Here is why the Supreme Court should consider banning the burqa

Imagine going through life with your face and mouth covered, near blindfolded, able to see the world only through a dense wire mesh over your eyes. A sense of being buried alive. And why?

All because it is presumed that men will not be able to control their sexual urges if they gaze upon a woman. The burden of this supposedly crazed male sexuality and the onus of it is put on the woman.

It is time for India to put a ban on the burqa, along with imposing severe penalties on anyone trying to force a woman to wear one. The Constitution of India recognizes all citizens as equal, regardless of gender, religion or caste. This constitutional right to equality has always been understood in an active sense rather than a passive sense. In other words, the Indian state has always actively used the Constitution to root out social evils.

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At the very outset, our Constitution banned untouchability in all forms. Over the years, several new laws were framed in order to address caste-based atrocities in society. The most prominent example of this would be Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989. An activist interpretation of equality has also been used to address the systematic subjugation of women, such as specific laws against dowry and domestic violence.

As such, it is almost an anachronism, not to mention a national embarrassment, that the burqa has not been banned in India yet. The burqa robs a woman of her individuality, her identity and her right to personal expression. In fact, it could be argued that the burqa is less of a garment and more of a cage, intended specifically to lock away a woman as the property of a man.

The burqa reduces a woman to a sexual object, with that sexuality being controlled or held in trust by a man. It should be pointed out that the burqa diminishes men as well because it presupposes that:

(1) Men are incapable of treating women as anything other than objects of sex.

(2) Men who set their eyes on a woman will not be able to control sexual urges.

And in true patriarchal style, for all these supposed failings of men, the burqa punishes the women!

All this is very medieval, if not worse. This has no place in the twenty-first century, where women are doing everything from flying fighter jets to winning Nobel Prizes in Physics.

There are opponents of such a ban who talk about a woman’s “choice” of wearing the burqa. This is an argument that is so obtuse that it could only be made in bad faith. Think about women who have been imprisoned behind the burqa their whole lives, not allowed to deal with the world on their own terms, not allowed to develop their own identity and deprived of education and career opportunities. Women who are dependent on the men who keep them behind a burqa. How meaningful is it to talk about the  “choice” of wearing the burqa in such a context?

No wonder then that the burqa has already been banned in some form or another in several countries of Western Europe, such as France, Belgium and Austria. The Netherlands and Denmark are the two latest countries to place a ban on the burqa. Bans in various forms, such as bans on burqas in schools and colleges, or other public places or in certain jurisdictions, are also in place in Germany and Norway.

All of these are democratic and technologically advanced countries as well as free societies with high levels of gender equality. The reputed Freedom House report ranks Norway as the freest country in the whole world, with a perfect score of 100/100. The Netherlands, with a score of 99/100, comes second.

It is time for India to join the list. For India to take a stand for gender justice and the dignity of women. With one of the largest Muslim populations in the world, this might also impart some much-needed momentum to women’s empowerment in Islamic societies worldwide.

As a practical matter, we understand that a burqa ban might become a wedge issue for political parties. A tug of war over vote banks and a blame game over “secular” and “communal” could leave this issue stuck for decades in the political swamp. The real victims would be crores of Muslim women who are being denied their human dignity.

There has to be a better way to get this done. A slick new way. Like a rockstar, you know? Fortunately, with India evolving into a “judicial democracy” of late, now there is. Muslim women have been stuck with the injustice of the burqa for 70 years. Let’s hope that the Supreme Court decides to rock their world.

Abhishek Banerjee is a math lover who may or not be an Assistant Professor at IISc Bangalore.

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