority (from Political Ideals, 1917) where he discusses “matters of passionate interest to certain sections of the community, but of very little interest to the great majority. If they are decided according to the wishes of the numerical majority, the intense desires of a minority will be overborne by the very slight and uninformed whims of the indifferent remainder…. The tyranny of the majority is a very real danger. It is a mistake to suppose that the majority is necessarily right…. there are a great many questions in which there is no need of a uniform decision…. Wherever divergent action by different groups is possible without anarchy, it ought to be permitted…. it is of the utmost importance that the majority should refrain from imposing its will as regards matters in which uniformity is not absolutely necessary.”

Now I wish to extract the principles contained in these three statements. In Russell’s case, the principle is unambiguous – wherever divergent action by different groups is possible without anarchy, it ought to be permitted. In Obama’s case, the principle is seemingly clear but possibly problematic as I shall argue later – individuals can do what they wish (within the law) as long as they do it out of free choice. In Sarkozy’s case, there is no principle; there is a statement of prejudice (the burqa is a sign of subservience, of debasement) and a statement of preference (in our country we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen).

I do not have a problem with Sarkozy’s personal prejudices. Nor do I have a problem with the passage of a law in France dictating what kind of outerwear is acceptable in the country – that is a prerogative of the French parliament. But note that such a law violates Russell’s reasonable principle provided we assume that the wearing of the burqa is not going to be the cause of anarchy in French society.

My concern about actions based not on defensible principles but upon prejudices and preferences is that they can be quite arbitrary and dangerous. What if Sarkozy next gets it into his head that the bindiya too is a sign of subservience? Or worse, what if some new Fuhrer coming to power decides that the yarmulke is an absurd pre-historic head covering stuck to the hair of men with pins and that it cannot be accepted in modern European society?

How does Sarkozy know that the burqa is a sign of subservience? It may be in some cases and not in others. Even when it is, how will disallowing it prevent other less visible forms of subservience continuing inside the home? And how does he know the yarmulke is not a sign of coercion in some cases?

It is here that I sense a weakness in the principle of free choice as enunciated by Obama. It is not generally the case that individuals attain the age of majority and are presented for the first time with the choice of wearing or not wearing a certain piece of outerwear. In most cases, they are socialized into wearing that piece of clothing from very early childhood growing up with the feeling that being without it as almost akin to being naked (in the case of the burqa) or in a state of deep sin (in the case of the yarmulke). This is quite different, for example, from the case of consensual homosexual relationships, which can be seen as an act of free choice – no one is socialized into such behavior from early childhood as a requirement of social or religious duty. So Obama has the wrong analogy in mind on which he has based his principle. What Obama calls free choice, Sarkozy will term subservience.

At the same time, there are indeed European women who are not socialized into traditional behavior but who now prefer to wear a burqini. This is indeed an expression of free choice in Obama’s terms and not a sign of subservience in Sarkozy’s terms. French authorities have to contort themselves to find a public health rationale to keep the burqini out of swimming pools when Western women were wearing similar costumes not more than half a century ago as will be obvious from this pictorial history of the bikini.

Based on the above both Sarkozy and Obama need to reconsider their positions. I personally wouldn’t want to be inside a burqa and I find the yarmulke quaintly odd but as long as there are people who wish to indulge their desires to wear them without causing anarchy in society, I would have to learn to keep my prejudices and my preferences to myself and not goad an otherwise indifferent majority into imposing its will on a minority. At the same time I quite like the bindiya (as long as it is not green) but have to refrain myself from ordering its universal usage. I also consider the move from the burqa to the burqini a giant leap for humanity and would hate to step in the way of this promising evolution.

Not for nothing was Bertrand Russell a philosopher of the highest rank.


  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 03:36h, 14 August Reply

    Though I am an admirer of Bertrand Russell and though I agree with his principle of diversity in general, I think the principle is misapplied here just as Obama misapplies his principle of free choice. In fact, I think Sarkozy gets it right although his statement could have been a lot more nuanced than it is.

    The reason why I think Russell’s principle is misapplied here is that it presupposes practices that emerge from individuals who are socially and culturally free, who are able to practice both self-criticism and criticism of social practices, and who are able to make free choices. To put it in a nutshell, Russell’s principle presupposes Obama’s and more besides, so if Obama’s principle is misapplied, so is Russell’s. While it may be true that some women who wear burqas satisfy the prerequisites listed above, it does seem reasonable to say that the majority don’t. Indeed, I would say that these prerequisites are precisely the kinds of things this blog is trying to achieve.

    The reason why a burqa or equivalent article of clothing is oppressive in general is twofold: one is that it exists in a certain social context that disallows the presuppositions above to exist in society and the second is that it appears to be physically extremely restrictive, especially in the wider context of the world as it is today. A yarmulke may fit the first reason above but not the second, so it is a harmless oddity. But a burqa does not appear to be quite so harmless.

    I think one succinct way to put this is to use Amartya Sen’s insightful concept of “capability.” Russell and Obama presuppose certain capabilities in people that do not exist among the majority in the world as it is today. To have various capabilities is to first and foremost have had access to a decent education (which need not be formal). So the argument is as follows: since the majority do not have the required capabilities, their wearing of the burqa is largely a sign of subservience to the powers that be, exactly the statement made by Sarkozy, however politically incorrect it may seem.

    Of course, it is wrong to assert sweepingly that most people in the world lack various basic capabilities without supporting this statement which is not meant pejoratively, just factually. But it is not possible to give an argument for this here.

  • kabir
    Posted at 06:56h, 14 August Reply

    I agree that judging what is “free choice” is problematic, but I don’t see a better position. Some women want to wear the burqa, others are coerced into it, but it is not possible to go into people’s homes and ask individuals “do you truely want to wear this or is your husband (or father) forcing you to?” If the woman is truely being coerced, she wouldn’t even be able to say that she is being coerced. Thus, we have to assume that a woman wearing a burqa or hijab is dong so out of her own choice, and respect that, as long as it is not a threat to the security of the state. I do think it is legitimate for the state to mandate that driver’s licence pictures must show the individual’s face: ID is useless if there is no way to distinguish between individuals.

    Regarding France, their position may seem extreme to some of us but secularism or laicite is the official ideology of the state and is part of the French constitution. As such, France has the right to defend this ideology and people who willingly immigrate to France should understand clearly that they may not be able to practice all their cultural and religious traditions. This conflicts with our US-based understanding of freedom of religion and expression, but one has to accept that the US and French models are different.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 13:55h, 14 August Reply

    I agree with kabir’s observations about France but find his argument about free choice a non-sequitur. He concludes “Thus, we have to assume that a woman wearing a burqa or hijab is dong so out of her own choice …” My question is: why does this conclusion follow from the fact that we cannot reliably ask women wearing burqas whether they are being coerced? The conclusion should be that we cannot find out by asking questions in this way.

    The key question therefore remains: is there coercion among the majority or not? (Not just in France but elsewhere as well.) Then one has to ask what coercion is. Here I would quote the above article: “In most cases, they are socialized into wearing that piece of clothing from very early childhood growing up with the feeling that being without it as almost akin to being naked (in the case of the burqa) or in a state of deep sin (in the case of the yarmulke).”

    But there is another dimension to this question as well related to the capabilities approach of Sen mentioned above. It seems reasonable to assert that most people do have basic powers of reasoning (even without education) and are able to figure out how to achieve what they desire or at least come as close as possible to it. Everyone operates within a set of social and cultural constraints and people are generally able to figure out their best course of action within these constraints.

    However, a basic capability is to be able to critique the constraints themselves, to step out of one’s cultural conditioning and ask whether the culture one is born into is reasonable in all its practices. No culture is likely to be able to stand up to such scrutiny and people who have the relevant critical capability are able to question their cultures and change them by following new practices.

    My claim is that while most people today have the capability to choose their best action within a system of constraints, they do not have the capability to question the reasonableness of the constraints themselves. The presence of science has made the West much more capable of transcending its own limitations while the East has lagged behind. This has made the West relatively more dynamic. This is evident even if one restricts one’s attention to the evolution of Christianity within the last five hundred years as opposed to most other religions.

    Of course, in many situations there is direct external coercion by the state, and then this is clearly visible. But this subtler kind of coercion – the inability to question one’s cultural conditioning and explore alternatives – is harder to ascertain empirically. The best one can do is give an argument about socialization etc. and observe people’s statements over an extended period of time.

    It seems reasonable on the whole to claim that many people worldwide take their social constraints as “natural” and “immutable” rather than as “cultural” and “alterable.” A key capability education should equip us with is the ability to imagine alternatives to what is socially given.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 15:03h, 14 August Reply

    The link to the Russell article in the Daily Times seems broken.

    Vikram: Sorry about that. It is fixed now.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 15:04h, 14 August Reply


    Very sophisticated reasoning there. I admire that.

    I don’t think policies can be made based on the subtler kind of coercion you speak of. Policies are to be made based on the coercion that is, to use your words, “clearly visible”. If that is so, unless there is a hue and cry against the burqa from the muslim community, we have to go with kabir’s assumption – that there is no coercion. I submit therefore that kabir’s reasoning was not a non-sequitur, but very pertinent with regard to policy making approaches.

  • kabir
    Posted at 17:35h, 14 August Reply

    Arun–I agree with your broader point about a good education giving people that capacity to question their societal and familial norms. However, one could argue that (most) people who have their daughters wear burqas don’t want them to gain this ability to question, at least not when it comes to religion or culture. It’s an extremely challenging task to inculcate liberal values in people, and perhaps particularly so with orthodox Muslims– many of whom while extremely intelligent and successful in their professions stop thinking entirely when it comes to religious dogma.

    I just don’t see a better alternative than assuming that a woman who wears a burqa is doing so out of her free choice. We can’t know whether she is doing so or not unless she tells us. I think Vinod is right when he says that unless there is protest from within the Muslim community itself, particularly Muslim women, there’s not much the state can do (unless, like France, it wants to agressively enforce secularism)

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 03:16h, 15 August

      Kabir: I left out the first sentence from Sarkozy’s comment on the burqa. It begins as follows: “The burka is not a religious sign. It is a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement… It will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic.”

      If the burka is not a religious sign does the issue of secularism being the official ideology of France still remain relevant? What will Sarkozy do about the Sikh turban which is truly a religious sign? If nothing, does it mean that all Sarkozy is expressing is the personal preference that he doesn’t like the burqa?

      As I mentioned in the post I don’t have a problem with the French saying that they will not allow people in the country who follow particular cultural practices – that is their prerogative. This could lead to some pretty silly retaliation though – like some countries not allowing in people who don’t use water for anal cleansing; public health arguments would work just as well in this case. The real issue, it seems to me, would once again be not whether one practice or the other seems more bizarre to one but whether there would be any real danger of (biological) anarchy to the receiving society. Since no such evidence can be adduced, we should accept the diversity.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 19:40h, 14 August Reply

    Thanks for the kind words, Vinod.

    I wasn’t trying to discuss what policy-makers should do or what the state should do. The question I was addressing was whether the individuals in question had the ability to question their social environment. I think there are both soft and hard constraints on such questioning in many countries. To the extent there are, these individuals can be said to be oppressed. Just because a person doesn’t say she is oppressed does not mean that she isn’t. To take an extreme case, female genital mutilation has existed for a long time. There wasn’t always a hue and cry about it. But that does not mean that such females weren’t oppressed or coerced or that the state should stay idle. Poverty is a basic and widespread fact. There isn’t much of a hue and cry about it. But states do make at least a half-hearted attempt to remove it.

    I just don’t see any logic in assuming that a person isn’t coerced if she does not say so. I realize a burqa and hijab are cultural items of clothing as all such items are and that people may be sensitive about such criticism and therefore that it is politically incorrect to do so but, as I said above, because it is such a restrictive piece of clothing for the modern world, I find it hard to imagine it is uncoerced at some level. Could a woman in such an environment go out in a bikini if she wanted to? Many women in the last fifty years found the sari quite inconvenient and stopped wearing saris to work. The sari also evolved to suit modern times. The burqini is a good example of such an evolution for swimwear because not everyone may be comfortable with a bikini. But it is a colorful garment unlike the black burqa.

    Marx had the very pliable concept of false consciousness which can unfortunately be greatly misused. But I don’t think it is very wrong to apply it to such situations.

    I am not questioning the intelligence or professional success of such people in general. But it is very difficult in some settings to transcend one’s conditioning because conformity is itself a coercive norm.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 02:54h, 15 August

      Arun: You have very clearly identified the mark of an educated individual: the ability to be self-critical – the capacity to stand outside of oneself and to subject this unique ‘Other’ to the same rigorous examination that one would employ for one’s worst enemy. Once we get to that point, it is only then that the journey can begin. Thanks for that lucid message.

      Now to address, in order, some of the points you have raised:

      1. On Russell’s presupposition: In quoting Russell, I had skipped a fair amount of text. I quoted the following: “But there are a great many questions in which there is no need of a uniform decision.” The sentence that follows immediately and one I skipped is: “Religion is recognised as one of these.” Now religion is quintessentially something into which one is socialized and which cannot be considered free in the sense of being an outcome of self-criticism and deep analysis. I don’t think the operative part of Russell’s principle depends upon the real freedom of the choice but on whether the divergent behavior can be the cause of social anarchy. If not, it should be tolerated. At least, that is how the message came across to me.

