Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Article published Monday, March 27, 2006

What constitutes Muslim dress?

Recently a dubious case for religious freedom made news in Great Britain. It involved a Muslim schoolgirl who had sued her school for not allowing her to wear the body-length dress called jilbab. The case ended up in the House of Lords, and the judiciary committee of the House, equivalent to the U.S. Supreme Court, upheld the school's dress policy.
Three cheers for the Lords for their bold decision.
At the heart of the controversy, which, on occasion reaches the outer limits of absurdity, is the oft-asked question: What constitutes Muslim dress? Is it a one-design-fit-all solution as some contend, or is there some flexibility in the matter?
There are two pertinent references in the Qur'an on the subject (24:31 and 33:59) that ask Muslim women to cover themselves when they are outside the home. Both of these verses have the underlying theme that women (and that should also be applicable to Muslim men) should dress modestly and should not draw attention of strangers as walking sex symbols. Interpretations abound.
To some it means total shrouding of women, from head to toes, in an all-covering tent-like garment called a burqa. This was strictly enforced by the Taliban in Afghanistan and is still practiced in some parts of the Muslim world. To others, like the schoolgirl, Shabina Begum, it means the long robe that covers the body but not the face. To still others it means covering the hair with a scarf. To a great majority of Muslim women, however, it is the modesty in dress that is important whether it is a western dress, African dress, or a dress worn on the Indian subcontinent. The only criterion is that the dress should be non-provocative.
Shabina Begum was a student at the public school in Luton, England, where Muslim students are a 4 to 1 majority. In deference to the religious sensitivities of the majority the school, in consultation with parents and area imams, had allowed girl students to wear shalwar-kamees dress, which constitutes baggy pants, a knee length tunic, and a scarf. The dress is worn by tens of millions of Muslim women around the world, particularly in India and Pakistan and also in Bangladesh. She wore the dress until she reached the age of 17 when she insisted on wearing the jilbab. When she came to school wearing a jilbab she was sent home.
She sued the school and won the first round in a lower court where she was represented by Cherie Booth, the wife of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and an ardent supporter of dubious cultural causes. The school appealed to the House of Lords and the Lords in their wisdom struck down the lower court's verdict.
In an interview after the verdict, Shabina Begum was defiant and strident. She said that shalwar-kamees is the dress of disbelieving women and that for a real Muslim woman the only option is to wear jilbab. She may be forgiven for the self-righteous exuberance of her youth, but in one stroke she has insulted tens of millions of pious and believing Muslim women who wear the time-honored, elegant, and very practical shalwar-kamees.
Most religious revival movements end up trampling over the cultural traditions of non-Arab Muslims in order to reach the pristine and pure source of the faith. In many non-Arab Muslim countries the process of Islamization is in many ways the process of Arabization. What the prophet and his companions wore in the 7th century has become the only acceptable model. Islam has been practiced by non-Arabs (who incidentally outnumber Arabs 4 to 1) for the past 1,400 years in their own cultural milieu. So for a Pakistani schoolgirl to pejoratively dismiss everything but an Arab dress is the height of arrogance and ignorance.
Such pseudo-religious issues add credence to the widely held notion that Muslims on the whole are averse to change and that many of them still cling to the traditions that are archaic and out of step with the world around them.
A civil society has the obligation to be sensitive to the religious practices of its minorities. But a line has to be drawn where the overall good of the society outweighs the whims of certain individuals. In deciding the school dress issue in Great Britain the House of Lords has sent a clear message.

Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a Toledo surgeon whose column appears every other week in The Blade.
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