Friday, 18 June, 2021; 3:48 pm
Oftentimes, as I travel to my work place via public transportation, female madrassa (institutions for Islamic education) students, wearing the niqab, occupy seats around me. They usually remain silent, steady, and peacefully depart when they reach their destination. It is difficult to visualize their perspective, and even more difficult to initiate a discussion and to make the environment amiable. In a similar vein, when I teach in the university, several students in the class wear the niqab, and as far as I have observed, they are mostly from a madrassa background. When I ask a question, it is challenging to elicit their response, and even if they happen to respond, they are often too inaudible to hear in a large classroom of over eighty students.
I have further observed that students who wear the niqab tend to remain relatively isolated. During presentations and teamwork activities, they appear passive and sometimes disengaged. I often ask students the reasons for their particular outfit preferences. Students without the niqab mostly respond by saying that it is their personal choice or that they want to comply with what is in vogue, whereas students with the niqab commonly reply that it is a habit that has been concretized over the years, particularly during their madrassa days.
Despite their desire to abandon the niqab, they often dare not. The mounting social pressure of conservative Islam keeps them entangled and apprehensive, lest they be ousted. The niqab has become an increasingly common sight in Bangladesh, particularly in rural areas where the proliferation of women madrassas is markedly evident. Mohammad Niaz Asadullah and Nazmul Chaudhury’s research shows that nearly one-half of the student population in these religious seminaries today is female and this feminization of madrasas in Bangladesh is a by-product of a conditional cash-transfer scheme that provides financial incentives to females for attending a religious school subsidized by the government. In addition, thousands of private madrassas (usually Qawmi- based on Deobandi curricula exclusively run on personal donations) also have started opening sections for girls.
One might object that I am declaring my abhorrence to persons wearing the niqab. But frankly I neither have any disrespect for them nor do I look at them from the “oriental” standpoint. They may wear the niqab as a symbol of individual right or to present more devotion and piety- a question of religious identity and self-expression, as popularly argued. My concern is whether they have a complete understanding of why they choose what they wear.
Do women wear the niqab because they are compelled, personally or institutionally? Yes, though, in Bangladesh, “forced veiling” was banned in 2010. In a landmark verdict, Bangladesh’s High Court ruled, “attempts to coerce or impose a dress code on women clearly amount to a form of sexual harassment”. To support the court verdict, education secretary Syed Ataur Rahman, in a Ministry of Education order, commented, “No girl should be repressed, harassed or punished for not wearing burqa or religious attire.” He further added, “Forcing a girl to wear veil or any religious wear or barring her from sports and cultural activities will be considered an offence.”
However, the court rule simply remained unimplemented and “forced veiling” has become regularized. I wonder whether in Bangladesh people can claim that madrassas established for women do not, voluntarily or coercively, ensure students wear the niqab. I suspect that either their family or other social institutions somehow coerce niqab-wearing students. Their prime concern is to securitize women socially on the one hand, and not to defy religious obligation on the other. Indeed, in Bangladesh the consensus is that women should wear the niqab for their own security. But I would rather argue that in the name of security, the practice actually has become, by and large, a source of insecurity.
The relevant question is from whom do they need to be secured? It is commonly argued that molestation, “flashing” or any verbal/physical sexual street harassment that falls short of rape- (popularly known as “Eve-teasing” in this part of the world), is usually perpetrated against women by men. It is claimed that men are enticed by the explicit physicality of women. It is the problem of women. They welcome hell not only for them, but also for those who become aroused by their bodily exposure. Conservative Islamic scholars usually claim this. The argument, therefore, suggests that women should wear the niqab so that they can be safeguarded from harassments. Once we, however, impose the entire burden on women, we legitimize the sexual violence of men, deliberately overlook the responsibilities of other stakeholders, and deny the crucial role of moral institutions in society. Can we even conceive of a secured social sphere for women given perverse and vulnerable moral sentiments?
Ronald A. Lindsay, president of the Center for Inquiry, rightly points out, “it seems to me that morality helps to provide security to members of the community, create stability, ameliorate harmful conditions, foster trust, and facilitate cooperation in achieving shared or complementary goals.” Hence, the present objective to enhance the security of women only ends up leaving moral institutions dysfunctional and dragging the crisis to the abyss. As the perpetrators persist unpunished and are not humiliated socially, the devil naturally and uncontrollably burns infernal and flexes his muscle in a way. Surely, women will not be secure despite veiling themselves. The rang rape and eventually murder of Sohagi Jahan Tonu, a student of Comilla Victoria College, and the killing of Khadija in Sylhet are the recent examples in Bangladesh where women though wear the niqub/hijab are victimized, by no means secure.
Besides, the niqab is the source of insecurity because Women jihadists usually take advantage of it. In Bangladesh, the number of women jihadists have unprecedentedly augmented. In 2016, Bangladeshi security forces have arrested at least 21-suspected female militants, who, according to police, were being groomed for suicide bombing missions and in December 24, 2016, a women militant suicide bomber killed herself with a fatal detonation of an explosive in Dhaka (bbc.com, December 24, 2016). Law enforcement has recently uncovered that newly activated terror groups are recruiting scores of women, especially university students, to expand their reach. These radicalized women pose a new kind of threat that security experts argue Bangladeshi law enforcements are not prepared to handle because of wearing niqab and other clandestine strategies they employ, claims the Dhaka Tribune report recently (Dhaka Tribune, December 25, 2016).
As women wearing the niqab remain isolated, it is difficult to trace to whom they regularly associate with. Even their exposure to contemporary societal debates is limited. Hence, the process of their ideological formation remain either incomplete or faulty. They are often in ambivalence to what is right and what is wrong. It is much easier to proselytize them to the Jihadist ideology and apparently many women groups have emerged who propagate conservative Islamist ideology, both violent and non-violent, in Bangladesh in recent decades.
Anthropologist Maimuna Huq’s (2008) research on Bangladesh Islami Chatri Sangstha (BICSa, Women Students’ Islamic Association of Bangladesh), exposed the ideological orientation of Islamists women group. BICSa, harnessing the anxieties of women regarding violence, corruption and other local and global crises, proposes a prevention-orientated approach to safety that is based on self-protection (secluding oneself through veiling from the potentially harmful male gaze), moral reform and working for Muslim Ummah. It deploys a scripturally referenced emphasis on ‘social justice’ in calling for the establishment of a ‘pristine’ Islamic polity through jihad (primarily non-violent). However, they cannot eliminate the violence Jihad from their discourse as during interview of Huq, an activist of BICSa comments, ‘Violence is a last resort, can be used only when one’s very survival is in question’. Though BICSa is banned from the University of Dhaka, it along with other more extremist women organizations clandestinely conduct their activities not only here but also in different educational institutions. Among recently arrested 27 female militants, most of them received their education from elite institutions in Bangladesh, including Dr. Oishee, a medical intern at Dhaka Medical College and Hospital (The Asian Age, August 20, 2016).
However, the number of women veiling/wearing the niqab is on increase and so is the security concern for women in Bangladesh. Against the popular belief that wearing the niqab would reduce security threat for women, I argue that it is in fact poses security concern. It can hardly contribute to the reduction of sexual violence, but rather contribute to the rise of women militancy in the country. Hence, the point is that in the name of security women should not be forced for veiling. They must have their conscious preferences for dress.
Md Mizanur Rahman is a Graduate student of Politics at Illinois State University, USA, research interest lies in Political Islam, Non-western IR theory. He is also an Assistant Professor(on leave) at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Science and Technology University, Gopalganj, Dhaka. He can be reached at [email protected]
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