      2. Many things exist in society as the result of socialization – the yarmulke and the burqa are the examples we used; Sikh turbans are another familiar headwear. Just because one of these seems a lot more restrictive to us than the others does not seem sufficient reason to disallow its use. This is just the expression of a personal preference based on one’s sense of discomfort with the unfamiliar. A yarmulke may look a harmless oddity to some while others may be really scared by turbans.

      3. You find the burqini acceptable because it is a colorful garment but not the burqa which is black and primitive. It looks so restrictive that you find it hard to imagine it would not be coerced at some level. The discomfort and doubt are understandable but not sufficient grounds to disallow its use. If the burqa were to be jazzed up by Oscar de la Renta, would it make you less uncomfortable and inclined to change your opinion?

    • Vinod
      Posted at 15:37h, 16 August

      Arun, the FGM analogy was a very good comeback. It has given me food for thought. I really don’t have much to say. I only now wonder about how did those societies that practiced FGM realize that it had to go. Were there any internal movements? Were there external influences?

      I reckon that subtle coercion can take very draconian forms. But in such cases, I would not expect individuals opting to go through it ever. The burqa may be practiced partly due to coercion. But as long as there is a section that practices it by choice and is willing to make a case for it, it is difficult to deem it objectively as coercive, notwithstanding my personal dislike for the burqa. To me, it is an insult to men!! (think about it). I find it hard to imagine that FGM could ever be opted for by someone and even harder to imagine anybody make a case for it.

      Minority practices will always be under scrutiny. Those that have a permanent character and appear prohibitve or restrictive will especially be so. FGM is one such practice for its permanent character; the burqa for its restrictive character. Minority practices will also be under scrutiny based on the prejudices of the majority. The buqa is generally viewed today as oppressive (there was a a time when it was viewed as a sign of a honourable woman!!).

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 16:57h, 16 August

      Vinod: Let me try and argue why FGM may not be good example to consider in the discussion of free choice.

      There are some practices that were/are based on incorrect medico-scientific beliefs. The closest example would the use of leeches in Europe to suck out poisonous blood as a cure for some diseases. Once the theory is disproved, the practice dies out, not all at once because there are always holdouts who are late in converting. FGM falls in that category and few modern educated people defend either leeching or FGM. In the social context, sati may also be placed in the same category.

      The individual on whom FGM is practiced obviously has no say in the choice because of her age. The adults seem to be practicing it out of free choice but, as I have argued in the case of leeching, based on a scientific belief that was only later proved to be wrong. In such cases the essence is not really the nature of the choice but the advance of science that disproves certain beliefs and the speed with which the new thinking replaces the old.

      There is also no opportunity for the individual on whom FGM has been practiced to give evidence of what her free choice might have been by reversing the procedure in adulthood. The male equivalent would be circumcision which in some religions is routinely practiced at birth without affording free choice again based on a medical belief whose efficacy is still being debated contrary to the verdict regarding FGM. So, in this case the uncircumcised do have the option of revealing their free choice by opting to be circumcised in adulthood. However, this is not something that weighs heavily on the minds of people and both the circumcised and uncircumcised do equally well or poorly. Therefore inertia rules and we cannot get much evidence on whether the violation of free choice of the circumcised is an unacceptable act that should be disallowed by law.

      A more interesting example could be the scarring of the skin of children by some African tribes. Should this be disallowed by law as unacceptable if it does no harm except make the individuals look strange to the majority not used to such a practice? Many Westerners voluntarily acquire tattoos in adulthood and this is accepted as an expression of free choice with no negative social consequences. Here the only argument in favor of a ban on the African tribes would be that free choice is being violated and free individual choice is a principle we wish to uphold in the modern world.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 00:55h, 17 August

      SA: It seems to me that free choice looks most important when it is considered in relation to practices that affect the individual physically in a permanent irreversible way.

  • mazhur
    Posted at 22:35h, 14 August Reply

    Before criticizing the burqa it should be understood that burqa is a kind of clothing mainly worn by Muslim women and that it is not the kind of clothing ‘prescribed’ to them by Islam. Islam only wants women to observe modesty in dress, to keep their bosoms covered up. to not allow public to see their make-up or ornamentation; this modesty can be obtained in many other ways such as having the design, style, color, etc of the burqa or hijab altered to correspond to law of places such as France where Muslim culture doesn’t dominate. France should not object to it as it would tantamount to trespassing on women freedom to choose.
    Nudity or semi-nudity may be acceptable to the French but is it generally accepted all over the world? No, I believe. Even in India the Hindu women would ‘veil’ themselves before strangers. Would you call that ‘compulsion (not to use the more drastic word, ‘coercion’)?

    It is correct that in some places burqa is imposed on women and that is certainly not fair. But what can one do if that is the law (statutory, cultural, social) of a place? No choice except wait for the good times.

    In the past few years the trend for wearing burqa has gained quite a strength amongst women and that is due to their own free will.
    No choice again but to wait for the good times.

    I find Obama’s statement more prudent and balanced than crude babbling of Sarkozy, the ignorant.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 03:28h, 15 August

      Mazhur: By now the discussion has boiled itself down to three very clear general questions:

      1. What is free choice?
      2. How can we know if a choice is really free?
      3. What is to be done if a non-threatening choice of a minority is nonetheless disliked by the majority in a democratic polity?

      We motivated this discussion by referring to the recent controversy over the burqa in France but can now easily abstract from the burqa (and from Islam) in addressing the general questions. This would help keep the reasoning unaffected by the emotions.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 15:50h, 16 August

      1 SA, a big part of a man’s choices are a result of his social conditioning. Free choice is where a man can conceive of an idea to act upon or pursue, provided he is able to make a reasonable case for it that does not engender anarchy and is based on some universal ideas of human nature.

      2 Most “choice” is not really free. Every person’s childhood gives him certain dispositions which determine his “choices”. Social barriers can exist to free choice. The “freedom” of a choice can only be known if individuals can articulate what emotional, psychological or spiritual benefits accrue from it. There has to be something of a self-gain in it, even if it be tied to taking on an inconvenience, What matters is the ‘net gain’ for the individual – palpably experienced and articulated.

      3 The majority will have to engage the minority and seek to understand. If the majority can trace their dislike to a general prejudice of the minority then they have to get over it. If the majority do have a rational point to their dislike, then the minority better have decent rebuttals or prepare to give up the practice.

    • Curious
      Posted at 19:50h, 21 June

      I find it strange that France choosing to act against the burqa is to be condemned on the grounds of objection to the free choice of a woman while the imposition of the burqa in another country is not to be condemned but shrugged off and we should “wait for the good times”? That’s condemning lack of free choice in one place and condoning it in another, don’t you think?

    • mazhur
      Posted at 22:14h, 21 June

      This world and the people there are a mixture of opposites. What’s good for the geese isn’t anymore good for the gander in different places and circumstances. Also, one man’s meat is poison for the other and so on. Burqa sounds dreadful to the French because they are not used to it, they don’t need it. Others need it as it serves their typical needs.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 03:38h, 15 August Reply

    Please do not let this distract us from the general questions we have identified but I do want to put this out for the record.

    Could someone who reads French confirm what this report seems to be saying – that there all of 367 women in France who wear the burqa?

    If this is correct, what is the real issue? It seems to me that the burqa is not the real issue but is being used as a symbol to signal something else. There is an element of politics here that I read as follows: Obama is courting the global Islamic community and therefore leaning left on cultural practices. Sarkozy is shoring up the anti-immigrant vote inside France and being vehemently rightist about something that hardly exists in reality.

    Interesting – but we can set this aside for the moment.

    • kabir
      Posted at 06:57h, 15 August

      South Asian, you are right, the report does say that there are just 367 women in France who wear either the burqa or the niqab. It is a marginal phenomenon and concerns one woman in 90,000.

      The article quotes a study that the burqa is most often worn by young women (less than 30 yrs old) living in urban areas, who voluntarily wear the garment.

      French muslim groups also say that the burqa is a marginal phenomenon and the issue should be decided among muslims through education rather than laws forbidding the garment.

      Keeping all this in mind, I am inclined to agree with you that the burqa is not the real issue and Sarkozy is only invoking it as a symbol for something else.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 03:50h, 15 August Reply

    South Asian: It is quite possible that I am expressing an element of personal discomfort with the burqa – I am not sure. However, it seems to me that there are certain things that are natural to human beings at least in our modern context: the need for variety in the things we do, for example. That is why being confined in a prison is such an unpleasant experience and that is why we want variation in the food we eat, the clothes we wear, and the things we do from day to day. This does not mean that people cannot live with monotony, only that the norm appears to be on the side of variety. Now, if Oscar de la Renta were to jazz up the burqa with different colors, shapes, patterns, and who knows what else (holes in strategic places as in Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children”?), I would be all for it because it would allow women the ability to exercise choice and experience variety in the clothing they wear. Don’t men like to wear a nice shirt and share it with others publicly? I can’t imagine it is any different for women.

    I agree with mazhur’s observation that many women are opting for traditional dress out of their own free choice. I think this raises an extremely interesting question: could this be happening because of the larger conflict that has broken out, resulting in a need to defensively assert one’s traditions? I do not know.

    I agree that socialization into religion and various other practices is unavoidable. But I also identified two conditions that appear to be necessary and possibly sufficient for some practice to be coercive – sorry to quote it again: “one is that it exists in a certain social context that disallows the presuppositions above to exist in society and the second is that it appears to be physically extremely restrictive, especially in the wider context of the world as it is today. A yarmulke may fit the first reason above but not the second, so it is a harmless oddity. But a burqa does not appear to be quite so harmless.”

    The harm I am referring to is the harm done to the individual herself or himself: the yarmulke does not appear to be restrictive so it does not seem to harm the wearer; the burqa is restrictive so it may harm the user. Whether an onlooker is afraid of some item like the turban is an orthogonal issue.

    The restrictiveness of the burqa I am referring to is partly because of the lack of variety and partly because it seems to go against certain natural factors involving the body. I don’t think it is because of my personal preferences but who knows?

    All in all, I agree with mazhur: there is little we can do but “wait for the good times.” But mazhur also seems to be agreeing with me by implicitly accepting that these are not good times (in relation to the mode of dress).

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 04:04h, 15 August Reply

    South Asian: I think the three questions raised are excellent and lie at the heart of the issues. I would like to suggest adding the word “free” before “choice” in the third question because that makes the question clearer. If the choice by a minority is not free (e.g. minority husbands are beating minority wives), then the question raised is a different one.

    I think “left” and “right” are confusing and complicated terms to use here because the global left has generally aligned itself as anti-West and pro-Islam and the designations stem from that alignment. However, identifying what is really progressive is much murkier in this kind of situation.

    I looked at the report in French and though I only know a little French, what I read seems to confirm your interpretation. That is truly surprising if it is true.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 04:23h, 15 August

      Arun: I debated adding the word ‘free’ in the third question, put it in, and then took it out. My reasoning was that we would get tripped up with the difficulty of figuring out if the action was really free given that we have not answered the second question yet. Clearly, if the action is one that violates a law (against physical abuse, for example) it ought not to be acceptable whether by the minority or the majority. The interesting issue is one that involves a choice that does not violate a law (wearing ultra-restrictive clothing, for example) but is disliked by the majority. It does not matter if it is ‘free’ or the result of socialization and ‘unfree’ in that sense.

      On left and right, I agree that was lazy. The point is that Obama and Sarkozy seem tilting in opposite directions not based on the application of any principle but because of their peculiar political calculus at this time – they are wooing different audiences.

  • mazhur
    Posted at 10:05h, 15 August Reply

    SouthAsian :

    If the things are as political as you said then there is no point in this debate.

    Free choice may be subjective to laws but which laws? Laws are so different everywhere!

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 21:26h, 15 August

      Mazhur: I think the point of the debate still remains valid. We are not necessarily limited to comparisons across situations which are affected by variations in laws. We can consider our three general questions within a specific situation so that the laws that are applicable remain unchanged.

      Let us define (to start with) free choice as a choice that is not subject to any obvious coercion over and above the systemic coercion that affects (almost) everyone in a given society at a given time.

      The reason for the qualifier is that at some level systemic coercion can always be adduced to our actions. For example, we may believe that the decision to work or not to work is one of free choice but in a capitalist system most of us have to work whether we like it or not. However, there may a lot more freedom to choose who we wish to work (or slave) for.

      Here the minority without free choice would be the indentured laborers whose sons are obliged to work for the same employer to pay off his debt. We can be sure this is not an act of free choice.

      So out third question would follow: What should be done about this minority practice that does not (ostensibly) harm society when it is considered acceptable or unacceptable by the majority in a given society?

      At one level, the answer might be obvious but consider the concrete case of bonded brick kiln workers in the Pakistan Punjab. Despite years of protest by labor advocates, the practice still continues.

