In the latest round of “how liberal are you?”, the debate around the niqab has been resurrected, this time by the Twitter handle Genderlog India. A handle devoted to “imagining equality”, with conversations on gender, women’s rights and sexuality, it features a different guest curator every week. The current curator is a Pakistani-Canadian writer and blogger who goes by the name Eiynah. The provocation: Eiynah denounced the niqab as a symbol of oppression. That, she said, is the “niqab’s only purpose”.

Here’s where she’s coming from. Describing herself as “an ex-Muslim from Saudi Arabia”, Eiynah runs a blog called Nice Mangoes, which talks about “sexuality in South Asia, religion and politics”. In “An Open Letter to Niqab-Supporting Western Media”, she staked out her position as a woman brought up in a restrictive Muslim society, where female bodies are covered, punished and subjugated. In her experience, the niqab has been a means to erase woman from the public sphere. The donning of a niqab in such a society, she said, is never a choice.

But Eiynah is writing from Canada, where Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s remark that practices such as wearing the the niqab were rooted in an “anti-woman culture” has drawn flak for being socially conservative. Eiynah finds this backlash offensive. Western “liberal” anxieties about multiculturalism, she seems to feel, cannot be used to justify oppressive practices. She went on to object to those who support women wearing the niqab even as they take their oath of citizenship to a secular country. Such indulgence, from those who had never really experienced a lack of freedom, comes from a position of privilege.

Surprisingly, in the conversation sparked by Genderlog India, the debate was less between conservative and liberal and more between different shades of liberal. There were those who agreed with Eiynah.


And many who did not.



But let no liberal be accused of lacking in self-examination.


The answer, most probably, is no. In Hindu-majority India, few critics of the ghoonghat will have to defend themselves against charges of cultural insensitivity. Yet, through an acrobatic feat of cultural relativism, many liberals have worked themselves into positions supporting, or at least tacitly endorsing, orthodoxies like the niqab. (There are those who believe that when wearing a niqab is an act of choice, a symbol of oppression becomes one of empowerment.) For a large number of liberals, absolute ideals of freedom and equality seem to get tangled up with anxieties about plurality.

This is an argument that Western societies have long had with themselves, as older forms of liberalism were challenged by changing realities. Debates on Muslim integration in the West, as Joan Wallach Scott observes, are premised on the ideal of secularism, which implies an universalising project of emancipation. This is what the commission that recommended banning Islamic headscarves in French public schools had to say: “France cannot allow Muslims to undermine its core values, which include a strict separation of religion and state, equality between the sexes and freedom for all.”

Yet stringently secular France, the country of Charlie Hebdo and irreverence, is also a place where Muslims feel increasingly threatened. The British establishment, wary of being accused of prejudice, has refrained from banning headscarves and veils. But this, some would argue, has resulted in ghettoised communities viewed with suspicion from the outside.

Sound familiar? Secularism in India also implies separating religion and the state, but more immediately, it means freedom of religion. As Pratap Bhanu Mehta has pointed out, very often we imagine freedom in terms of communities rather than individuals. This may be justified in many cases, since religious and caste discrimination is usually experienced collectively by social groups. But how have we cornered ourselves into believing that an individual’s freedom must be opposed to the community’s? How did gender equality come to be opposed to secular values? And finally, which liberal is more liberal?