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Cabbages & Kings: Battles over hijab, niqab, beards

Published Mar 18, 2017, 12:36 am IST
Updated Mar 18, 2017, 6:58 am IST
The judgment could apply to dangling crucifixes, yamulkas, hijabs and of course niqabs — the full face covering.
Representational Image
 Representational Image

“A line is really a plane
Its breadth stretches to a virus’ horizon
An edge or a boundary explain
Why the present is just an illusion
There is only the immediate past
Or the further stretch of neurological making
The future is fate, the die is cast
Look up at the clouds, the monsoon’s breaking…”
From Sand Bolo Sandweetz by Bachchoo

Oh dear! The hijab has reared its head, so to speak, once again on Europe’s political landscape. Ruling on a case brought by French and Belgian citizens, the European Court of Justice has ruled that employers in Europe can ban employees from wearing visible insignia of religion in the interests of a uniform “uniform code”. The judgment could apply to dangling crucifixes, yamulkas, hijabs and of course niqabs — the full face covering. But would it apply to Sikhs wearing turbans or Muslims wearing beards? The judgment is problematic. Does the forbidding employer have to prove that the employee has a religious motive in wearing a hijab? What about the non-Muslim, who wears a beard? Would he be allowed, whereas the “mullahfied” Muslim would be told to shave it off or be dismissed?

The judgment is enforceable in all countries of the European Union who have signed up to the ECJ and that includes Britain until, of course, Brexit is accomplished and Britain quits its jurisdiction. Would it mean that employers and employees, on appeal against such a restriction, would have to have theologians arguing in tribunals or courts whether the piece of clothing, the crucifix, the symbol or accoutrement, is religious or not? Is the ruling designed to give employment opportunities to theology-wallas? There are those on both sides of the argument about hijabs, niqabs and beards. There are Muslims who will insist that the covering of the hair of a woman is dictated by the Quran or by the Hadith.

There are equally heavyweight theologians who will argue that Islam doesn’t require women to cover their faces or their hair and the holy book enjoins women to modesty as a virtue — and modesty as we well know has myriad interpretations and varies from age to age and society to society. Or perhaps it doesn’t vary from age to age in all societies and countries. It certainly progresses in Christian Europe. The present Pope, Argentinian Francis, has virtually told his church to give communion to divorced women. The good book Leviticus, far from allowing them into any Judeo-Christian sanctity, prescribes they should be stoned to death. Of course, Jesus revised the prescription saying: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”, but both statements exist in the same book. Interpretation is all!

And even Christians will continue to argue that toss, but nowhere in the Bible does it prescribe the wearing of the crucifix around one’s neck. And so we come to the turban and the Sikh adherence to the word of the 10th Guru, Gobind Singh Sahib, that they ought to let their hair grow. As far as I know there was an accompanying injunction to carry a comb, which would indicate that the guru considered hygiene to be paramount, but the five symbols of the Khalsa do not include a turban. Very many Sikh friends, who wear turbans themselves, insist that Guru Nanak founded a Sufi eschatology and it was historical persecution and the necessity for resistance, and not any impulse to change the doctrines of the founder, that brought about Guru Gobind Sahib’s injunctions. As far as the turban is concerned, the British state, respectful of the Sikhs who fought for its empire in both world wars, has allowed Sikhs to wear turbans in place of motorcycle helmets, instead of military berets and even in the case of a Sikh in the guard at Buckingham Palace to substitute a turban for a busby.

Britain, even before leaving the European Union, will be much more liberal about applying this European injunction. In the last decades there have been battles about hijabs and niqabs, but Britain’s only determination has been that a teacher’s face and expressions ought to be accessible to pupils, that doctors’ faces ought to be accessible to patients and that witnesses in court ought to be seen. So niqabs are restricted where faces are necessary to social, educational, medical or legal intercourse and hijabs are free to roam. I strongly believe that employers in Britain will not object to Jews wearing a yamulka or even Parsis wearing a little crimson skull cap while they attend to customers across the counter at a popular bank.

The rest of Europe is more problematic. This week Holland elects its next government and the man making the news is Geert Wilders whose political platform is basically an appeal to anti-Islam. He proposes banning hijabs and niqabs, closing mosques and even raiding houses to confiscate Qurans. I am, gentle reader, totally conscious that comparisons to Nazi appeals and practices are often just lazy name-calling, but what is one to say about Mr Wilders and his fascist nonsense? Shall I compare him to the Buddha instead? The Dutch election results will be announced after this article was written, and my prediction is that the Dutch will not vote to put him in power. (His party gained seats, but did not win the election.)

And now I take the risk of declaring my support for the hijabis — I risk losing several progressive Muslim and feminist friends. My support stems from a belief that people should wear what they want within the bounds of decency and short of wearing a balaclava and entering a bank. I take on board the argument that Muslim women who wear the hijab are brainwashed by their dominant men and by tradition. But then the young black men who unbutton their trousers and wear then around their knees are brainwashed by American television and people who wear foot-rotting trainers, breeding grounds of athlete’s foot, are brainwashed by the advertising world…  and so on. Let a hundred flowers bloom and wither.


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