      We can think of a different, more difficult example: Suppose (let this be hypothetical) there is tribal group in an Indian state that practices child marriage. Now if a child is married before the age of, say, 12 we can be reasonably sure that the act is not one of free choice. What should be the attitude of the majority residents of the state who might consider this practice barbaric even though it does not lead to any anarchy in the social order?

      Note that theoretically the marriages in the tribal group might be the most stable. Once we define stability appropriately, it should be possible to do a controlled experiment assessing its stability in three groups: unfree child marriages; marriages arranged by parents with agreement of children; and free marriages arranged by the partners themselves. Should the experimental results have a bearing on the nature of public policy or should one take an exclusively moral position independent of the consequences?

      There remains a lot of scope to continue thinking about these issues.

  • Tahira
    Posted at 12:12h, 15 August Reply

    I would like to know if France has any roman catholic nuns and what is their outfit? A muslim woman can wear that outfit and be perfectly acceptable in France and satisfy her faith. Unless all nuns’ outfits are banned by Sarkozy, muslim burqa should be allowed otherwise it would be clear cut religious discrimination against muslim women.

    The face covering is not part of burqa. It is clearly optional as you can compare various muslim countries. Some women choose to do so, others not (except in Afghanistan and NWFP). It can obstruct peripheral vision. But then how many of us look all around when we are headed out for a particular purpose?

    I think a burqa is advised for muslim women because muslim men are not following the advice given to them – “Ghazz-e-Basar”- (cast your eyes down). It is unnerving to a muslim woman if men stare at her as they pass by. If men obey the injunction, women will be happy to remove the outer garb. May be Sarkozy should impose that rule on men.

    • martin
      Posted at 16:55h, 15 August

      I’ve found, for once, the discussion led here very sensible and with much understanding about the different contexts at stake. The post lacked cultural background and philosophical judgement, and was rightly criticized for these.
      I’m only going to comment on the French aspect of the post. First of all, I feel Russell morals scarcely apply here for one good reason, it is a Constitutional matter in France, as Kabir correctly pointed out, so it is a matter of the greater majority. And, the principle of tolerating everything that does not cause anarchy is just untenable from a practical point of view.
      Ok, what is called “burqa” in France is a piece of cloth that covers the face includingly, and this is very important as it is what may bring a law to be passed. Focusing on free choice as the highest principle in terms of judging whether the burqa is legitimately worn or not does not work neither. The post fails to recall that in the French context (as in most countries, Germany for instance, and that is a main difference with the US), freedom of expression is restricted to a principle of public order, that means for example that racial slurs or publications are illegal. The principles that preside over the burqa issue are the ones of “laicité” (secularism) and of human dignity.
      Somehow, the post argues that burqa should be legal because its consequences are unharmful for the majority, and that it is a matter of free choice for the individual. But, the French (and Sarkozy here speaks for the majority, which is not often) situation is that it starts from a moral standpoint, regardless of the consequences, that the burqa is an offense to human dignity and that it affects freedom of movement. It is not out of Sarkozy’s mind that suddenly this piece of cloth or that is now unlawful. There are excellent grounds to think that wearing the burqa (with full face coverage) is effectively detrimental for them, that it affects the principle of equal opportunity for instance. Of course, the French principles are debatable, and they are even within the country, but the position expressed today, even though extreme to some Muslim ears, is in line with a long history of secularism in the country.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 22:11h, 15 August

      Martin, merci beaucoup. It is invaluable to get a perspective from France. We are quite unfamiliar with the notion of “laicité” and naturally think in terms of the UK/US frameworks with which we are familiar.

      It is useful to realize that completely different principles can legitimately be used to guide public policy. Thus France does not consider Russell’s principle of ‘no social anarchy’ a useful one but instead relies on a moral standpoint that is independent of consequences. It is also useful to know that the operative principles continue to be debated in society because obviously societies are not static. Given that France (and Europe in general) now has a lot more ethnic and religious minorities in its population, it would be interesting to see how policy evolves and what principles would guide this evolution of policy.

      One thing is common in your and Arun’s arguments – that the burqa is harmful/detrimental for the wearers themselves. We know that being in the sun without adequate covering is also harmful but a minimum covering or duration of exposure on beaches is not legislated – the determination of the harm and protection against it is left to the individuals. Is there a parallel to be considered here given that the burqa is presumably not worn round the clock? How are these determinations of excessive harm to be made and who would make them?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 12:57h, 16 August

      I always find I learn more from fiction writers than from professional analysts. Writers are interested in observing and describing what they see; analysts are more interested in proving some theory they have cooked up in their heads often without having seen the places they are talking about.

      Here is Mohammad Hanif (author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes) on what he sees in Karachi:

      Unlike a lot of immigrants in London I never had a frozen, idyllic image of a motherland to cherish and yearn for. First, because my motherland was never idyllic, and, second, my day job in London involved covering Pakistan. But yes, places change and they change when Newsweek is looking somewhere else. For instance it seems that when I moved to Pakistan a significant part of the country decided to cover itself in black hijabs and burkas. They weren’t shying away from me, they had just decided that dressing like those women in the Arab desert was cool. The purda-fication of Pakistani women had started years ago but as a visitor I always assumed it was nothing more than a bout of seasonal piety. I grew up in a village in Pakistan where the first burka in the 80s was seen as a sign of vulgarity. It was a conservative village but it was open enough that you could walk into anybody’s house; surely someone who decided to cover their face either had a deviant mind or was camouflaging some new perversion imported from some big city? For days, my late mother went around doing the Punjabi version of “there goes the neighbourhood”.

      Walking along the Karachi seafront after returning from London, I worked myself into a self-righteous rage at these young women in black burkas hanging out at the beach when they should have been at school or in some mosque praying for our collective salvation. But then I looked closely and found out that many of them were on a date. Some were actually making out, in broad daylight, with men with beards. Covered from head to toe in a black robe, this is quite a spectacle – and provides just the right combination of challenge and opportunity. Walking on the beach with my wife the other day, we stared at a couple who were exploring the full possibilities of the burka, using their motorcycle to lean against. With the Arabian sea lapping at their feet.

      And here is Pankaj Mishra (another good writer who has not written this particular piece very coherently) first describing the rantings of the analysts and then ending with a seemingly sensible recommendation:

      Liberal spaces within Europe have brought many more Muslim women out of their old confinements. Benhabib asserts that these women, who “struggle at first to retain their traditional and given identities against the pressures of the state”, then go on to engage and contest their Islamic traditions. As Europe’s own passage from tradition showed, this necessary reconfiguration is not the work of a day. It requires the practices and institutions of European citizenship to grow more rather than less flexible.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 21:54h, 15 August

      Tahira: This is an interesting line of thought and I am intrigued at how people would answer it. There is an equivalence between the two coverings at one level and those who grew up in South Asia and attended Convent schools were quite familiar with the burqa and the habit. The first always suggested illiteracy, ignorance and backwardness; the second, simplicity, charity, and devotion. Were these just the prejudices of our social milieu?

      Of course, the habit looks much more stylish (give credit to the Europeans) and so seems less restrictive – it might survive Arun’s discomfort test.

      Is it possible that the habit was designed by women and the burqa by men? In general Muslim men do too little but they do get involved where the have little expertise and end up making a hash of things. Does this generalization extend to all South Asian men? I know what Aakar Patel would say – that’s the reason South Asian women think poorly of South Asian men!

      On Ghazz-e-Basar, what if you get the response (say in France) that it is a pre-modern practice that is harmful for men and can be the cause of traffic accidents? Modern men can surely look women in the eye and (both) survive!

      I am reminded of a quip (attributed, I think, to the late Shaukat Thanvi). On being asked aap aurtoN kii taraf kyuuN dekhtey haiN? he is said to have responded to aur kis kii taraf dekhuuN, gadhey ghoroN kii taraf? I am sure Shaukat Thanvi was no relation to Ashraf Thanvi who must have deliberated quite deeply on Ghazz-e-Basar. All his admonishments have been for naught. I think we have to come up with a solution assuming we are not going to get Muslim men to go along with it. Even if such a practice is legislated, the resulting choice would be unfree and there would be no way to enforce it since the enforcers would also be subject to Ghazz-e-Basar – social anarchy would result violating Russell’s eminently sensible principle.

  • mazhur
    Posted at 18:42h, 15 August Reply


    <<<<<<<<<<<the burqa is an offense to human dignity and that it affects freedom of movement. <<<<<<<<<<<

    such a thinking is highly offensive to all women, secular or religious.
    Apart from covering the face, I have no objection to women wearing any apparel to hide their ''feminine' parts in public. And there is good reason for that. No.1: Some women feel comfortable being fully clad. Refer to women apparel worn by 17 and 18th century British and even American women.
    2. Why be women be 'forced' ( by law or otherwise) to appear before men in a dress other than want to wear??
    3. How would a woman hide her bust if she has to breast feed her baby in public??
    4. Then, there is religious constraint as well. Why be women barred from freedom of religion even in a secular country like France? if America can 'tolerate' Mormons why not France?? Polygamy is already banned in many countries but why should it be banned in a secular country which believes in freedom of human values, including religion??

    May be there is another instance when we would be arguing about ban on women wearing bras on some lame excuse!

    the matter is simple but Sarkozy and his proponents are only trying to make a mess of things.


  • kabir
    Posted at 21:00h, 15 August Reply

    Thanks Martin, for a French perspective on the issue. One question though: Would the proposed law ban burqa only in schools and other public institutions as is done with other religious symbols or would it ban it entirely within France? To me, it seems rather bizarre for the state to legislate what people wear within their own homes or in their private lives.

    Asides from the constutional issues and laicité, I don’t think Sarkozy or anyone is really in a position to judge what kinds of dress are moral or not. From a human dignity perspective, I think restricting people’s right to dress the way they want or practice their religion the way they want, even if we disagree with it, is rather troubling. I say this despite my personal dislike of the burqa.

    Mazhur, as Martin has explained above, France does not believe in secularism as defined in the US model. Rather, “laicité” is an important part of the French constitution, which stems I believe from Napoleon’s reforms and his weakening of the power of the Catholic church. It is the official position of France that “laicité” is more important than freedom of religion in the absolute. This is certainly debatable, but the French have the right to make laws according to their own understanding of their constitution.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 23:47h, 15 August Reply

    I think this discussion may be viewed through the lens of relativism vs. objectivism (or universalism). Probably all human beings are partly relativists and partly objectivists. For example, most people are likely to be relativists as far as taste in food is concerned. Whether someone should eat chocolate ice cream or not is a subjective/relative matter. On the other hand, whether someone should kill someone else or not is a matter of objective law. Extreme cases are easy to decide. It is the intermediate cases that are hard. It is a matter of where we draw the line between objectivism and relativism. For this we need principles.

    Russell chose to draw the line at anything that does not cause anarchy. Things causing anarchy have to be objectively disallowed and things that don’t can be subjectively chosen. Many interpretations of multiculturalism allow a lot of latitude to relativism, almost as much as Russell. Obama draws the line at free choice: if an act is freely chosen (and if it does not cause anarchy), then it falls within the subjective sphere. (I believe this is what Russell also implicitly intended but that is another matter.) Sarkozy drew the line differently.

    So one further question is what the right principle is to divide actions into relative or universal. Then this principle can be applied to the case of the burqa.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 05:25h, 17 August

      Arun: Re your discussion of relativism vs. universalism. Sooner or later we had to arrive at the point where we would need to push the analysis back and consider the philosophical frameworks underlying the principles we have been discussing. Relativism gives us Russell’s principle while universalism yield’s Sarkozy’s principle.

      We can also use the frameworks of consequentialism and intentionalism – whether an action is to be judged by its consequences or by its intentions. One can say that Russell is a consequentialist – he is saying if the consequences are harmless, the action should be tolerated even if its intentions are suspect. Sarkozy is an intentionalist – he is saying if the intention is harmful, the action should not be tolerated even if the consequences are harmless.

      Simple examples can make these distinctions clear:

      1. I rush into your house suspecting a burglar. There was no burglar there but in my rush I upset a candle, set the house on fire and it burns down.
      2. I enter your house to rob it. There was intruder there intending to murder you whom I scare away thus saving your life.

      In the first instance my intention was good but the consequence was bad; in the second the intention was bad but the consequence was good. How are my actions to be judged in the two cases? What gets more weight in the judgement, the intention or the consequence?

      It seems societies differ in their attitudes on such determinations. In South Asia, one often finds sympathy (even from the victim) for an individual who has caused harm if his intentions can be deemed good or at least not bad (niyyat burii nahiN thii). In the US one is more used to the response “I don’t care what you intended, you have screwed up my life.” Think of situations in which a physician has misdiagnosed a patient. Whether the differences stem from a greater acceptance of fate in South Asia and a more litigious society in the US can be discussed further.

      The point is that if people subscribe to different philosophical frameworks they would also differ in the principles that seem reasonable to them. And to understand the reasons for these differences we have no option but to step back and examine the philosophical frameworks themselves.

