When the Muslim Educational Society (MES) sent a circular on April 17, 2019, to its faculty and students across 152 institutions regarding the ban of niqab (face veil) on its campuses, it was hailed as a step in the right direction by the progressives. Predictably, it received severe backlash from the conservatives, stating that the move was against the right to the freedom of practicing one’s religion. But Dr. P A Fazal Gafoor remained unfazed in the face of severe criticism and threats. Gafoor argued that it was the institution’s decision to adhere to the dress code, bearing in mind what was acceptable to the civil society.
The Muslim Educational Society was established in Kozhikode, North Kerala, in 1964 under the leadership of Dr. P K Abdul Gafoor with the patronage of professionals and the business community in the area, with the primary aim of educating economically and socially backward Muslims. It now runs 152 institutions across Kerala and Tamil Nadu, including medical and engineering colleges, management institutes and schools for children with special needs. It has 85,000 students and 15000 staff members. MES has played an important role in transforming the educational landscape of North Malabar, which was also reeling under economic strife during the time of its inception. It encouraged more Muslim women from economically backward families to join the academic mainstream, thus empowering them to be financially independent.
This was also the time that the Mujahideen movement was making a lot of inroads into the reformation of Muslims in Kerala, to enlighten the masses on scientific lines and modern education. The Kerala Nadvathul Mujahideen (KNM) created a sort of cultural and educational renaissance in the Muslim community, distinguishing them from other Muslims across India by achieving high rates of literacy.
The matrilineal nature of the Muslim Malabar communities further emboldened women’s rights and their social status. Thus, from the 1960s to the early 80s, Muslim women in Malabar were on the threshold of a socio- cultural revolution, breaking traditional norms and customs. The Malabar Muslims always had a distinct identity. Their social integration with other communities blurred religious and cultural differences, despite being the first Muslims in India. In the pre- independence era, it was hard to distinguish, a Hindu, Christian or Muslim in the region by their attire or tradition. Perhaps the secular fabric of Kerala is built on this very ethos – the amalgamation of cultures of diverse communities.
During the reign of the Arakkal royal family, the only Muslim Kingdom in Kerala established in the mid 16th century in North Malabar, they followed the matrilineal system of succession where the senior-most member was selected as the ruler irrespective of gender. They also followed the Marumakkathaayam–or the system of matrilineal inheritance, a system unique to a section of the Hindu community in Kerala. When Sri Lanka imposed the niqab ban after the deadly Easter Sunday Church attacks, Malayalam writer Shihabuddin Poythumkadavu supported the ban, posting a picture of Arakkal Sulthan Ayisha Beevi on his facebook page, to prove his point.
During the early part of 20th century, the kaachi (a mundu-type attire) with long blouses and a scarf over their heads was popularly used by Muslim women in Kerala. During the 1960s through 70s, this transitioned to regular sarees, with blouses with long sleeves and the pallu over their heads. When salwar kameez made its inroads into South India in late 70’s early 80’s, thanks to Bollywood, the Muslim women embraced it using the shawl to cover their heads. It was only after the mass migration for jobs by Malayalis to the Middle East, during late 1980s as a part of the Gulf boom, that the hijab and burqa in particular made its advent into the cultural practice of the women of the region.
The Advent of Hijab, Burqah & Niqab in Kerala
Contrary to popular belief, the Hijab (head scarf) and the Burqa (Black garment worn by women, covering their body and hair, leaving the face uncovered) was not the result of radicalization of Malayali Muslim women. It started as a preferential fashion practice from the Middle East, where they had migrated to.
Some of the countries have strict rules stipulating adherence to the Abayah (burqa) for women and countries like Saudi Arabia look down upon those who don’t wear them, and sometimes even levy fines. For most Malayali women who had migrated to these countries with their husbands, it was a part of the socio-cultural practice that they adopted to gain acceptance and acknowledgement in a foreign country and which they carried back home. It became such a fashion rage during the mid 90s and 2000s, that the burqa haute couture was flooding the Malabar market. This trend soon spread to other parts of Kerala.
The niqab (face veil) on the other hand is a part of the recent Islamic revivalism in the state which began a decade or two ago. The rise of Salafi and Wahabbi movements, aiming to restore Islam back to its medieval puritan form, saw acceptance among a section of Muslims in the region. It’s ironical that the once-reformist Mujahid groups are seen to be advocating puritanism today. Women were forced to wear the niqab or were indoctrinated into it. This was seen as a knee-jerk reaction by the moderates—to an inherent fear of losing one’s cultural and religious identity in an environment of radicalism that was taking over the country, both amongst the Muslims and the Hindus, ever since the Babri Masjid demolition of 1992.
The Niqab and its security concerns
In a world that has become highly polarized, where security concerns are a major priority, it becomes incumbent on every citizen to follow the rule of law of the countries they inhabit, and merge into the mainstream without having to give up on their core beliefs. The niqab that way is an identity-negator. Even the Quran has no mention of it. News about radicalization of Muslim youth, both men and women from the North Malabar region of Kerala and their recruitment to the ISIS, only adds to the already fervent narrative. The Easter Sunday bombing in Sri Lanka by radicalized local Islamic youth was the final nail in the coffin.
Instead of fighting the niqab ban, we must welcome reformative changes that could give reassurance to the society at large. The Shariah obliges Muslims to be loyal to their countries. The Quran that way is insistent that the believer owes his loyalty and allegiance to his nation that guarantees his religious freedom. The Prophet Muhammad stressed this point when he said: ‘One who obeys his authority, obeys me; One who disobeys his authority, disobeys me.’ Not wearing the niqab does not take away the respect of a woman. On the contrary, it only adds to her identity as a distinct individual—as an equal participant in the community, society and the country that she lives in.