When I first came to India, at first glance, I was touched by its diversity: Indian women in saree, men sporting a tilak on their foreheads, Christians with a big cross around their necks, Muslim women covering their heads with a scarf, Sikhs with their turbans, and so on. I was also carrying the images, cliches, and prejudices that most Westerners have when they first arrive here: Maharajas are wonderful beings, all religions are the same, Hindus can also be dangerous fundamentalists, the Congress is the national party of India…
But then Kashmir opened my eyes. I first went there as a tourist: Everything appeared normal; Hindus and Muslims mingled together on the banks of the Dal Lake; Muslim women were often walking bareheaded; cinemas and restaurants were open… But when militancy set in in the late 1980s, first with the JKLF, militants from Pakistan and Afghanistan started radicalising the Muslims of the Kashmir Valley: Soon, cinemas became forbidden, women started wearing burqas and were not allowed to go out alone, children began pelting stones on Indian paramilitary forces. And then, 350,000 Hindus were forced out by violence and terror, and became refugees in their own country, for no other reason than that they were not Muslims.
I also spent a lot of time in South India, and I witnessed there the same phenomenon: Muslim men from Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh would go to work in the Gulf countries and come back ultra-orthodox, forcing their wives to wear full black burqas, and segregating them from others. In fact, this has gone to such an extent that in some parts of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, they have their daughters as young as 10 or 12, wearing burqas!
The controversy about the hijab in Karnataka may seem harmless, yet it is part of a deeper and vaster problem — the use of women by radical Islam to put across a militant message. India is amongst one of the more liberal countries when it comes to women, contrary to what the West likes to portray. Neither France nor the United States have ever had a woman President or Prime Minister, but Indira Gandhi ruled India with an iron hand for nearly 20 years in the seventies. Muslim women have a freedom in India which Hindu or Christian women do not have in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia or Iraq. There are probably more burqa-wearing women in India than in Gulf countries. Indeed, to name a few, Switzerland, France, Belgium, Congo, Chad, Bulgaria, Latvia and Gabon have altogether banned the burqa.
As for the need for a Uniform Civil Code in India, we look towards France, which is a truly secular country. In France, not only burqas are banned on streets and in public spaces, but also schools, colleges and universities forbid any external symbol of religion, like a turban, a hijab, or a too prominent cross. It is true that Sikhs will never accept not to wear a turban — indeed there have been protests in France by the very small Sikh community there — but the French government refused to budge. Thus, there must be a middle way for India to adopt, where non-ostentatious signs of religion can be accepted, and for Muslim girls that would mean only covering their heads with a scarf.
One also needs to take into account the security aspect of a burqa: A policeman cannot identify whether one is a woman or a man, and it’s practically impossible to detect whether there’s a hidden explosive belt stashed behind the thickness and the opaqueness of the burqa. We also know from multiple experiences that Islamists have no scruples in using women and children to shield the hardcore terrorists. In fact, recently, the ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, cornered by the US, blew himself up, killing along with himself his wives and children, blown to pieces though the windows.
Hindus constitute 80 per cent of India’s total population and the present BJP government at the Centre was mostly elected by Hindus, from the Brahmins to the Dalits. Yet, most Hindus today feel that as a majority community, they are treated like a minority — their temples are still under government control, whereas mosques and churches are not, and some of them like the Tirupati temple are milked dry by governments which are hostile to Hinduism; Muslims have their madrasas which are subsidised by the government, but if you want to introduce pranayama or yoga in school curriculums, there is a huge outcry from these same communities; though the triple talaq has been removed, Muslims can still have several wives, while Hindus need to go through a court divorce. Thus, indeed, India needs a Uniform Civil Code.
Is there a middle way? India is the land of Sufism: We have, in the Shivaji Maharaja Museum of Pune, an exhibition on Dara Shikoh, who was an extraordinary Sufi scholar and, one can even say, a saint. He translated the Upanishads in Persian, dialogued with Hindu pandits, and believed that Islam had its origin in the Vedas. Dara Shikoh was the eldest son of Shah Jahan, the builder of Taj Mahal, and rightfully heir to the emperor of India — the whole history of the Indian subcontinent might have been different. But he was beheaded by his younger brother Aurangzeb for apostasy, and the hard Sunni Islam preached and practised by Aurangzeb rules over India and South Asia till today. It not only negates other religions as infidel, but also persecutes other branches of Islam, like the Shias or the Ahmadis.
Thus the question can again be asked: Is the hardening of Islam also symbolised by the shrinking role of Muslim women? My answer would be yes. Islam still thinks of itself as the only true religion, and that it must impose itself on the entire planet. It is waging a war from the suburbs of Paris to the plains of Karnataka, from Xianjiang China to Muslim Bosnia. The Narendra Modi government should not give in to the undue dress code demand of a significantly large and vocal section of Muslims. The country, most importantly, needs the Uniform Civil Code.
The author is a French journalist and author of A History of India as It Happened (Garudabooks.com). He is also building a museum of true Indian history in Pune. Views expressed are personal.