      I believe Amartya Sen has also written about consequentialism and intentionalism. Sen should be required reading in South Asian colleges given how much of what we do and think is shaped by these underlying frameworks that often we are unaware of. I feel there is a need for putting together a primer on the essential ideas of Sen.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 14:30h, 17 August

      I found an interesting post today from the Jewish Observer, October 2008. I am sceptical of some of the arguments but two points are clearly explained that should help our discussion: The nature of the ban in France and why the Americam model might be the better one to deal with the issue.

      When the French government, for instance, banned the wearing of a veil or other forms of Muslim dress in French public schools, it also banned the wearing of yarmulkes. (The only difference, of course, being that Jewish boys who wear yarmulkes would almost all have been in private religious schools, whereas Muslim parents sought to force the public schools to accept their norms.)

      The American model of dealing with religious diversity has proven the most successful one for the integration of Muslim populations… Though America has a civil religion based on a commitment to its constitution, as a nation of immigrants spread out over a vast continent, there is no national culture to which all are expected to conform. Nor is the natural culture decidedly secular, as in France, for instance.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 02:45h, 18 August

      I would like to interject into this discussion a few excerpts from a review by Bruce Robbins of a book by Charles Taylor – A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007). I chanced upon this review last week and do not recommend reading it in connection with our discussion because its focus is not our topic and it presumes familiarity with a lot of related literature which at least I was not familiar with. I am just extracting a few paragraphs that might trigger some new thoughts relevant to our debate.

      The key argument of the author seems to be that secularism is not the negation of religion (Christianity in the case of Europe); rather secularism has its roots in religion:

      Secularism’s rise is generally presented as what Taylor calls a “subtraction” story. Religion is said to shrink as science, technology, and rationality expand. Thus superstition is little by little expelled from the world. In Taylor’s counter-story, secularism is not the widening zone of clarity that remains as myth and error are dissipated, but rather the product of shifts in thinking within religion, and in particular within Christianity.

      For Taylor, the modern concept of freedom is Christian at its origin and to an important if unspecified degree it remains Christian. Modern individualism similarly retains the imprint of a “Christian, or Christian-Stoic, attempt to remake society.”

      This is followed by the following observation of interest to us:

      Readers will also be reminded of recent critiques of the French head scarf ban, which claim that laïcité is not in fact neutral but rather a mask for Christianity, one religion lording it over other religions by pretending not to be a religion at all.

      Readers should note that this claim of secularization of religion as the outcome of internal shifts in Christianity is not new. Other people have argued it and sometime back on this blog Dr. Bettina Robotka had explained it in very simple terms:

      I think the argument is wrong that Kant was rationalizing outside the ideological framework of Christianity with the saying “what I do not want to be done to me I should not do to anybody else.” These are ethical rules that may be put into a popular frame which in Europe is based on Christian ideas because for centuries this has been the ruling ideology. Even if people think they don’t believe in God they will not be able to leave the ethical part behind even if they don’t call it Christian any more.

      Two examples. First, the EU when designing its constitution (which until today is not accepted) wanted to describe the ethical basis on which Europe is going to work together. While digging for the roots of their ethical understanding they ended up quoting Christianity. Second example, myself. I am East German, I grew up in an absolutely atheist family (not only my parents but even none of my grandparents or anybody else in the family went to church or believed in God. It was just out of question.) But when I check the kind of ethical behavior which has stayed with me it’s the same Christian one. Communism has been trying to substitute religion as an ethical basis by some broad humane understanding, and I think it failed. Religion is rampant in Russia which is not part of the secularized West. In united Germany they are working now to reintroduce Christian religion as a subject taught in school. I think ethics don’t arise out of the blue sky or in a vacuum. Ethics is based on the historical experience and tradition of mankind and that is Christian in Europe. It is less clear in the subcontinent where different religions have lived together over centuries and longer.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 04:19h, 18 August

      Religion has two major trends in the texts – universal humanitarian trends plus religio-facist trends. Which one stands out depends on the particular interpreter of religion. While secularism can be seen as having arisen from the former trend within Christianity, it did severely limit that latter trend in Christianity. That is how secularism can be said to have subtracted religion – not in its entirely but in some of its trends.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 16:29h, 16 August Reply

    I think one reason why the burqa may seem oppressive to an outsider is that it appears an an element of a *system* of male oppression. There are other elements of this system that are even more oppressive: for example, the penalties for having an extra-marital affair are draconian for women. But the system may be different in different regions of the world and so its elements like the burqa may have different meanings in those different contexts. So one should qualify the various statements depending on the system of which the burqa is a part.

    For young women who are taking to the burqa and who are open to making out in it, as Hanif seems to have observed, perhaps the burqa exists in a different system that does not involve male oppression. In this case, I would say a burqa is fine.

    So, perhaps one thing to draw from this is that a cultural item like the burqa should not be viewed in isolation but as part of a larger system. And then one should ask questions about the system: is it oppressive in any way? And is the item therefore part of this oppression?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 18:19h, 16 August

      Arun: This is a crucial insight.

      There are at least two burqas involved and they are quite distinct from each other. The first is the conservative social practice associated with the black, ungainly, tent-like garment that is on its way out much like FGM or leeching or sati. There is hardly any need to ban it as it it is fading away on its own.

      The other is the second-wind of the burqa, the voluntary, aggressive, indeed defiant, adoption of the headscarf by modern educated Muslim women. This is a political assertion of identity at a peculiar historic juncture. It cannot be banned; as Pankaj Mishra notes, it needs a more rather than a less flexible response.

      Because the second burqa has emerged before the first burqa has disappeared there has arisen the confusion that has lumped the two together. Seeing through this confusion would make it easier for us to figure out what really is at stake.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 00:00h, 17 August Reply

    kabir has been saying over a couple of posts that an empirical approach is desirable: why not just ask the women concerned if they are coerced? I have resisted this saying this is not a reliable way to tell. But his message of looking at the empirical facts *is* highly desirable. Literature can give one some such insights if the writer is good (and something of a realist) but not always because the writer also may not have adequate access to the facts. Just because one couple was making out in a burqa is no proof that this is widespread.

    I would say an important fact has been mentioned but its significance has been overlooked.

    The fact that only 367 women in France wear burqas – if it is really a fact – is very significant but its significance has been missed. It would be very interesting to know how many Muslim women do not wear burqas in France. If this number is much larger, it would imply that immigrants who get out of their home countries by and large give up the burqa. This would then further imply that they give it up either because it was coercive or otherwise inconvenient to wear.

    This suggests the following general empirical test: look not at Muslim women in their home countries but look at immigrant Muslim populations. See what their behavior is: do these immigrant populations stick to the burqa or do they give it up? This would reveal whether the burqa is coercive or not because in a foreign country where Muslims are a minority they are likely to have greater freedom.

    I think the modern young women who are adopting the burqa as a statement of identity should be discounted because they are probably a minority within a minority and are doing it for political reasons. So the question above should be addressed to “ordinary” Muslim women in foreign countries.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 01:02h, 17 August

      Arun, that is a brilliant suggestion. I think if it is found that the overwhelming majority of immigrant muslim women abandon the burqa it will tell us two things – one, that it is coercive in muslim countries and two, that if it is coercive even where the majority deem it normative, it is even more so where the majority are critical of it.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 15:19h, 17 August

      Arun, in light of the comments by mazhur and Juanita, I am having doubts on the test suggested by you – does it yield the conclusion we think it yields? The majority of women who are giving up the burqa in France may be doing so purely to fit in French society. They may have worn it in their home countries to fit in there. The need to fit-in is a socialization impulse. So the giving up of the burqa can also be seen as a coercion if the cause of it is the same that causes them to wear it in muslim countries.
      The question that needs to be answered then is how do the larger social patterns emerge which determine who fit in and who does not. We have to know how the practice came about; how it was justified over time. It is only in those details can be determine coercion (or not). In the course of unpacking those details if it is found that there is a significant section of women in the society who advocate wearing the burqa it is impossible to see cocercion in it.

    • kabir
      Posted at 07:16h, 18 August

      Arun, I think I said that one can’t go around asking the women concerned if they are coerced, it doesn’t seem like a useful way to find out this info.

      I agree with Vinod that immigrant women not wearing the burqa might also be because of social pressures and the need to conform, just as these pressures in their home countries dictate wearing the garment. Muzhur was also right when he said that if South Asian men in the west give up wearing shalwar kameez or dhoti, does that prove that these garments are oppressive or coercive?

      I think the more general issue is about how socialization and the desire to conform dictate the need to practice (or not) certain behaviors. That doesn’t make the behaviors right or wrong in and of themselves. Hence, we’re back to free choice and the difficulty of judging whether it is really “free” or not (Who will judge?)

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 20:35h, 27 August

      Arun: With reference to literature, I would like to archive here a great sentence from the Lant Pritchett paper on India that I have placed in The Best From Elsewhere section of the blog (#30):

      To understand the Indian state today one has to read fiction because non-fiction, the streams of government reports and commissions and documents produced by official agencies (including of those foreign agencies working with the government) are truly fiction.

      Pritchett is referring to what he has read into Indian society from Vikas Swarup’s novel Q&A.

  • Juanita
    Posted at 01:03h, 17 August Reply

    ….To grow more rather than less flexible…. is another whole topic which I am sure could be discussed at length but I want to go back to: <<<<<<<<<<<the burqa is an offense to human dignity and that it affects freedom of movement. <<<<<<<<<<<I have seen many fashions which are offensive to human dignity and also affect freedom of movement – boys and young men wearing their jeans waylow is just one example. (I am not sure the yarmukle would be desribed as either offensive or affecting freedom of movement.)
    I am interested in addressing the wearing of the burqa.
    The burqa is worn by some people (regardless of reason or free will). The burqa offends some people (regardless of right or wrong).
    So my question is, who has the right to determine whether it is worn or not? We come back to the tyranny of the majority, no?

  • mazhur
    Posted at 01:20h, 17 August Reply


    <<<<<<<<This would then further imply that they give it up either because it was coercive or otherwise inconvenient to wear.<<<<<<<<<<<<

    What do you say men from our part of the world giving up their ''Shalwar Qameez/Kurta' or 'lacha/dhoti' once out of their countries?? It evidently indicates a feeling of 'inferiority complex' on their part and an attempt to hide their national (if not religious) identity. What's wrong if men and women want to retain their respective identities in a foreign land where they may be a minority???

    It's true in certain cultures women are forced to wear burqa but this is not the case with modern Muslim women who opts for burqa or scarves out of their own free will.

  • mazhur
    Posted at 15:56h, 17 August Reply

    <<<<<<<<<<<Vinod Says:
    August 17, 2009 at 3:19 pm | Reply

    Arun, in light of the comments by mazhur and Juanita, I am having doubts on the test suggested by you – does it yield the conclusion we think it yields? The majority of women who are giving up the burqa in France may be doing so purely to fit in French soci etc etc <<<<<<<<<

    I agree with Vinod's analytical observations. Now, he's hit the nail on its head!

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 21:02h, 17 August Reply

    I agree with all of you that the test does not unambiguously determine coercion. To be fair to myself, I did say: “This would then further imply that they give it up either because it was coercive or otherwise inconvenient to wear.” So the implication is that they are either coercive or inconvenient. The second possibility of inconvenience owing to reasons of conformity or similar reasons needs to be ruled out. Here we could employ the technique of interviews more fruitfully: All immigrant women who have abandoned the burka could be asked why they chose to discontinue it. Their answers could be interesting to obtain and classify and are likely to be more transparent. So the test is not so simple to carry out just from statistical data.

  • mazhur
    Posted at 22:01h, 17 August Reply

    Arun Pillai :

    There is no need to hold a poll on your second point. My mother used to wear burqa (out of own free will) but would take it off when she went to attend any school function where all the ‘elite’ had assembled without coverings thinking in her mind that if she was spotted there with a burqa she might be thought an odd ”illiterate” or ”backward”. Now I realize she was so right not only in what she thought as said above but by taking off her burqa she also wanted to save me from the vain mockery of the so-called ‘elite’ class which studied at that school and who would attend the school functions.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 22:52h, 17 August Reply

    Your mother was certainly very wise – more modern than the so-called elite – but I was thinking of younger women who might have felt forced to wear burqas in their home country and who might have felt freer to give it up in the West. You yourself mentioned in an earlier post that in some countries there is coercion about these things. I think it might be useful for someone who knows about this to make a list of where there is coercion and where there isn’t. For example, I would expect that Saudi Arabia has some degree of coercion.

