The Muslim Educational Society, or MES as it is popularly known, has banned female students and faculty on its campuses from wearing niqab, the face veil, starting June 1.

The MES was established in North Kerala’s Kozhikode in 1964 with the primary aim of educating backward Muslims. It now runs 152 institutions across Kerala and Tamil Nadu, including medical and engineering colleges, management institutes and special schools.

The decision to ban the face veil has invited condemnation from some Muslim groups, which have accused the MES of interfering in the religious practices of students and faculty.

But PA Fazal Gafoor, president of the MES, said they are “least bothered about such criticism”. “We will implement our rules in our institutions. No one can interfere in that,” he added.

In an interview with Scroll.in on Friday, Gafoor pointed out that his April 17 “internal circular” conveying the MES’ decision to ban the face veil to the heads of its institutions states that it must be implemented “without giving space to any controversies”.

Not that there is any reason for controversy, he contended, given the circular merely restricts female students from wearing clothing that is “unacceptable to mainstream society”. According to Gafoor, such clothing includes jeans, leggings, miniskirts, and, of course, face veils. “We just want our students to maintain decorum in their attire,” he insisted.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

The MES circular states that “students should not attend classes wearing dresses that are unacceptable to the civil society”. What are these unacceptable dresses?
They should avoid wearing leggings, jeans and miniskirts, to name a few. Mainstream society does not approve of the wearing of these garments. Our internal circular aims to encourage the students to maintain decorum in dressing and adhere to our cultural ethos. It is difficult to say exactly which dress is obscene and which is not. The saree, for example, is considered a decent dress in Kerala. But it can be worn either decently or obscenely.

You mentioned leggings, jeans and miniskirts as being “indecent dresses” for women. Your circular does not lay out a dress code for male students. Are you enforcing a dress code only for female students?
No, it is binding on all our more than 85,000 students, men and women. Male students should wear socially acceptable clothing. Our emphasis is on decent dressing. Let me explain simply what I mean by decent dresses: clothes you and I would prefer for our mothers and sisters. You should not read too much into this.

In the last few years, we have witnessed the rise of vigilante groups that insist people wear certain clothing or eat certain foods. Will you take action against your students if a vigilante group objects to what they are wearing?
We are not bothered about vigilante groups.

PA Fazal Gafoor is president of the Muslim Educational Society. Photo via Facebook
PA Fazal Gafoor is president of the Muslim Educational Society. Photo via Facebook

Several Muslim religious groups are attacking the MES for banning the face veil on its campuses. What do you make of their reactions?
The MES is a Kerala renaissance organisation. It was one of the first organisations in the state to promote women’s education. Over 65,000 female students, including Muslim women, are studying in various institutions run by the MES. We are not bothered about unfounded criticism from people who have not learnt Islam properly. I want to tell you that they cannot weaken the MES.

See, burka is a veil covering the face and body with a mesh screen to see through. Hijab covers the head and neck, leaving open the face. Niqab veils the whole face except the area around the eyes. They were all actually imported from Arab nations in the last decade. They are not part of the Indian Muslim culture. We have to admit they are a cultural invasion, which we should resist.

Those pointing fingers at us are free to implement their religious practices in their own institutions. They should desist from interfering in our internal affairs.

Is there a possibility that the niqab ban could compel some students to desert your institutions?
The MES is least bothered about it. We will admit students who follow our rules and regulations. Those who are unhappy with our decision can go to institutions run by other religious groups.

But what prompted you to prescribe a dress code in the first place?
All educational institutions can decide on their dress codes. On December 4, 2018, the Kerala High Court dismissed a writ petition from a Muslim girl to allow her to wear a headscarf in a school run by the Church. The court said every institution can enforce a dress code but only if it is published in the admission prospectus. The next academic year begins on June 1, that is why we have issued the circular now.

Some press reports have suggested that your decision was prompted by Sri Lanka banning the face veil following the Easter attacks. Was that the case?
We issued our circular on April 17, four days before the Sri Lanka attacks. It is that our order surfaced in the public domain only on May 2, so many reports suggested that we were emulating Sri Lanka’s niqab ban. Such reports are false.

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