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Arif Mohammed Khan is a former Union Cabinet minister.

Nazira was a feminist who questioned tradition

n the summer of 1927, Damascus witnessed several incidents of women being harassed and prevented from visiting public places as they were not wearing veils. One person who felt greatly disturbed by these events was Nazira Zainal Din, the teenage daughter of Shaykh Saeed Zainal Din, the then judge of the court of appeal in Lebanon. She shared her agony with her father, who encouraged her to study the subject in the light of Islamic sources and reduce her conclusions into writing.

Nazira studied the Quran and the Hadith to understand the Islamic perspective on women, their rights and duties. By the time she turned twenty, she produced two scholarly works, namely, al-Sufur wal hijab and al-Fatat wal Shuyukh. The books are now regarded as important sources of reference on veil and relations between men and women. Nazira concluded that it was not Islam but gender-biased interpretation of the scriptural text that imposed seclusion on women which affected both their bodies and minds adversely.

The book provoked strong reaction from men of religion. Nazira was accused of atheism and apostasy and pamphlets were distributed against her. The publisher and the distributors of the books were threatened. But Nazira strongly affirmed her faith in God, His Prophet and the Holy Quran and asserted that all her arguments were informed by her beliefs. She argued that if women, like men, were obligated to seek knowledge then they were equally entitled to interpret the scriptural text, particularly those provisions that dealt with women's rights and duties.

In her book, Nazira makes a distinction between Quranic text and jurists' opinions. She points out how the major interpreters hold different opinions and often contradict each other. On the question of veil and seclusion of women there exist more than ten interpretations, at variance with each other. Nazira asserts that if there is a total lack of unanimity among the interpreters, it is imperative for women to make their own studies and seek guidance directly from the original sources.

In her book, Nazira makes a distinction between Quranic text and jurists’ opinions. She points out how the major interpreters hold different opinions and often contradict each other.

One feature specially highlighted by Nazira is that Islam, as it means submission to the Will of God, is a voluntary act free from any human coercion and compulsion. She cites authoritative text to show that Islam is based on freedom of thought, will, speech and action and that "no Muslim has any authority over another in matters of religion, mind and will". Consequently, no Muslim has the right to claim to be God's representative and no one has the authority to punish people for their lack of faith. Since the Quran confers unqualified right to human dignity and honour, it follows that both men and women are free in will and thought.

Nazira holds that many laws and rules relating to women violate the spirit and text of the Quran. She argues forcefully against the veil and the seclusion of women, contending that the veil encourages immorality rather than dignified conduct and behaviour. She says that the veil obliterates the identity of the individual woman and masking identity is an obvious incentive for wrongdoing. She poses the question: "Can't men see that thieves and murderers mask their identities in order to have the nerve to commit crimes?" She then explains: "Fear of social disgrace is one of the strongest imperatives that restrain people from indulging in wrongdoings." She asserts that the morality of the self and conscience are far better than the morality of the veil and chador.

"The veil," according to Nazira "is the ultimate proof that men suspect women of being potential traitors to them. What quality of life do they live if they are under perpetual suspicion about women closest and dearest to them? How can society trust women with the most consequential job of bringing up children, when it does not trust them with their faces and bodies?" She finally argues that the spirit of a people and its civilisation is a reflection of the spirit of the mother. How can any mother bring up distinguished children if she herself does not enjoy personal freedom?

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