  • mazhur
    Posted at 00:33h, 18 August Reply


    <<<<<<<<<<but I was thinking of younger women who might have felt forced to wear burqas <<<<<<<<<<<<<

    and <<<<<<<<to make a list of where there is coercion <<<<<<<<<<

    The answer to both the above points is:

    immediately the day after I got married in 1972 my wife who used to wear burqa, at my request, gave it up and opted for a 'gown' coupled with 'dupatta' and she lived that way as long as she lived and nobody in my family or anyone could object to it. After our children were born and grew up she became more liberal on 'covering' even with 'gown' so much so that she gave it up after 5 or 6 and never wore it again. However, she retained the 'dupatta' and would cover her head while going out for shopping etc. but she was not totally 'obsessed' by this head-gear and wouldn't mind if it sometimes slipped off her head.

    i could gather from her talk and culture in the town she lived that she was compelled to go 'covered' because of the 'dread' of the terrible dirty stare of men around there. Also, she was afraid of some crazy loafer 'followed' her tonga (which boys usually did and still do in almost every small towns of Pakistan) while going to and coming from school/college etc. Thus in a way the burqa served as a physical and spiritual ' defensive mechanism' for the woman to save herself from the dirty whims and clutches of bad men while moving around the town without her family men or alongwith other women folk; she was obliged not to expose herself or her beauty which may create and bring unnecessary trouble to her and scandalize her in society. Once scandalized it is very difficult for a girl in our part of the world to get a good 'match'

    There me be other reasons to but I recall these alone at this moment.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 00:58h, 19 August Reply

    kabir, it makes a huge difference whom one asks and exactly what one asks. You are right that one cannot ask whether someone is coerced. But one can ask a woman in a foreign country why she gave up the burqa and hope to get a true response.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 03:00h, 19 August

      Arun: I have some observations regarding what you said in an earlier comment:

      1. You proposed the following experiment:

      This suggests the following general empirical test: look not at Muslim women in their home countries but look at immigrant Muslim populations. See what their behavior is: do these immigrant populations stick to the burqa or do they give it up? This would reveal whether the burqa is coercive or not because in a foreign country where Muslims are a minority they are likely to have greater freedom.

      Others have already pointed out that the conclusion of coercion does not necessarily follow from the change of behavior. For example, if a vegetarian in India becomes a non-vegetarian on migration to Europe, it would not follow conclusively that the practice in India was due to coercion.

      You are right in suggesting that the freedom of choice in some areas is greater in Europe than in India just as within India the freedom of choice in a city is greater than in a village. At the same time the cost of exercising that choice is much lower in Europe. The shift in costs, the benefits of adaptation, and the assurance of seeing others who have adapted, all these can lead to a change of behavior.

      There is a flip side to this. For example, one is free to urinate in the street in India but not in Europe. It would not follow that the Europeans in Europe are coerced in any way. They are just socialized into the behavior and the costs of transgression are very high. In India they might just let themselves go if they are stuck without an alternative.

      2. You hypothesized the following:

      The fact that only 367 women in France wear burqas – if it is really a fact – is very significant but its significance has been missed. It would be very interesting to know how many Muslim women do not wear burqas in France. If this number is much larger, it would imply that immigrants who get out of their home countries by and large give up the burqa. This would then further imply that they give it up either because it was coercive or otherwise inconvenient to wear.

      I think this number was mentioned in the French news item – 1 in 90,000 Muslim women wear the burqa in France. But the conclusion would not follow that immigrants who get out of their home countries by and large give up the burqa. For that to hold, it would have to be established that the majority of Muslim women who migrated to Europe migrated wearing the burqa and gave it up in Europe. This is almost definitely not true – I have not seen any mention of a declining trend in wearing the burqa in Europe or North America. The headscarf has become an issue because of its revival among Muslim women in Europe and that in turn has focused attention on the anachronistic burqa.

      3. On the validity of asking direct questions:

      Both Kabir and you are right. Those who have internalized a behavior are unlikely to think it coerced in response to a direct question – I think you rightly pointed to ‘false consciousness’ in this regard. Perhaps a cleverly designed interaction by a psychologist might be able to confirm or refute the possibility through indirect clues. However, those who have changed behavior could be expected to give much more reliable answers to direct questions.

      4. On literature, you observed the following:

      Literature can give one some such insights if the writer is good (and something of a realist) but not always because the writer also may not have adequate access to the facts. Just because one couple was making out in a burqa is no proof that this is widespread.

      It’s not to be expected from a writer that he or she would do a statistical analysis but writers often pick up on trends much earlier than social scientists. The way this should work in a dynamic and open society is that a social science teacher would bring the newspaper cutting to class and propose the students do a survey to find out how widespread the practice is in reality.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 03:28h, 20 August Reply

    This discussion remains open for further comments but at this point I wish to summarize the debate and record my understanding of the issue. Readers are encouraged to respond with their views and disagreements, if any.

    1. The case for banning the burqa based on a principle that can be defended has not been made.
    2. The objections against the burqa are based on prejudice.
    3. What we have is a contest of preferences, the preference of a minority versus the preference of a majority.
    4. In general, the preference of a majority in a democracy (in which all votes are equal) can be legislated into law; the preference of a minority can’t.
    5. If the preference of a majority is legislated into law, it has to be obeyed or challenged within the legal system. The final option is that of exit.
    6. The case of the burqa in France is not an issue of free choice, it is one of civil rights.
    7. To paraphrase another Frenchman (Voltaire): I disapprove of what you wear but I will defend to the death your right to wear it.

    Let me explain:

    A number of countries in South Asia disallow public displays of affection. This is a preference of the majority that has been legislated into law. It is not based on any principle; it is just an expression of the sensibility of the majority. However, as a law it has to be obeyed.

    In the same vein, France can legislate a law against the burqa, which, if passed, would have to be obeyed or challenged. It will also be an expression of the sensibility of the majority and not reflect any principle. There is no moral basis to deem such a law good or bad.

    All ex-post rationalizations of a ban on the burqa would be expressions of prejudice. The burqa is no different from a turban, yarmulke, bindiya, or bikini. Because it looks hideous and primitive, we begin to think of it as demeaning, restrictive and harmful – surely so ugly a garment must be coerced.

    In many cases it may be coerced (just as the turban or the yarmulke may be) but in many cases it may not be. There is no way for outsiders to make individual determinations without launching a witch-hunt. There are many things that are oppressive in patriarchal societies. These have to be resolved by struggles within communities in which outsiders may be sought as allies. But outsiders cannot take it upon themselves to do so without the risk of prejudices overwhelming reason and turning into real witch-hunts.

    The argument that the burqa is harmful to health is especially weak. Consider the analogy with cigarettes where there is now no doubt that smoking is dangerous for health. But smoking was not banned because the onus of taking personal risks is on individuals. Only when it was determined that passive smoke was harmful to non-smokers was smoking banned in public places. Individuals who wish to smoke can still do so in designated places. The burqa falls in the same category. Even if it is proven to be dangerous to the health of the wearer (it has not so far) it cannot be banned following the principle that the individual is responsible for the risk he or she wishes to bear. And there is no proof that wearing a burqa endangers the health of others.

    Therefore, this is a case of civil rights, not of free choice. As long as there is no legal bar against wearing the burqa, women should have the right to do so. Any such bar, if legislated, would be based on a prejudice of the majority. In France, the burqa does not violate the Constitution because it is not a religious dress (unlike the turban or the yarmulke). It can easily be remodeled as a fashion garment, a la burqini, if needed.

    In this context, Russell’s principle makes eminent sense. If a minority practice does not cause social anarchy it should be tolerated, even if it rankles, in order forestall the bigger danger of the tyranny of the majority riding roughshod over the preferences of a minority.

    I urge you to read this linked short piece. It is both amusing and educative. Note the words of the writer (a woman) when she says: “Never mind the fact that all this talk… makes it seem like society gets a say in how one woman chooses to dress. The decisions women make about their clothing and bodies isn’t something for which we need approval and support.” Comments on this piece and how it relates to the controversy about the burqa are especially invited.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 14:55h, 28 August Reply

    I was thinking about the similarity of a catholic nun’s attire and burqa, as pointed out by Tahira and how the former is never an issue while burqa is put on the centre stage. I looked for my own reaction to these two outfits and must say that while a nun’s attire looked bizarre for a brief second, burqa appeared grotesque. On the other hand Iranian way of using scarf produces no reaction and seems perfectly normal. Is it because of my inherent prejudices? The difference I believe is in exposing face. Much of our personality is reflected through our face, the senses and mind are lodged here while rest of the body is slave to it. Without alive face we are zombies, vegetables. A woman completely covered under a burqa does not appear human.

    This apart I am happy that French government has banned it and would be happy if the rest of the world does the same. Burqa is nothing but red herring for chastity belt syndrome. There are a few things which should be denied even if it does no harm to anyone and a large majority desires it.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 16:21h, 28 August

      A woman completely covered under a burqa does not appear human.

      I fully second this. Well said.

    • kabir
      Posted at 18:47h, 28 August

      Anil, much as I personally dislike the burqa, I am uncomfortable with the idea of banning it. Once the state starts interfering in private matters such as choice of clothing, where does it stop? Who decides which prejudices (or preferences, if we want to call it that) everyone must adhere to?

      By banning the burqa aren’t we just being fundamentalists of a different kind? Islamic fundamentalists tell women they must wear the burqa while secular fundamentalists tell them they must NOT wear it. Why not leave it up to the woman herself?

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 04:14h, 29 August

      Kabir, I would have been happier if the state had thought of serious plan to discourage it, nevertheless this isn’t such an unpleasant course. Unfettered freedom is just not practical and do not forget France is a well evolved society.

      Mazhur, by burqa I meant exactly how Vinod has described it; something that covers entire body with perforations or a slit at eye level. I have assumed that the French government has banned this kind of burqa, no other. I did not mean to say that burqa as about chastity, it is about male human’s animal instinct to protect his harem.

  • mazhur
    Posted at 17:06h, 28 August Reply

    @Anil Kala :

    <<<<<< Burqa is nothing but red herring for chastity belt syndrome.<<<<<<

    This is a merely presumptuous. Chastity has nothing to do with burqa.
    Burqa is merely an attire for the Muslim women to conceal their femininity from NaMehrams ie strangers or public.
    The aspirations and desires of women wearing Burqa are no less than those women who do not cover up.

    I recall that about 20/25 years ago women wearing burqa in Karachi were generally suspected as 'not chaste'….however, it may not be so in small towns, poor localities or up north.

  • mazhur
    Posted at 18:30h, 28 August Reply



    What is a Burqa?? How many types are there??
    Are all burqas designed to cover a woman completely??
    What if a woman covers up her torso with a long gown and her head with a scarf and calls it a ‘burqa’ without hiding her face??

    • Vinod
      Posted at 02:04h, 29 August

      Mazhur, if Anil is from India then both he and I have the same idea of what a burqa is – the long black and blue dress that covers a women from head to toe. In my head, the word ‘hijab’ connotes the varieties that you refer to. I am aware that burqa in Sri Lanka simply means the scarf.

  • mazhur
    Posted at 08:08h, 29 August Reply

    @ Vinod

    There is no fixed design for a Burqa. It’s merely a costume worn by Muslim women to hide their femininity and ornamentation as prescribed by Islam. From what I recall as a child, It was commonly worn by Muslim women from UP India who had migrated to Pakistan. Burqa was also worn by Muslim Panjabi women. The burqa worn by these women was different than the one worn by Muslim women up north ie in the NWFP who wore ‘topi walla burqa’ which was apparently one piece attire hiding a woman form head to toe with only an inlaid netted window type opening in front of the eyes. The burqa worn elsewhere was made in two pieces-one piece resembled a long gown the other a head scarf with retractable single of double veil. Black colored fabric was chosen to make the burqas but in the NWFP i recall women wearing white ones…
    Nowadays, burqa seems to have become more like a ‘fad’ and is available in many colors and designs.

    Although the Hindu women did not wear the burqa and were instead clad in sari they as well observed ‘purdah’ from strangers by pulling the ‘pullooo’ (or corner of their sari) over their faces or using the sari edge as a veil.

    Thus it seems that ‘purdah’ is quite a ‘social’ necessity felt by the Indo-Pakistan women to feel more ‘safe’ and ‘comfortable’ in our society. Though this trend had quite changed over the years but has again returned and most Muslim women are rapidly adopting it at their own will and in some cases even defying men for not letting them wear burqa or scarf.

    I know at least one married young woman having two kids and who lived in the US who divorced her husband for objecting to her wearing burqa….

  • mazhur
    Posted at 10:56h, 29 August Reply

    @ Anil Kala :

    Kabir, I would have been happier if the state had thought of serious plan to discourage it, nevertheless this isn’t such an unpleasant course. Unfettered freedom is just not practical and do not forget France is a well evolved society.

    Mazhur, by burqa I meant exactly how Vinod has described it; something that covers entire body with perforations or a slit at eye level. I have assumed that the French government has banned this kind of burqa, no other. I did not mean to say that burqa as about chastity, it is about male human’s animal instinct to protect his harem.

    Burqa IS NOT about male human’s animal instinct to protect his harem..anybody’s harem. If you go back to pre-Islamic days you will note that ‘nobility’ used to keep ‘harems’ and appointed Khwaja Sara’s or eunuch’s to watch over them. For a fuller detail of this you can make recourse to the Kama Sutra which reflects on more which was required to serve the ‘male instinct’ than the need for a burqa.

    As dressing up in general is to hiding nudity, Burqa is to women for hiding their femininity from the illicit ‘sexual yearnings and hunger’ of nobodies and strangers.

    Covering up also has a religious perspective as evident in the case of nuns.
    Men also adopt various kinds of attires to mark their socio-religious bent, e.g, Buddhist monks, Sadhus and Faqeers….

