Women are the cornerstone of any social setup. Since times immemorial, women have been statured differently in different civilizations, ranging from a deity to an object of amusement. Clothes signify culture having religious, social and ethical background and women's honour is entwined with the kind of clothing they adorn. The concept of “Chaadar and Chaardeewaari” is embedded in our collective psychologies.
The great dichotomy between East and West is deepened further by the dress code depicting their respective values: ‘liberal’ versus ‘conservative’, the latter claiming to preserve their cultural heritage. Pakistan falls somewhere in between, with leaning of its middle class towards conservatism, it has not had similar regulations despite having a huge female population observing it.
Veil being a cultural symbol is considered an integral part of the Islamic Civilization and in countries like Iran and Saudia, there are laws to abiding women to observe Hijab in public.
Organizations require their employees to observe particular dress codes. But when it comes to wearing a piece of clothing like the headgear, the debate encompasses a spectrum of religious and social issues.
So when France decides to implement a ban on it, it is bound to spark a debate around the world.
The French President labels the veil as a symbol of "servitude" and considers it 'an attack on the dignity of women'. Supporters term this move not as an attack on Muslims, but recognize it as a woman's right to walk unveiled, labeling the naqaab an extremist interpretation of Quraan and not a religious observation.
The move is significant because France has one of the largest Muslim populations in Europe.
The ban makes sense against a background of suicide bombings and other terrorist activities carried out mainly by Muslims in instances where this may be used to obfuscate their identity. Could be an attempt to amalgamate the hardcore Muslims with the mainstream population, fostering social cohesion. But if the motive is the 'liberation' and 'emancipation' of women, the move could instead alienate the orthodox Muslims.
Surely the freedom of expression entails being able to choose between walking with the hijaab as well as without it.
This ban in United States and elsewhere on the female employees has ensued in legal battles by Muslims, most of them eventually succeeding in obtaining judgements in their favour, allowing them to continue wearing hijaab at their workplace.
Conversely, in our part of the world, when an organization with an Islamic and Arabic background makes it mandatory for its female employees to adhere to an ‘Islamic’ dress code , it is bound to raise eyebrows and numerous queries. Multinationals requiring their employees to observe Hijaab is rare as compared to the Western attire that is commonplace in our country.
The motive could be multifactorial. This could be a part of their efforts to infuse an Arabic flavour in support of their theme of Islamic Banking, in the same vain that multinationals in Pakistan require their employees supporting a Western attire to ascertain their roots for instance many food chains. This could also be a marketing gimmick in order to lure customers towards a Riba-free way, the modern day customers being cognizant of their needs of the product rather than judging a book by its mere cover. That packaging of a product is essential to make it saleable is undisputable. But customers are intelligent and resourceful enough to go through the entire package, including the quality of services offered rather than merely by the ambience created.
The common ground in both the above-mentioned incidences is the fact that regardless of the location on the map, from the unconventional French to the orthodox Muslims, each of them in turn is trying to impose their particular standpoint, each of them promulgating rules and decreeing punishments when they are not complied with. Surely women have enough insight and premonition to decide the best course for themselves. The exception to this may be parts of rural Pakistan or Taliban administered rule, where women are discouraged from education and kept under lock and key. But to presume that the same dogma applies to a woman roaming the streets of Paris or in a corporate environment is Pakistan is preposterous. The freedom of women is not restricted to their garb. It encompasses other social and legal issues which the enlightened French and traditionalistic Mullahs are equally unaware of, like inheritance rights and their right to vote etc. which have been conveniently forgotten.
Casting aside the debate of East and West, is not the imposition of a particular code upon a person infringing upon its basic rights of an individual?
Keeping certain basic ethics in mind, should not and individual have enough liberty and freedom of expression to dress according to his/her satisfaction?
The debate is not just confined to the Hijaab. While rightfully criticizing countries for imposition on discriminatory grounds, enforcing a similar code on a generation brought in a democratic setup with a considerable libertarian environment would make them question not only the imposition, but also the pluralistic and benevolent values of Islam and put this forth as a religion of tyranny and extremism rather than tolerance.
Islam has sought to conserve the reverence bestowed upon them by God Almighty, by observing modestly in clothing and mannerisms rather as an object to be conemplated upon. But is it fair to enforce this divine right upon others in keeping with our sentiments of self-righteousness?
While being an advocate of the Hijab, it should be an individual’s personal decision and guided by one's own intuition rather than navigated by any legal or cultural dictum.