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Muslim women in hijab on the road to progress
By Arif Zain, Malappuram

Is hijab, the Islamic dress code a hindrance in woman’s progress? To find an answer to this frequently asked question come to Kerala where the number of Muslim women, who work in different capacities with hijab, is increasing with each passing day. These women have shown their true mettle in each and every field they are involved
Take for instance, Malappuram district where there is a heavy concentration of Muslim population. On average there are three Muslim woman members in hijab in each of the panchayats and over 300 across the district. The women in Islamic dress code who once were cited as a symbol of backwardness, are no longer considered so. Rather these women have proved that the Islamic dress code is in no way a hindrance to progress or attaining high offices. From doctors to auto drivers they work similarly as their non-Muslim counter parts do. Ms.Qamarunnisa Anwar (social worker), Ms. KP Mariyumma (law practitioner), Dr. Jameela Mansoor (medical college professor), Ms. Kunhi Beevi (municipal chair-person), Ms. Mubeena Ashraf (computer engineer) are a few to name in this regard.

All this happened in a short span of time thanks to the presence of Muslim reformist movements like Nadwatul Mujahideen and Jama’at-e-Islami which floated their own women’s organizations that unleashed a new awareness and awakening among Muslim women. Muslim League also followed suit, the party also launched its women’s wing under the leadership of Ms.Qamarunnisa Anwar, who shot into prominence when she appeared in public domain in early seventies dressed in hijab, holding her head high.

This helped Muslim women become bold and competent part of the society. “Earlier, women who dressed in hijab were being treated with contempt. Today the same dress is recognized as a common, decent and modest dress”, feels Qamarunnisa, president of the Muslim Women’s League and former chairperson of the State Social Welfare Board. Qamarunnisa shares her experience way back to 1972, when she had an encounter with the then District Medical Officer, who happened to be a Christian. The lady DMO asked her, why she was dressed in an uncivilized manner despite being herself educated and hailing from an educated family? Instead of giving a direct answer to this, Qamarunnisa asked her, what was wrong with the dressing of Mother Teresa who covered her whole body except the face and hands, the same way she (Qamarunnisa) was dressed? The DMO became speechless.

“This was the common attitude towards Islamic way of dressing 30 years ago. It was believed that the Islamic dress code prevented women from attaining progress. People, in and outside the community stuck in this mindset. But today there has been a sea change in their attitude, and hijab is not considered as a symbol of slavery but a dress that protects her dignity” she pointed out.

Ms.KP Mariyumma, a law practitioner and the former president of Malappuram District Panchayat, said that the spread of education is the real reason behind this new-found purdah culture. “In the past, educated women turned away from hijab, only a few observed the dress code. Because only a small number of Muslim women who constitute a meagre 5 per cent of the total population had the privilages of being educated. They considered themselves creamy layer of the society, and they were not bothered about what was happening to the rest 95 per cent of their community. Now education is in everybody’s reach and educated ones are no longer treated as a rare species,” she said.

Another factor that played a vital role in creation of the new awareness, according to her are the Qur’an learning centres launched by various Muslim organizations as well as individuals. The large turn out of Muslim women in these centres where Qur’an is being taught under a systamatic syllabus, cleared way to learn more about Islam and what it stands for. The Qur’an translations in Malayalam, which found its place in every household, also was a fillip to this trend, feels Qamarunnisa.

Ms. Khadija Nargis a head mistress herself and the State President of Muslim Women’s and Girls’ Movement, opined that Muslim Women realized that the hijab is not a symbol of slavery, rather it provides protection to them. Women who clothed fully and properly are less harassed in public places. Hijab is more than just a clothing; its purpose is to protect women from amorous advances of the opposite sex. Women who boast they belong to progressive societies are actually driven to wear what men want to see, she added.

“Why this hue and cry when Muslim women dress in hijab while Catholic nuns still wear dresses in modest fashion?” she wondered.“Women during the Victorian age were more respected than women today”.

Ms. T. Kunhi Beevi, who retired as deputy collector of Malappuram and currently the chairperson of Tirur Municipality, related her experience when she went to her office at the beginning of her career, people stared at her as if they were looking to a strange creature. “Now nobody will stare at you in that way” she said.

One-fourth of 100 village panchayats and two of the five municipalities in Malappuram district are headed by Muslim women with their head covered. Even Qamarunnisa anwar contested 1996 Assembly election from Calicut-II constituency where she lost by a slender margin.

“These women have proved that Islamic dress code is not a hurdle or reactionary” says K.Fatima, Principal, SSA College Areekod. “Had there been no efforts by the reformists movements among the Muslim community of Kerala nothing of these could have been happened

Referring to the statements made by Ajita, a feminist leader, that a sense of insecurity among Muslims triggered by Babri Masjid demolition was the main reason behind the fast spreading purdah-culture, which takes Muslim women centuries back, Ms.Qamarunnisa said, “This is the problem with the leftist intellectuals. They would cite this reason or that for a new phenomenon of which they are clueless or they wanted to turn Nelson’s eye to certain phenomena which they do not want to be known to the people. Awareness among the members of the community plus the gulf connection of the region worked to a larger extent to turn the tide, she said.

Jifria, who is an auto driver in Calicut city for the last nine years, firmly believes that Islamic dress is more protective than any other article of clothing. She related how her dress gave her dignity when she drove her auto, “Muslim women hesitate to step into the fields of her's because of the attitude of society. Being a member of a community that upholds modest dress for women, I am not obsessed with what the people said about me” she said.

The success of women with headscarf in their respective fields attracted attention of social scientists. About two decades ago, only a few observed the dress code whereas today even medical college professors teach their students in their hijab. Dr. Shareefa Beevi, former principal of Kottayam Medical College and Dr. Jameela Mansoor a professor at Alappuzha Medical College are a few instances. “All the Muslim girls in my class at Calicut Medical College, attended the classes in hijab,” says Dr.Meena, who embraced Islam recently and just completed her MBBS from CMC. Even as leftists and so-called progressive groups trained their guns against the newfound love of Muslim women for Islamic dress code, their number is on the increase.
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