    I really fail to understand what has been so repellent to the French in allowing women to wear an attire of their choice? Let alone Burqa the French have a biased opinion about the simple head gear -scarf -whereby face remains uncovered and doesn’t pose any ‘identification problem’. It seems men are at liberty to do whatever they liked, women not. This is yet another type of ‘fundamentalism’ not much different from the Talibans!

    • kabir
      Posted at 11:28h, 29 August

      Mazhur Sahab, Anil is right, though I wouldn’t put it quite in those words. The institution of burqa is intimately tied with the patriarachal system. Patriarchy demands that the man be absolutely certain that whatever children his wife has are his own and not someone else’s. This is why Islam permits polygamy for men, but not for women. As any coursework in feminist studies will tell, all the three monothestic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, are intensly patriarchal. Compare the clothing of Orthodox Jewish women with the burqa. Orthodox women even wear wigs so that no one sees their actual hair.

      Of course, non Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions also have elements that are tied to patriarchy. What else was sati?

      The above is not meant as an attack on burqa or Islam, but it is factually true that the obession with women’s clothing and by extension their sexuality is intimately tied to patriarchy. The reason why there are less controls on men is because men are running the show.

  • mazhur
    Posted at 12:35h, 29 August Reply

    @ kabir

    I fail to understand as to what is wrong with a patriarchal society?? Even in a patriarchal society you will find women dominating the family! Why should one aspire a matriarchal society of the mythical Amazons or the Gilgamesh??

    Not only does Islam disallow polygamy to woman, all religions and societies do. The western society is so bleak and shallow that it doesn’t allow a man to take more than one wife! Nor does it allow a woman to take more than one husband. Western society is more than liberal on sex while oriental society isn’t.

    Like harakari and suicide bombing, Sati was a custom; jauhar was a Rajput custom. History tells us it was ‘volunteered’ by most women….though coercion is also related in some instances. I think it takes a lot more to change these customs than mere religion.

    • kabir
      Posted at 14:08h, 29 August

      Dear Mazhur Sahab,

      There’s nothing inherently wrong with a patriarchal society, I’m just pointing out that the burqa is tied up with patriarchy. It is intellectually dishonest to pretend otherwise.

      One could argue that burqa is also custom — in this case an Arab custom — and not an integral part of “Islam”. The fact that more and more women in Pakistan are wearing burqa is a sign of the increasing Wahabisation and Sunnification of Pakistani Islam. South Asian women traditionally observed purdah through the use of the chunni or the dupatta, which allowed them to meet their religious requirement of modesty. No where does it say that the burqa is the only way to do so.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 14:36h, 29 August

      In the context of the ‘old’ burqa I can construct the following arguments from this recent round of comments:

      There are certain things that can seem bizarre or grotesque or repulsive to an individual. This we can call a personal opinion if we wish to remain neutral or a prejudice if we do not agree with the opinion. Just to take an example that is different, let us consider this the reaction of a vegetarian to the eating of dog meat by people belonging to another culture.

      We can search for the reason why people in some cultures find it natural to eat dog meat. Different people might come to different conclusions. Suppose an individual comes to the conclusion that eating dog meat is a barbaric custom of a culture that is insensitive to the life of animals. Also suppose that this individual is a fervent believer in the rights of animals.

      Now the question is this: What is to be done with the opinion of this individual? Keep in mind that this is an opinion about the practice of a different culture.

      If the individual is upset to the extent that he or she advocates an immediate and universal ban on the practice, should the intensity of the desire lead to a ban of the practice (as it would if the person were in a position of authority in a non-democratic system)?

      If the individual is part of a majority that finds this practice of a minority unacceptable, should the electoral power be translated into a ban on the practice? If no principle can be adduced for the dislike this would be tantamount to the legislation of a prejudice.

      Should the search be for some credible principle (to which all reasonable people may be able to subscribe) that could be used to find a resolution of the issue? Russell’s principle of accepting diversity if it does not cause social anarchy is one such principle that also brings in the dimensions of civil rights and freedom of choice

      In the meanwhile opponents of the practice could continue to advocate their position based on arguments that would go beyond mere prejudice. The mounting, and finally convincing, evidence against the harmful effects of smoking could be considered an example of such advocacy by those opposed to smoking. In some respects, the inhaling of tobacco could also be considered a barbaric custom.

      Is it possible to go further than this in the discussion at this point?

      While we consider this last question I would request participants in this debate to read an essay by Pofessor SN Balagangadhara on India and Her Traditions. Let us read it and come back with an assessment of whether it changed our thinking in any way and, if so, why and to what extent. Even otherwise, it is an interesting essay to read and I have archived it for easy access in the future.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 14:07h, 29 August Reply

    Let us not lose sight in this discussion of what might be the real issue at stake in Europe.

    There is the ‘old’ burqa (of the type Anil and Vinod are talking about) and the ‘new’ burqa (of the type that Mazhur is talking about). The old burqa was definitely on its way out and would have faded away or remained confined to a miniscule population. The new burqa is a revival and is less a dress and more a symbol of political defiance.

    So, if we are focused on Europe, the real question to ask is what lies behind the emergence of political defiance, what does it dignify, and how might it best be handled?

    On the other hand, if we are focused on anachronistic practices, we can discuss what might have been their origins and what should be done if some find them unacceptable at the personal level.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 15:08h, 29 August

      SA, as I have already explained any other kind of attire banned by French government is purposeful and mean therefore unacceptable. There is however one point which explains this reaction as you yourself claim. If burqa is a symbol of defiance but people of France treat it as provocation then this reaction is expected. A politician is adept at reading public perception therefore Sarcozy is only keeping his constituency happy. By the way it is the ‘old burqa’ which is making a comeback in India. It is everywhere.

      Another point being debated here is if a custom does no harm and desired by a large multitude should it be banned because another set of people find it irritating? Even though there is no comparison between burqa and Sati, one is merely an irritant the other unmitigated monstrosity, do we approve or not of banning Sati? It apparently does no harm to anyone while a large public approves it. There is a Shankaracharya who publicly defended it and swarms of people gathered at Deorala to witness it. The frenzy was so great that local government did not have the guts to stop it.

    • kabir
      Posted at 18:58h, 29 August

      Anil ji, As you’ve rightly pointed out the burqa is an irritant while Sati is a monstrosity.

      I feel a ban on Sati is completely justified because it is tantamount to murder. You write “it apparently does no harm to anyone”. What about the woman who is killed? Sati does irreparable harm to her by depriving her of life. As far as I know, no one has yet died from wearing a burqa. There lies the difference, at least in my opinion.

  • mazhur
    Posted at 15:02h, 29 August Reply

    @ kabir :

    <<<<<<There’s nothing inherently wrong with a patriarchal society, I’m just pointing out that the burqa is tied up with patriarchy<<<<<
    <<<< It is intellectually dishonest to pretend otherwise.<<<<<<<

    Perhaps but in the absence of a matriarchal society it would be elusive to put the entire blame on patriarchs..


    Arab countries suffer monarchy and it is mandatory for women to go out covered in a burqa or something of that type. You cannot compare Arab countries with secular or democratic countries, not even with Iran or Pakistan which are Islamic Democratic Republics as their names suggest.

    <<<<<<The fact that more and more women in Pakistan are wearing burqa is a sign of the increasing Wahabisation and Sunnification of Pakistani Islam.<<<<<

    This seems probable….but burqa is also worn by Shia women and women of other Muslim sects like Bohri, for example.

    <<<<<<<South Asian women traditionally observed purdah through the use of the chunni or the dupatta,<<<<<<<<

    Oh, no! You cannot say that. Chunni or dupatta is additional. Women who wear burqa also wear chunni or dupatta…

    . <<<<>>>

    this is like beating about the bush as I already said that Islam commands women to cover up decently so that their bodies and ornamentation remains hidden from the dirty eyes of other men. Instead of burqa one can call it a gown or scarf or even a kimono which serves the ordained purpose!

    • kabir
      Posted at 18:53h, 29 August

      Mazhur Sahab,

      If Islam enjoins modesty or what you term “covering up decently” I don’t see how a woman wearing a dupatta draped over her head and chest is being immodest. Thousands of women in Pakistan and India do this every day. It is your interpretation of Islam that burqa is necessary. Nowhere in the scripture does it ever specifically outline what the garment should look like.

      As for the issue of the “dirty eyes of other men”, why not address this issue by making it clear to men what is acceptable and civilized behavior expected of them in society? Why should the poor woman have to bear the brunt of male perversion?

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 17:06h, 29 August Reply

    After this long discussion, I am inclined to think that Russell’s principle is just wrong because its presuppositions are often not met in practice as with sati or the burqa.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 20:57h, 29 August

      Arun: Could you expand on that and explain why you feel the presuppositions are often not met in practice? It would help if you spell out the presuppositions as well.

  • mazhur
    Posted at 19:30h, 29 August Reply

    @ kabir :


    Unless you know about ‘ the feminine parts’ of a woman as mentioned in the scriptures or writings on ‘Body Language’ It would not be possible for you to comprehend the concept of ‘covering up’. Dupatta or chunri just covers the head and bosom of a woman, not her entire ‘femininity’ or her ‘ornamentation’. Hence these are optional coverings for women when they are not wearing a burqa or when they wear them as a token of grace, dignity and respect in the presence of their elders. However, I do not agree with women hiding their faces, hands and feet.


    Read my comments, I never said burqa is a token of religious obligation. It can be any covering …which conceals their ‘femininity’ and ‘ornamentation’ and ‘body contours’ from the eyes of strangers or non-mehrams.


    Western society is based on sex, ours is not. Hence our men are wont to ogle and even molest women if they moved around uncovered from their dirty stares. Thus one of the only option for women to keep safe and comfortable from ‘rabid dogs’ is to observe purdah either through a burqa, a chadar, a scarf, a gown or anything which covers them all (except face, hands and feet).

    Do you think you can change an illiterate and uncivilized culture or ‘culturally hardened and sex hungry men’ in poor countries (for the sake of this discussion ) in a jiffy?? No chance! Men in Western countries are compelled to behave in regard to women because of the strict enforcement of laws there… India and Pakistan are relatively ‘lawless’….in so far as women rights and security is concerned.

    • kabir
      Posted at 22:16h, 29 August

      Mazhur Sahib,

      Let’s just agree to disagree. I personally find absolutely nothing wrong with shalwar-kameez and dupatta and nothing you have said has convinced me otherwise. I’m afraid emotional/religious and other non-rational arguements don’t work with me. If it’s not intellectually convincing, it’s not intellectually convincing.

      Again, I do not see why the onus for dealing with men’s perversion is on the woman who must put herself in a repressive and frankly inhuman garment.

      Also, modesty is in how someone (male or female) carries themselves. One can be modest in so-called “liberal” Western clothing. Conversely, one can be immodest while being “piously” dressed.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 22:32h, 29 August

      Kabir: Sometimes arguments can become over-intellectualized and distanced from reality. It is inevitable that we all generalize from our lived experiences and have to make a conscious effort to imagine beyond them. I would urge that you consider Mazhur’s argument not just from the perspective of a ‘rationality’ that might have limited provenance. It is more than likely that in the subset of men with whom you are familiar the male-female relationship is of the kind that you are implying. But is it possible that there may be a subset where the relationship might be different? Where women have different hazards to contend with? Think, for example, of the world described in Daniyal Mueenuddin’s stories. Or, ask women who have to go to Bano Bazaar whether they feel it is a different experience than going to Liberty market. If the experience is different, we have to concede some ground to Mazhur. Perhaps he is talking of an environment with which you may not be fully familiar. If so, we need to learn about that world and not agree to disagree too quickly. Let us continue talking.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 01:41h, 30 August

      Thus one of the only option for women to keep safe and comfortable from ‘rabid dogs’ is to observe purdah either through a burqa, a chadar, a scarf, a gown or anything which covers them all (except face, hands and feet).

      I used to think like this. But it won’t take you too much to enquire with women in India, a country known for molestation and groping of women, that perverts are going to molest any women REGARDLESS of how they dress. Even burqa clad women get molested, and it is no less frequent than others. The burqa provides no additional security whatsoever against perverted men. I have seen videos of women in burqa getting molested. What molesters look for is not dressing style but powerlessness.

  • mazhur
    Posted at 22:38h, 29 August Reply

    @ kabir :

    kabir Sahib,


    yes, I too feel nothing wrong with shalwar-qameez and dupatta provide it is not ‘ooltee shalwar’ ( an inverted design of shalwar–Jodhpuri design etc ) and ‘loondi qameez’ (mini-shirt) exposing the entire contours of bust and hips to the pleasure of the viewers!!


    good for you but what said i said from practical observation and honest conviction. you have the right to disagree …..

    <<<<<<<Again, I do not see why the onus for dealing with men’s perversion is on the woman who must put herself in a repressive and frankly inhuman garment.<<<<<<<

    Physically and emotionally women are different than men. Men can even walk out without shirts a woman can't though no body stops her from doing that. You see how 'femininity' comes into action naturally and spontaneously with women in certain matters…..this is the critical point which requires them to cover up their physical display decently


    Morality and ethics….are the same for men and women. Infact islam condemns men who stare at women or even throw an intentional second glance!

