Religious practices devoid of humanity and common sense can never be anything more than mere rituals enforced to control the behavior of a community. Such rituals have historically used symbols to help resonate their identity. The burqa/headscarf controversy that has been picked up as the frontline feature in the conflict between east and west has already started to prove its destructive strength: of how even the saner of men can be emotionally charged through religion to destroy the peace of a society.
In yet another dark age, the ruling of the Bangladesh High Court that people cannot be forced to wear veils, skull caps or other religious clothing in workplaces, schools and colleges, is indeed a welcome second step. The first was the Supreme Court’s verdict last month banning religion in politics. The latest court order came after females without veil (burqa) were reportedly barred from entering their college. The incident came as a mild surprise to me, not because it was the first of its kind but because it came on the heels of the recent anti-headscarf wave in Western Europe. While the emotions and actions regarding veil/headscarf in the east and west might be poles apart, the underlying psyche is the same: self-preservation. It has nothing to do with feminism, women rights, honor or even religion.
Let me explain. Birth rate among Europeans is going sharply downhill and there’s nothing they have been able to do about it yet. Simultaneously, the Asian minorities living in Europe seem to have no other occupation than to populate the continent and make up for the declining number of inhabitants. During my work stint in Europe the one thing that came across quite clearly regarding this equation was the growing sense of fear amongst general Europeans that they might, in the coming decades, become a minority in their own land. Hence, the over-emphasis on social integration, and the political pressure to reduce the number of immigrant-seekers. Their fear of being taken over by Muslims is historically so ingrained that it’s logically impossible for them to live with the idea that there could ever be an Israel-Palestinians like situation, and that too on the basis of the very ideals of democracy they uphold so much. So, the backlash against the veil and headscarf in Europe is their symbolic way of protecting their identity.
In Pakistan and Bangladesh, on the other hand, it is a matter of preserving patriarchal control through whatever means necessary. That’s why most religious, political and social discussions in this region converge on the question of the suitability of women’s attire. Atleast to my mind it reeks of the witch hunt of the dark ages when the Vatican blemished its history with the blood of women whose only crime was that they had the courage to question authority. The Muslim world today carries all the indicators of that dark era. Even the question of attire is one-sided. No one ever asks why it is alright for men to go shirtless and bare half their bodies when women are forced to cover their heads or faces. It makes no sense, especially when the face is among the most un-provoking parts of female anatomy. This entire women-honor-can-be-protected-through-hijab debate is invariably carried out on grounds of religion but never common sense.
No one willingly gives up power, and to assume that patriarchy will give way to neutrality without a fight is simply naïve. When over 50 percent of the population of Muslim countries comprises of women, the men-folk are in a desperate bid to hold on to their dominance; either through the tribal-feudal system or through religion-politics. It’s their perceived fear of being side-lined. That’s why domestic violence has a direct co-relation with low male self-esteem. Wars and conflicts bear testament that the most effective way to insult a man is by dishonoring his woman. The Muslim men of today cannot get rid of this genetic response overnight. So, it falls on the women to raise and train their sons for a dignified future.