The Udupi hijab debate has divided society into halves: those who respect the students’ right to dress according to their religion’s instruction and those who argue that Muslim men often condition women of their community in a certain way and virtually deny them the freedom of choice. While both groups quote from the Constitution and Islamic traditions in support of their arguments, what is not stated is that the Quran does not address men alone. It speaks to humanity in gender-neutral terms. Wherever a specific verse is addressed to men, another verse or even a part of the same verse is addressed to women too. For instance, the Quran says that chaste men and women are made for each other and those not able to respect the norms of modesty are made for each other. Through Surah Noor, verse 26, we are told, “Corrupt women are for corrupt men, and corrupt men for corrupt women. Good women are for good men, and good men for good women.”
Interestingly, the Quran does not use the term husband with all its attendant connotations anywhere. It uses the term spouses or partners without any underlying meaning of superiority. Through Surah Tauba, verse 71, it calls men and women partners who help each other do good, prevent evil. The verse reads, “The believing men and women are protectors and helpers of each other. They (collaborate) to promote all that is good and oppose all that is evil; establish prayers and give charity, and obey Allah and His Messenger. Those are the people whom Allah would grant mercy. Indeed, Allah is exalted and wise.”
Significantly, the Quran gives both men and women the right to step out of an unhappy marriage. Nowhere does the Quran mention instant triple talaq. Surah Baqarah talks in detail about the process of divorce, how each pronouncement has to be separated by at least one menstrual cycle, etc. It also talks of khula , a woman’s inalienable right to divorce. Interestingly, there is an ongoing debate in Muslim circles over whether khula is an absolute right of a woman to get out of an abusive or even unhappy marriage or is a man’s consent necessary. Many scholars from the Indian subcontinent often subscribe to the view that a man’s consent is necessary even when a woman exercises her right to divorce under khula . In April 2021, the Kerala High Court called khula a valid non-judicial form of divorce, “the form of divorce conferred upon wife similar to talaq conferred upon husband”.
As in the matter of khula , the woman’s right to wear or not wear the hijab is often not considered an independent decision. If she wears one, it is not universally respected, with many people in cosmopolitan circles arguing that the woman is doing it under family or societal pressure. If a woman does not wear the hijab , those in religious circles argue that she is doing so under social pressure. Either way, the woman is denied the agency of choice. Similar to ‘lovejehad ’ cases where practitioners of Hindutva feel that a Hindu woman is incapable of deciding for herself, that she is always tricked into marriage by lust-driven Muslim man. In the matter of the hijab , a Muslim woman is said to be under the control of either conservatives or liberals; under no situation is she given credit for what might be her personal decision. Incidentally, the Indian burqa is not mentioned in the Quran. It talks of women dressing modestly, covering themselves in front of men other than father, brother, son, husband or father-in-law, so as not to expose themselves to the male gaze.
Surah Noor, verse 31, gives an outline, “And enjoin believing women to cast down their looks, and guard their private parts and not reveal their adornment except that which is revealed of itself, and to draw veils over their bosoms, and not to reveal their adornments save to their husbands, or their fathers…” In fact, two surah s of the Quran talk of the hijab: Noor and Al-Ahzaab. Verse 59 of Al-Ahzaab describes the way to cover the body. Addressing the wives and daughters of the Prophet and, after them, other Muslims, it says, “O Prophet, enjoin your wives and your daughters and the believing women, to draw a part of their outer coverings around them. It is likelier that they will be recognised and not molested.” In everyday parlance, a loose sheet or shawl over their usual attire to conceal their modesty should suffice.
According to the Islamic scholars Mufti Abdul Dayam and Sanaullah Panipati, who wrote in Tafseer-e-Mazhari , “Jilbab means a sheet wrapped up on top of the usual dupatta or shawl”. They go on to describe the circumstances of the revelation of this verse: A wife of the Prophet, Sauda, was easily recognisable in public, as she was quite heavy. Once when she stepped out for some work she was intercepted. She came back to relate the incident to her husband. The verse of surah Al-Ahzaab talking of a ‘jilbab’, or shawl over garments, was revealed at that time.
Islam from male perspective
Most commentaries in the subcontinent on the subject are by men. It is almost always Islam from the perspective of men, women voices are seldom heard on the hijab. Abul Ala Mawdudi, the founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, wrote an Urdu book Purdah in 1939. The book has since been translated into several languages and has seen many reprints. His is a conservative outlook on purdah . He talked of covering the face to avoid a lustful male gaze. This is remarkable since Mawdudi was among the first to respect Muslim women’s right to go to mosques to offer prayers. To this day, Jamaat-e-Islami welcomes women in mosques under its management and has a woman’s representative on its board. Among the women who come for prayers at the Jamaat’s mosques, some are in a burqa, others in a hijab, some merely cover their head and bosom with a shawl or dupatta . All are permitted.
