Gandhi and Ambedkar argued against purdah - Hindustan Times
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Gandhi and Ambedkar argued against purdah

Oct 03, 2022 07:51 PM IST

Mahatma Gandhi and BR Ambedkar analysed the issue in detail and strongly argued in favour of developing a healthy society, ending gender discrimination

The ban on the hijab in some Karnataka classrooms, and the subsequent case in the courts, may be a recent one, but the controversy around it dates back to the pre-Independence era. Mahatma Gandhi and BR Ambedkar analysed the issue in detail and strongly argued in favour of developing a healthy society, ending gender discrimination.

In Iran, thousands of women have poured onto the streets after a young woman was allegedly killed for not wearing the hijab in public (AP) PREMIUM
In Iran, thousands of women have poured onto the streets after a young woman was allegedly killed for not wearing the hijab in public (AP)

Hijab and chadar are garments used by women to cover their head and face partially, and other parts of their body in varying degrees, as part of the purdah system in public spaces. The burqa is one step forward -- it shrouds the entire physique of a woman, with two netted slits for eyes. Gandhi’s unequivocal stand on the issue provoked Muslim leaders to label him an “unbeliever” who had no business “interfere” in their religious matters. While Ambedkar’s critique of the purdah system was scathing, Gandhi’s approach was mild and persuasive. The latter called upon Hindu women to reach out to their “Muslim sisters” and “rescue” them from this “hypocrisy”. Gandhi felt the practice went against the tenets of Islam. His views are at variance with the line pro-hijab appellants have taken in the SC.

“Purdah deprives Muslim women of mental and moral nourishment. Being deprived of a healthy social life, the process of moral degeneration must and does set in,” Ambedkar wrote. He said the practice was “responsible for the social segregation of Hindus from Muslims, which is the bane of public life in India. This argument may appear far-fetched. But the Hindus are right when they say that it is not possible to establish social contact between Hindus and Muslims because such contact can only mean contact between women from one side and men from the other”.

Dwelling on the practice, Ambedkar said, “Not that purdah and the evils consequent thereon are not to be found among certain sections of the Hindus in certain parts of the country. But the point of distinction is that among the Muslims, purdah has a religious sanctity which it has not with the Hindus and can only be removed by facing the inevitable conflict between religious injunctions and social needs”.

Gandhi’s brush with purdah started with a casual remark. While speaking at Bhatialpur on January 14, 1947, he said that “it should be scrapped. The system kept women in complete darkness in every respect. …If the darkness of their mind was not removed they could not do anything with outward purdah”. The next day, at Narayanpur, he said it was the “duty of Hindu women to befriend their Muslim sisters and rescue them from the thraldom of the purdah.”

Gandhi urging Muslim women to drop the purdah created resentment among Muslims. Addressing a prayer meeting on January 25, 1947, Gandhi alluded to two telegrams received from the Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Islam in Madras and Bombay, which said that he, “an unbeliever, had no right to interfere in the Islamic Law.”

Hostile reactions to Gandhi’s views on purdah continued unabated. He received another telegram: “Madras Ulemas meeting held under auspices of Primary Muslim league, Royapettah, Madras, says Islamic Code ideal. Please desist from pronouncement against Islam. Muslim nation will not tolerate interference with Islamic tenets.”

Responding to these messages, Gandhi wrote to one M Ismail on January 31, 1947. “In this age of reason why do you want to shelter Islam from reasoned criticism, especially when it is from a friend of Islam that I claim to be? What I have said is, I claim in consonance with the Prophet’s teachings. Purdah as it is practised today in many parts of India is a mockery.”

Gandhi reiterated his stand while speaking at Amisha Para on February 1. He asserted that he was “certain it (purdah) had little to do with the Koran. He was sure that the practice “was contrary to Islamic teaching.”

On March 23, 1947, a question was put to him in Patna on women not giving up untouchability and purdah. His answer: “If they do not give them up, they must be persuaded to do so”. On April 27, in Patna, Gandhi told a woman who had come in purdah, “The real meaning of purdah is that you should guard against lust, anger and attachment. This outward purdah is mere hypocrisy”.

Politics is full of surprises. It can be argued that the Bharatiya Janata Party government in Karnataka is fighting to partially realise Gandhi’s and Ambedkar’s vision to free young Muslim women of the “thraldom” of purdah. The Congress, a claimant to Gandhi’s legacy, is speaking against such a move.

A picture is worth a thousand words. On September 19, Congress shared a photograph — Rahul Gandhi walking hand-in-hand with a little girl wearing a hijab during his ‘Bharat Jodo’ Yatra. At the same time another picture was splashed across the global media reporting massive protests by women all over Iran against mandatory veiling of women in the Islamic nation.

Developments in India are happening at a time when women have hit the streets across Iran over the past few weeks to protest the killing of a young woman for not wearing the hijab. In Iran, thousands of young women had joined the Islamist and Leftist groups to ensure the success of the Islamic revolution. In the process, they tightened the noose around themselves. Now they are paying with their lives to break free. Life has come full circle for them.

Balbir Punj is a former Member of Parliament and a columnist

The views expressed are personal.

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