SAT MAHARAJ’S decision to ban an on-the-job trainee from the premises of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha (SDMS) because she was wearing a hijab has triggered debate, political fallout, and even the promise of litigation by the State. But while in some respects the matter is complex, it is ultimately a simple question of respecting human rights.
For sure, we can understand why in today’s modern day and age the hijab is an uncomfortable sight.
Though the word hijab often refers to the garb used by Muslims to hide a woman’s body, it actually refers to a deeper principle. It is a manifestation of the idea that a woman is separate. At a time when the whole planet is waking up to the fact that women and men are equal and that women should be treated no less than men, the hijab is deeply disconcerting. This is hardly the kind of example that should be set for our children. And it is certainly not a practice that should be forced on them.
Yet, no one is forcing any belief on anyone by the act of wearing a veil. There is no law or statute in place punishing people for rejecting the hijab. On the contrary, we all remain free, under our constitutional rights, to choose Islam or to reject it.
At the end of the day, ours is a diverse society. We must adopt secular policy that caters to that fact. Though gender equality is definitely a principle we must abide by, there is a way to fulfill that principle while also accommodating the rights of everyone, including the many women who choose to wear the hijab on their own volition. About six per cent of the country — or three times the population of our capital city — is Islamic.
Our Constitution grants every citizen, “freedom of conscience and religious belief.” The same Constitution also grants each person the right to dignity.
It is wholly unreasonable for any public body to deny any of these rights. Indeed, that was more or less the gist of the 1995 ruling of the High Court in the case of Sumayyah Mohammed, a Holy Name Convent student who was wrongly asked to remove her hijab to attend classes.
While it is useful to let the courts resolve this issue, that process will take time. Meanwhile, instead of the bitter exchanges which are largely political, we suggest an avoidance of the polarising rhetoric and recommend steering the matter towards conciliation, with a judge or the Inter-Religious Organisation acting as arbiter.
For nobody should strip anyone, literally or otherwise, of their right to dignity; of their right to choose what they do with their own, sacred body.