    <<<<<<<One can be modest in so-called “liberal” Western clothing. Conversely, one can be immodest while being “piously” dressed.<<<<<

    burqa is NOT a pious dress….is just a covering for women ,,,it can be anything even a nun's attire..or even a plain sheet of cloth!

    • kabir
      Posted at 23:50h, 29 August

      Mazhur Sahab,

      The reason men can walk about without shirts is because cultural and societal norms permit this. It has nothing to do with “physical or emotional difference between men and women” There are (or were) certain societies in Africa where women went around bare breasted and no one had a problem with that or found it prurient until the European missionaries arrived.

      I urge you to familiarize yourself with some feminist theory and then perhaps you will understand the argument that all these restrictions on women arise out of patriarchy. As I said earlier, there is nothing inherently wrong with patriarchy, it is simply a system of societal organization. Let me now qualify that statement: there is nothing wrong with patriarchy TO THE EXTENT THAT it permits women to fulfill their potential and live lives that are equal to those of men.

      Burqa apologists are akin to those Muslim men who force their wives (who are educated and have MBAs) to sit at home after marriage simply because a woman working outside the home is “un-Islamic”. That is totally shameful if you ask me.

      I have no problem with a woman choosing to wear the burqa in certain situations if she feels uncomfortable otherwise (as South Asian mentioned perhaps in Bano Baazar). My issue is with women being coerced into doing so through these types of quasi religious arguments which are just rationalizations for patriarchy.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 02:46h, 30 August

      Mazhur: I mentioned in my earlier post that I see the logic of your argument in an environment where uncivilized (to use your description) men may have a predatory attitude towards women forcing the latter to find ways to protect themselves. The burqa, as a garment, would provide such protection – its severity increasing with the severity of the problem.

      There is little doubt that such environments existed and still do. One can read accounts of kings (one of the Nizams of Hyderabad was also included in this category) who could ‘requisition’ any woman they fancied. Whenever it was announced that the king would travel through the city, ordinary citizens with good looking wives and daughters would lock them up in dark rooms without windows. This could be considered the ultimate burqa. The haris in Sindh entertained similar fears about their waderas. So, this argument is reasonable when the imbalance of power is so great that there is little check on what men can get away with.

      However, you also seem to be making another argument when you say that women should not dress indecently (which in your description consists in showing the contours of the body). In this argument the burqa is not really a physical garment but any adjustment that results in conforming to the standard of decency.

      A number of arguments emerge from this position:

      1. Here the women are not taking recourse to the burqa for their protection. Rather the women wish to dress in a particular way and the burqa is being urged upon them to prevent the men from being provoked. The question to consider here would be why the men are susceptible to such provocation?

      2. I hope you will concede that the definition of decency in your argument is a personal opinion rooted in a time and place. There is no conception of decency that has stayed unchanged through time. Kabir has mentioned, and books on anthropology would verify, that in many cultures it was not considered indecent for women to be bare-breasted. It was the Victorian missionary definition of decency that was applied to these societies. There is a very revealing observation (I think in Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa) of how the shocked missionaries gave women vests to wear. When the women came to church the next morning, they had cut two big holes in the vest fronts in order to feel normal. Some time back I had mentioned on the blog an article by William Dalrymple about the changing notions of sexuality in India. Once again it were the Victorian attitudes of the British missionaries that gave rise to a new conception of decency quite alien to the indigenous practices.

      Let us try and answer the first point taking Pakistan as an example. It seems odd that men who start reading the Quran before they go to school, read Islamiyat throughout their education, and listen to sermons every Friday about how they will burn in hell if they look at women with an evil eye are still unable to control their desires. This suggests either the complete irrelevance of religion to social and ethical behavior or some other pathology in society.

      My own feeling is that if a society creates an environment from the very beginning that severely restricts the interaction of males and females, it sets itself up for problems. Having created the problem, it then tries to deal with the consequences by hiding the women, frightening the men with the fires of hell, and pairing the two off at an age before they really understand what is happening. All these remedies have failed which should force us to examine how we have been dealing with male-female relations in early childhood.

      In one of your earlier comments you had said that “Western society is based on sex, ours is not.” I think by this you meant that Western society is comfortable with sexuality, not that it is licentious (which is what Imran Khan claims, for example). Garments like beach wear and shorts are considered normal in the West and not indecent. The display of female contours has no anarchic consequences in Western society – people still go to work and all the leading inventions, discoveries, and advances continue to come out of the West. So, something must be working in Western society that we need to think about. In this regard the US is not a good example because it has it own peculiar problems (somewhat analogous to Pakistan’s but at a different level) – prudishness about sexuality that finds its obverse in a fixation about sex. But take the Scandinavian countries, for instance – a very open environment but with a remarkably low incidence of sexual harassment of any kind.

      This brings me back to the second point that notions of decency and attitudes to sex are very culture specific and we need to study the social practices that give rise to what we are calling social pathologies. Even within the same country there can be a lot of variation – for example, it is frequently reported that the incidence of sexual harassment in Delhi is much higher than in Mumbai. If correct, one would need to dig deeper to find out the reason for the variation.

      Women need protection where warranted but at the same time we need to figure out why is it that women still need this kind of protection in the twenty-first century. We don’t need to ape the West but we still need to understand and address the roots of the problem in our own societies.

  • Mona
    Posted at 00:50h, 30 August Reply

    Hi Kabir,

    I really like your points of view in response to S on the changing chup site. Can you please clarify on Five Rupees blog also that Indian secularism is not a sham? I will appreciate it as it will clear lot of misconceptions about Indian society.

    • kabir
      Posted at 05:34h, 30 August

      Thanks Mona, for appreciating the comment. It’s a long hard slog trying to get people to understand that Jinnah envisioned a secular state not an “Islamic Republic”. I’ve just checked out Five Rupees for the first time and will be sure to keep putting the message out there at an appropriate juncture.

      India, for all it’s problems living up to the ideal, is at least aspiring to be a secular democracy, which is more than any of us can say for Pakistan.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 01:25h, 30 August Reply

    Amartya Sen is a Nobel Prize winner, an economist and philosopher, and a very wise man. This is what he said recently in an interview about his latest book on justice:

    I wasn’t so much saying that justice means different things to different people. There are different ways of looking at justice. Sometimes the same person can take different views…

    The main point is that there can be different reasonable positions not that different people must have different positions. It’s not related to difference between persons. It’s related to difference between arguments and reasoning.

    Let us keep that in mind as we continue to consider different positions and argue and reason about them. Our collective objective is to determine what the various reasonable positions are, why they differ, and whether there are ways to reconcile them.

  • mazhur
    Posted at 11:57h, 30 August Reply

    @ SouthAsian :

    let me begin with Religion and Culture–

    Religion does tend to change culture as it did in India and Pakistan and many other parts of the world. It is because of religion that pagan Arabs and Muslims denounced worshipping idols. It’s all due to religion that the Hindus won’t slaughter cows and Muslims won’t eat pigs. IF there was no religion or their religions allowed they would be enjoying both cows and pigs! The point is not that religion is wrong-it the wrong or erroneous interpretation of edicts by the followers of a religion that makes all the difference. The Muslim world also differs on the issue of Burqa and so many other things that a myriad of sects have cropped up and fouled Islam. Hindu or Muslim, one has to abide by the commands of his faith. If it says cover up to hide your ‘femininity’ do it…if it says don’t don’t. ‘Decent’ attiring is what you think best to fulfull the injunctions of your own religion. As such it is futile to try establishing the meaning of ‘decency’ in comparative cases not linked to you or your faith.

    The Quran clearly says, “To you your religion, to me mine’!

    I hate oppression and coercion in all matters but sometimes you have to take ‘precautionary’ measures to stay in tune with the environment. For example, I had to put on a jacket to seek entry to a restaurant in New York. If such unimportant places have their rules which they can impose on their customers the I think religion and culture is much much stronger than them! If you try to break the rule you are nowhere!

    Men and women have equal rights in the West,,,okay,,but I have seen the condition of women there and could only deplore their frustration and indignity in the eyes of men. Men regard them as ‘bitches’ we don’t. What the West calls equality is a hoax to exploit women and treat them as tools of sexual and economic pleasure and relief.

    it is wrong that hightly educated women such as MBA’s and doctors are not allowed to work in the Muslim world….such thinking is maligning and hypothetical. I can say that for sure that even my daughters and all educated girls I know are freely working in business and government departments…

    I also do not accept the contention that Pakistan was created to be a secular state. there is a long going controversy over one of Jinnah’s speeches where he spoke of ‘freedom for all’ sort of thing for followers of all religions. Wasn’t old and sick Jinnah susceptible to make mistakes?? Nehru and Gandhi also did.
    It wouldn’t be fair to catch Jinnah’s tongue—to justify secularism or to denounce the historical background of creation of a ‘separate homeland for the Muslims’!

    to be contd………….

    • kabir
      Posted at 13:22h, 30 August

      Mazhur Sahib,

      You are of course right that religious people should follow the commands of their faith. But what about those of us who are not particularly religious? Why should be forced to follow customs or injunctions that we don’t rationally agree with? Isn’t there some non-religious criteria to decide which customs are acceptable or not?

      Regarding the issue of Pakistan being created to be a secular state that is a tanget that it’s better not to get into here. But lets just say that Jinnah himself was a hugely secular person and there is no way he ever fought for a Shariah state. Those are lies spread by Maududists and Jammat-Islami types. Also remember that Pakistan was orginally intended to be the “Republic of Pakistan” just like the “Republic of India”. It’s only later that unfortunately Islam was brought into the public sphere.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 16:56h, 30 August

      All participants: I have two requests: First, let us keep the issue of Pakistan and Jinnah out of this discussion because it distracts from the main topic. There are many posts on this blog where it would fit better. Second, please avoid capital letters in comments as they are considered to be against net etiquette.

      Mazhur: I am not saying that religion has no impact on society; of course it does. But I am saying that in this particular dimension that we are discussing – the attitude of males towards females – it has not had the impact on social and ethical behavior that we expected in our society. This is a fact because, as you have pointed out, ‘rabid dogs’ continue to be born and flourish and oppress women.

      In the face of this strong evidence it is a weak defense to argue that the problem lies in our not being ‘true’ believers. If 1500 years of religion has not turned us into true believers, it is unrealistic to expect that it will happen in the next few decades – a magic wand of that sort does not exist. And in this regard it is sobering to realize that things are not improving but deteriorating.

      We have to consider that social and ethical behavior could be affected by factors other than religion and that our reflection on the underlying factors might be imbalanced. We might be giving too much attention to religion and not enough to the other factors. (One aspect of this is discussed in two earlier posts on this blog – Faith and Development and Is Faith Necessary for Progress?)

      Two such factors come immediately to mind: the balance of power between males and females and the rule of law. Variations in these factors correlate quite well with the treatment of women in different places. The other evidence supporting this hypothesis is that even in societies where the religion is the same, there are variations in the treatment of women – I had mentioned Mumbai and Delhi earlier. Presumably this difference could be due to the other factors that we are ignoring in our discussion.

      We should recognize that even within the same religion, there are variations in local cultures and in the balance of sexual power. How local norms emerge and stabilize is a different topic but one can think of the impact of social stability. Places with socio-political continuity can be different from places that are frequently destabilized by invasion and subject to loot and plunder. There could be other reasons that need to be studied.

      As we both agree, cultures are impacted by religion but I am not sure I would agree with the assertion that culture adulterates religion. Culture is prior to religion and the accepted use of the term adulteration signifies the influence of an addition to something that already exists – thus water adulterates milk; milk does not adulterate water. Unlike, the milk and water example, adulteration need not always be a negative phenomenon. Many desirable alloys result from the adulteration of a base metal by a small amount of another.

      Incidentally, as a matter of interest, the first name for the language that was later called Hindustani was Rekhta which means adulteration – in this case the base of old Punjabi, khari boli and braj bhasha was adulterated with Persian yielding a very sweet Hindustani which politics later bifurcated into Hindi and Urdu.

      Rekhta ke tum hii ustaad nahiiN ho Ghalib
      kehtey haiN aglay zamaaney main koii Meer bhii thaa

      So religion has an influence on culture that could be good or bad. Where religion creates disharmony in society (as it did in Europe because of inter-factional conflicts), we need to examine the phenomenon dispassionately. Uncompromising loyalty to anything, be it religion or nationality or family, is antithetical to critical enquiry. And the objective of this blog is critical enquiry without fear or favor, without the apprehension that we ourselves may have to concede the logic of an argument. We should not cease being compassionate but our loyalty must remain directed to reason.

  • mazhur
    Posted at 12:17h, 30 August Reply


    i take your point on perverts molesting both veiled and unveiled women but in cultures where burqa has to be worn by women to be less alluring to men such cases are scant. Moreover, a pervert may call for his death if he molests a woman in certain tribal cultures upnorth or in the Arab world.

  • mazhur
    Posted at 12:31h, 30 August Reply


    All feminist theories sprang up from the suffrage movement then snow balled into more and more rights for women. Good enough.