This contrasts with the practice in the Jameat Ulama-i-Hind and the Tablighi Jamaat where mosques are considered a monopoly of men, and women, in a hijab or otherwise, are not welcome. In fact, the Tablighi Jamaat, which encourages men to undertake outstation trips for spiritual rejuvenation, does not approve of women inside mosques. Women who travel to these spiritual retreats are usually asked to stay at a house in the vicinity of the mosque, not in the mosque itself. Of course, women making such trips are expected to be covered from head to foot and be accompanied by a male family member and not be independent.
Dr Israr Ahmed, whose commentaries on the Quran are followed widely online and who parted ways with Mawdudi on the subject of political participation of Muslims, recalled: “I have seen hijab and burqa in India, in Hyderabad. I addressed a lecture in Mecca Masjid. There were 15,000 men and 5,000 women. Every one of them was in complete burqa . Unlike in Pakistan.” Ahmed believed, “Surah Al-Ahzab which was revealed in 5 Hijri (615 CE) talks of purdah outside the home, Surah Noor talks of purdah at home. The former talks of a woman’s character, and enjoins men not to enter home without permission, the latter made it a general order to all and not just the Prophet’s wives.”
Well-known scholar Farhat Hashmi, a rare woman preacher whose online lectures on the Quran have gained popularity in the past 20 years, feels the instruction of hijab for women is to cover themselves with a loose sheet over their usual garments.
“Jilbab means a long sheet, a sheet a woman wears over her garments when she steps out.”
In extreme contrast to the views of Mauwdudi, Ahmed and Farhat Hashmi, the contemporary Islamic scholar Amina Wadud created quite a stir by leading mixed gender prayers in the United States some 17 years ago. Amina Wadud said in an interview, “There is nothing said in the Quran about the hijab. There are some statements in the Quran about women’s dress. I don’t believe that the hijab is a requirement of the religion. But it is personally my preference for my public work. I don’t wear it at home, I don’t wear it in my neighbourhood… but when I am in public I do…. But because the hijab is so politicised in a negative way under the roof of Islamophobia, I am even more inclined to assert it.” Incidentally, after 9/11, Amina Wadud, like many others, was subjected to additional screening because she wore a hijab at the time. She was advised against wearing it. She replied, “No, no, why would I not identify with the people being the most oppressed?”
Amina Wadud wore a naqab, or veil, early in her life as a Muslim. “Until we actually accept people in the full range of their clothes, we cannot know about the full spectrum of women Muslim and their dress,” she said, adding, “they are all about women saying… that’s my body, my choice.”
The Hijab’s advent in India
As far as India is concerned, the hijab made a beginning in the form of a loose single garment of cotton, usually with a cap attached to it. Some came with a veil, many without it. Women used to put the cap on the head and wrap the garment around their body. During the Sultanate period, women from upper classes donned it when they stepped out. Mughal princesses were not known to favour the burqa, but they were uniformly covered and stepped out only in a palanquin. For instance, Maham Anga, foster mother of Akbar who built the Khairul Manazil Masjid in Delhi, and Azizun Nisa, also known as Begum Akbarabadi, who built a mosque under her name near the historic Jama Masjid in Old Delhi, have been depicted in paintings of the era with their head covered but not in a hijab or burqa. In fact, the paintings of Maham Anga in Akbarnama depict her with clear facial contours and white and yellow robes. Clearly, she did not wear a hijab or a burqa. Before them, Raziya Sultan, the only woman to sit on the throne of Delhi, rode elephants and fought wars, without a veil, in the 13th century. In the run-up to her ascension to the throne, she went to Quwwatul Islam Masjid in Delhi on a Friday, clad in all red, and sought the support of the ulemma gathered there. Her hands, face and feet were not covered.
Purdah came with Muslim kings. Sudha Sharma writes in The Status of Muslim Women in Medieval India : “Strict purdah originated with Amir Timur…. He made the proclamation, ‘As they were now in the land of idolatory and amongst strange people, the women of the families should be strictly concealed from the view of the stranger.’ Purdah, thus, became common among Muslim ladies.” According to her, Muslim men were zealous in guarding women from public gaze, and considered it a dishonour if they were exposed unveiled.
Niccolao Manucci, the 17th century Venetian traveller to the Mughal empire, wrote in his Storia Do Mogor , “Mohammedans are very touchy in the matter of allowing their women to be seen.” Almost all Muslim women, except those from the peasant class, observed purdah . Only at Meena Bazaar, a fancy market instituted in Delhi during the time of Akbar and continued by Jahangir and Shahjehan, were women seen without purdah as they did not have to be veiled in front of the king, who visited the market and also arranged marriages of boys and girls there. Purdah then was regarded as a symbol of honour. Today, the hijab is a mark of identity.