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“All Citizens are Equal before Law and are Entitled to Equal Protection of Law”-Article 27 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Issue No: 155
February 6, 2010

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Reviewing the views

Religious sentiment versus the need of the hour
Reactions after Indian SC bans Burqa-clad photo in Voter ID

Zahidul Islam Biswas

WHEN a controversy triggered by the ban on full-length burqas has roiled France, attracting protests from clerics, the Indian Supreme Court came up with another decision on the religiously sentimental issue. The Supreme Court of India has said that burqa-clad women cannot be issued voter identity cards, rejecting the argument that religion prohibits them from lifting their veils.

This verdict came from a Supreme Court Bench comprising Chief Justice K G Balakrishnan and Justice Deepak Verma following an appeal against an order of the Madras High Court upholding the Election Commission's insistence for a photograph without veils to be used in voter ID card

The Madras High Court had in a 2006 verdict held that faith and practice were on two different planes, and there was nothing wrong on the part of the Election Commission to insist on a photograph of the face of a `purdah-nashin' woman for the purpose of preparing electoral rolls.

The counsel for petitioner M Ajam Khan had contended that asking `purdah-nashin' women to lift their veil for being photographed would amount to sacrilege as their photographs would be seen by many men working as polling agents and electoral officials. He argued that '[i]t will hurt their religious sentiments and the Election Commission must not insist on `purdah-nashin' women to be photographed for inclusion of their name in the electoral rolls.'

The argument put forward on behalf of petitioners failed to impress the court. The Bench said: 'If you have such strong religious sentiments, and do not want to be seen by members of public, then do not go to vote. You cannot go with burqa to vote. It will create complications in identification of voters.'

When the petitioners again insisted on protection of religious sentiments, the Bench said: '[t]he photograph is for identification of a voter. If someone comes to vote in a burqa and the photograph was also taken with veil covering the face, how would anyone identify the voter?"

Explaining that right to vote was only a statutory right and not a fundamental right, the Bench said: 'Right to contest an election is an extension of the right to vote. Can anyone contest an election saying photograph of her face be not taken? Can she be photographed in a burqa with a veil and yet contest an election?'

Appearing for the Election Commission, counsel Meenakshi Arora said though electoral rolls were being prepared as per the judgment of the High Court, it would be better if the Supreme Court gave a verdict that would help reach a closure on the issue. The Supreme Court verdict then followed.

The verdict has created mixed reactions among Muslim population. The Muslim scholars also have given differing reactions; however, majority of the Muslim scholars have supported it. Senior cleric Maulana Abu Zafar Hassan Nadvi maintains that the court should not have made it mandatory for the burqa-clad women to lift the veil at the time of voting. He has said, 'In the name of liberating women, we cannot accept something which is against Islamic values. In public, they must not be forced to lift the veil.'

But many other Muslim scholars and community leaders have urged the community not to oppose the Supreme Court ruling asking burqa-clad women to lift the veil at the time of voting so that their identitites could be checked. Most Islamic scholars maintain that since face veil was not mandated by the Quran it should not be portrayed as a contravention of the scriptures.

Many respected scholars like Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi have said women could go in public without face veil. Uzma Naheed, head of Iqra Foundation (India), who wears a hijab but does not fully cover her face with a veil, has said, if the law of the land demands that women must show their faces in certain circumstances like at immigration counters and at polling booths, Muslim women should submit.

Noted Islamic scholar Asghar Ali Engineer maintains that the veil is a medieval and patriarchal practice. Muslim women who observe purdah shouldn't resist lifting the veil at the time of casting votes. The veil among Muslim women, like the ghoonghat among a section of Hindu women, is mostly part of culture and, scholars say, cultural practices could be relaxed to stop impersonation at voting booths.


The author is an advocate of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh, and a research scholar at the Centre for the Study of Law & Governance, JNU, New Delhi.


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