    I will agree with you if you eliminate poverty from our part of the world and make all women self-sufficient to propel the boat of their lives in our societies….the much maligned patriarchal system would die its death spontaneously!

    it’s no use quoting about African women going around top less…glance at Indian history ..it was also the same there.–Ceylonese women moved around topless at one time. These are related to cultural and tribal issues….
    Nawab Odd Deccan was a cynic and an eccentric… being one of the richest man .he treated his wife churlishly and badly and gave her peanuts as home allowance. these are oddities of abnormal human mind, we are concerned with normal average men and women.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 14:07h, 30 August

      Mazhur, by co-opting the word ‘normal’ to describe only those cultures where women cover their breasts you have mocked those cultures that do not have that norm. These are clear indications of blinders on your eye from the cultural conditioning that you have. The very existence of such cultures is a testament to the social conditioning behind what masquerades as ‘feminity’ in nature.

  • mazhur
    Posted at 13:51h, 30 August Reply

    i would like to share this comment received from a Pakistani Muslim lady (let me name her ‘NA’) living abroad

    “””Call it “burqa”….”chaador”….NAQAAB….Palloo….Jillaaba….abbaayaa…
    where ever the tradition…of wearing the “libaas”…
    there was only one purpose….
    Taken on to cover and protect oneself… from the prying eyes of the wealthy and powerful…MEN…
    especially for those households that did not have the courage to stand up to the ruling class.

    This is how…culturally the dress originated…however there are still parts of The world..that …ALAS…
    it has NOW become…the MUST dress …the attire..thrust upon a woman….even if she wants to discard it….
    NOW THRUST upon her by the male culture in those parts of the world..where rights of women has been DSICARDED..

    If a woman chooses to wear it…it should be because she CHOOSES to…..NOT because she is forced to wear it…””

  • mazhur
    Posted at 14:32h, 30 August Reply

    FYI here is another feedback from lady NA

    “In fact many regions practice CULTURAL beliefs…in the name of religion…
    The CIRCUMCISION of girls….which is clearly condemed in Islam..is widely practiced in the Arab and African muslim world…
    In Africa Mutiple marraiges…is practiced by all religions of the region….even CHRISTIANS….

    As for the women and their disrespect in the west ISSUE..There I personally blame the WOMEN themselves….They flaunt themselves as SEX objects..
    They misunderstand the freedom issue…Alas there again CULTURE dominates..

    RILIGION [4 ME] is pure and uncomplicated…..CULTURE adulterates religion..
    and as CULTURE is the dominating factor of any region…
    It is mis-understood as RELIGIOUS belief and dictat….thanx to our Religious leaders.”

    • Vinod
      Posted at 15:41h, 30 August

      Cicero and Plutarch would turn in the graves at this distinction between religion and tradition. Ancient Rome and Greece tolerated Jews because the jews somehow managed to show that they stick to a tradition. The Christians had no such luck. They were evidently new on the scene and did not have much to offer by argument that they were a tradition. The Romans, believe it or not, referred to the Christians as ATHEISTS because they did not have a tradition and were ‘meddlesome innovators’. Cicero and Plutarch were philosophers who were candid about their disbelief in their own gods but nevetheless so a point in upholding tradition. The oft-peddled distinction between religion and culture is only that of intellectuals who can afford to dissociate themselves from the society to some degree or who can only do so in words but not in practice. In reality, the masses make no such distinction between religion and culture. That distinction can never become real in anyway. It is purely an intellectual gimmick.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 15:50h, 30 August

      The first time ever that religion was countered against tradition was in the arguments of the early Christians against the Romans. This peeved Roman sensibilities to no end.
      Abrahamic faiths (Islam and Christianity in particular) have continued to do this wherever they went.

  • mazhur
    Posted at 15:20h, 30 August Reply

    As far as I know Jinnah was born into a middle class family, studied in a small madressah in Karachi, practiced law in Bombay and left for London when his father got bankrupt. Being himself and Aga Khani, he was liberal as most Aga Khanis are. A man of super intelligence Jinnah entered Indian politics and won a ‘separate homeland ‘ for Muslims. Why, you can read Jaswant Singh for latest disclosures.

    However, just by the time Pakistan was created the liberal Jinnah succumbed to ‘conventions’ and hastened to give up his ‘liberal western’ skin and switched over to traditionally Muslim type of attire viz Shervani-pajama and Karakuli topi !! He starrted offering ‘Namaz’ as other sects did (Wahabis, Shias, Sunnis etc) even though there is no concept of the traditional way of offering Namaz 9prayer) among Aga Khanis who just sit in their Jamaat Khana’s and raise their hands for due (prayer)

    It’s rightly said ‘politics has no principles’…..

    Maududi, Azad, etc were against the creation of Pakistan….how could you relate them to Jinnah??

    We must examine historical background of the Pakistan movement before terming it as a state other than an Islamic republic. The 1973 Constitution of Pakistan also unanimously says so…
    Let’s not close our eyes to truth….

  • mazhur
    Posted at 16:28h, 30 August Reply

    <<<<<<<<<Cicero and Plutarch would turn in the graves at this distinction between religion and tradition.<<<<<<<<<<<<
    they should.

    Traditions and customs vary among different ethnicities belonging to the same religion and are often not interchangeable among them.

  • mazhur
    Posted at 17:31h, 30 August Reply

    @ SA

    <<<<<<As we both agree, cultures are impacted by religion but I am not sure I would agree with the assertion that culture adulterates religion. Culture is prior to religion and the accepted use of the term adulteration signifies the influence of an addition to something that already exists – thus water adulterates milk; milk does not adulterate water. Unlike, the milk and water example, adulteration need not always be a negative phenomenon. Many desirable alloys result from the adulteration of a base metal by a small amount of another.<<<<<<<

    You have posted a good comment indeed, I appreciate it.

    As regards your analogy, I may like to put forth another one
    take it this way….
    Religion= flavor/fragrance (or poison)

    Now whom would you call the 'pollutant' or 'adulterant'??

    Frankly, we cannot draw one model for this topic.

    Personally, I think no religion teaches evil-if it does it is not a religion at all. Instead of putting the blame on religion which its followers do not follow or misinterpret we cannot accuse religion of failure to correct the society. Communism which is devoid of religious concepts was tried but finally failed in serving the ends of humanity.

    Believing in a faith, I believe, is analogous to a student choosing a subject for his studies. Since the curriculae is not set by the student himself he is bound to study whatever is prescribed to him by his University. If he doesn't he is certainly going to fail and earn a bad name not for himself but also for his educational institution. Thus religion is like this 'Institution' and the 'students' are like followers. Similarly, a soldier is bound by certain rules in military; a worker is bound by rules of his company; if they refuse to obey those rules or misinterpret or defy them they would certainly be sacked or punished.

    When a person swears 'allegiance' to a religion it becomes almost impossible for him to commit infraction unless he's a hypocrite or a renegade from his faith. This is the essence of Islam. Muslims are bound by their faith to accept the Quranic commands without questioning it. Of course there is room for 'reasoning' but you cannot 'reason out' its fundamentals ie the existence of Allah and His Prophet. If any Muslim does that and still calls himself a Muslim he, in the words of Quran, is a Hypocrite.

    So, when it comes to burqa there are explicit orders in the Quran for women to adopt such measure by which their femininity does not become a common scene for the public; that women should cover their 'bosoms', etc. Nowhere does the Quran suggest a burqa which is an attire the outcome of socio-cultural imperatives from place to place.

    A woman in our part of the world is NOT like the woman in the West. Eastern and Western values and preferences are different. Gender equality doesn't mean that the East should follow the West or vice versa. As France has banned scarf as well as burqa its action is clearly prejudiced because in the case of a scarf the woman keeps her face exposed whereas, as an alternative, and to the content of the biased Sarkozy I suggest that women begin wearing a long coat/gown and cover their head with a dupatta or chunni. I am sure the narrow mindedness of the French would ban this too….what a pity!

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 19:13h, 30 August

      Mazhur: Thanks for the appreciation.

      I am not sure I understand the point that you wished to make with your example of adulteration. The adulterating material remains the one that is added to the base. So, in this case also, religion is being added to culture. But adulterant is not synonymous with pollutant which has a negative connotation. As I mentioned earlier, the adulteration can have either good or bad consequences or some good and some bad in complex cases – for example, an alloy can be stronger but more brittle at the same time. Going back to a simple example of adulteration: Islam emerged in Arabia and then migrated to a lot of places where it was added to already existing cultures. Because these local cultures were different in different places, the resulting mix was also quite different. Thus Islam in Bosnia and Islam in India share a religion but differ in many social practices. This is the way it happened; there is not much to be gained by debating whether this was good or bad because we have no way of knowing what would have happened otherwise.

      On religion, I do not feel we should think in terms of blaming religion. The question we have to ask is whether whatever mechanisms we are employing to civilize society are working or not. I would urge you to read the interview by Amartya Sen that I had linked earlier. He explains the conceptual point very well – it couldn’t be said better. He is speaking of systems of justice but the argument can be applied to systems in general, including religions. Here is a relevant excerpt:

      And so you have to judge [a system] not just by well meaning arrangements — whether [X] is a good thing or whether [Y] is a good thing — but what it is actually doing. And then if it’s not doing enough, then how to change it. And if it is doing enough, then how to solidify that….And so you have to judge it in terms of its consequences. As to what it is doing. What opportunities or freedom or well-being is being created by the system. Not whether one system is inherently superior to another. We have to judge it against what it is doing to the lives of the people.

      I am not able to agree with your relationship between religion and obedience – the Quran repeatedly enjoins its adherents to think and seek knowledge; Ijtihad is a part of religion. The fundamentals do not need to be questioned but there are many social issues where interpretation is required. Whose interpretation is one to follow – Deobandi or Barelvi? How would one know that the one whom one considers an expert really knows what he is talking about? (On this topic see an earlier post on the blog – Islam: Moving On.)

      The nature of belief constitutes a personal choice. What matters (as Amartya Sen says) is how effective we are in ending oppression and injustice in this world. There is no evidence that effectiveness is correlated with religious belief. It certainly is with honesty, sincerity, selflessness, compassion, dedication, perseverance, and thoughtfulness.

  • Mona
    Posted at 18:05h, 30 August Reply

    Thanks Kabir. Keep up the good work. You should write for Huffington Post. I will forward you the editor’s email if you are interested in contribution to their South Asian segment.

    • kabir
      Posted at 04:28h, 31 August

      Hi, Mona: This is really off-topic to the subject of this post, but since I don’t know how to reach you otherwise, it’ll have to do. Please do forward me the editor’s email, I’d love to explore the opportunity of working with them. You can send it to me via the blog (thesouthasianidea@gmail.com). Thanks.

  • mazhur
    Posted at 20:04h, 30 August Reply

    @ SouthAsian :

    In my milk and flavor ( or poison) analogy it is for you to judge as to what is the ‘adulterant’. Similarly, mixing a pinch of saccharine in a tubfull of water will make it sweet. Religion was ‘added’ to cultures to improve their quality but unfortunately the ‘flavor’ evaporated over the years or perhaps turned into ‘poison’ due to mishandling or environmental inadequacy, whatever.


    Religion has brought many changes into the lives of its adherents but still culture and religion seem to be overlapped or sometimes religion seems to be over shadowed by socio-cultural factors. This may be attributed to habits/psyche and economy etc


    It would be futile to try to bring a change without changing the mind/thinking of people. Without justice, rule of law and alleviation of poverty I don’t think any mechanism would provide any beneficial or long lasting result.

    <<<<<I am not able to agree with your relationship between religion and obedience – the Quran repeatedly enjoins its adherents to think and seek knowledge; Ijtihad is a part of religion.<<<<<

    Oh, yes, you are right! The Quran asks Muslims to seek knowledge not to pick faults in the Quran or its tenets.


    I don’t care about Deobandi or Barelvi–those are mere ‘schools of thought’ not depicted by Quran. God has given us ‘common sense’ to judge good from bad. Why not use your own mind and prowess??


    Where in the world do you find an Islamic Welfare state??
    Why not ‘experiment’ with one and see the results!

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 02:41h, 01 September

      Mazhur: I have the following responses:

      1. On adulterants: I see what you are saying but this is a matter of definition. The adulterant is always the ingredient that is added to the base. It does not matter whether the impact is very large or negligible. But this is not important – I understand your point.

      2. I am not sure that one can say that religion was added to cultures to improve their quality in every case. In a lot of places alien religions were added by force in native cultures – It would be difficult to argue that this was always good. And, if good, from whose point of view?

      3. I am not sure what you mean by religion and culture seem to be overlapped. They have to coexist – culture cannot disappear just because religion has arrived. If this were the case, there should be no cultural difference between Muslims in Africa and Indonesia. There is also no reason for one to overshadow the other.

      4. I agree that justice, rule of law, and poverty alleviation are critical. These are the things we should focus on and reflect on why some societies have done better than others.

      5. If we use our own mind then we don’t have to worry about schools of thought. But if we follow blindly, we have to adhere to one school of thought or the other because they differ in their interpretations of the shariah. Usually people just follow the school of thought of their parents and believe that is the best in the world. I think that is pretty dumb.

      6. Could you describe what an Islamic welfare state would be like?

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