First Person | In Praise of Intolerance

Certain customs and practices deserve not to be tolerated

Ghazala WahabGhazala Wahab

It seems that we sometimes accord too much of virtue to tolerance. Honestly, tolerance is not all that great a thing as it is made out to be. Often, it is the smokescreen behind which both the meek and the flighty hide because they do not want to be seen as taking a stand which goes against the majority or the popular. Tolerance comes in handy to mask their lack of courage. People also use expressions of tolerance to show how liberal they are in their religious and social values. Just as tolerance is celebrated as a virtuous symbol of multi-cultural, liberal society, intolerance is vilified as evidence of dogmatic, rigid, monochromatic society with closed hearts and minds.

But where would liberal societies be if they did not marry tolerance with a certain degree of intolerance. After all, it is intolerance of injustice, cruelty, aggression, dishonesty, terrorism and everything else that is deemed illegal or criminal by the state that ensures the smooth functioning of the society. Yet, ironically, intolerance is adjudged as bad and the moral upper ground is reserved for tolerance. For instance, the worldwide debate (in India as well) sparked by the recent French legislation banning full-face covering veil in France has been reduced to arguments of tolerance versus intolerance with the French society coming out as illiberal because of its intolerance of the veil. Funnily enough, the French view themselves as liberal primarily because of their intolerance of any kind of unjust and unfair practice, like the full-face covering veil among some migrant Muslims.

While I tend to tilt towards the French in this debate, I am amazed by the smugness of the so-called Indian secularists and liberalists who are using veil to cast India as a multi-cultural, tolerant society as opposed to France. No one can deny multiculturalism of India, but tolerance, that’s taking it a bit too far, especially when every day the media screams of yet another instance of honour or caste killing. There is a reason why veil, full-face covering or a burqa or whatever it is called, has never been an issue in India. And the reason is certainly not tolerance or liberalism. The reason is that in Indian society, irrespective of one’s religion, many women even today either cover their heads or their faces when they step out of the house. Call it religious diktat or respect for the elders or tradition, the end result is the same.

It is unfortunate that simply for the sake of an argument, veil — that sexist piece of garment which denies the woman the right to express herself, that reduces a woman to a shadow of her person — is finding support in India among those who supposedly are champions of equality, justice and free will. Veil embodies the exact opposite of equality, justice and free will.

True, several women worldwide claim that they wear the veil or cover their faces because of their free will; that it is an individual right they want to exercise. But probe deeper and strangest of all reasons tumble out. For some, it is a symbol of dignity, others say they feel safe inside the veil and some say that their religion ordains it, which is why they wear the veil. Where is free will here? Both religious requirement and security implies fear; and dignity, well that’s debatable. Personally speaking, hiding behind the veil does not accord you dignity, it simply makes you invisible and by extension inconsequent. Despite being a Muslim and despite having a few family members who wear various permutations of the burqa, I am uncomfortable talking to a shroud, where I can only presume that behind the mesh would be two eyes. It also gives me the feeling that the person behind the veil is concealing his or her face from me because he or she does not trust me. How can I then start a personal or a professional association with that person when the foundation itself is mistrust? So, it is not difficult to imagine how others who have no experience of a veil would feel interacting with a veiled person.

However, coming back to France, people who have quarrel with the law of the land can very well go where the law is amenable to them. To begin with, those who wear a full-face covering veil in France or other European countries are the migrants who have moved there with the express purpose of improving the quality of their lives. They want their adopted country to accept them the way they are, yet they are not willing to accept the host country the way it is. Is this tolerance or intolerance?

Certain customs and practices deserve not to be tolerated even if it is at the cost of sounding illiberal. Because by tolerating them we only encourage their incidence. For every one woman who decides to wear a veil of her own accord, there are 50 others who are coerced by their family members using the example of these very women and are then permanently shackled by fear, religion, honour and family customs. If we want to be liberal, we need to liberate them and not pay lip-service to liberalism.


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