Friday, September 09, 2005

Some perspective on the Sania Mirza fatwa

On Wednesday, the NDTV news channel interviewed an obscure Islamic scholar, who reportedly issued a fatwa against Sania Mirza's dress sense. BBC reports:

Haseeb-ul-hasan Siddiqui, a leading cleric of the Muslim organisation the Sunni Ulema Board, said: "The dress she wears on the tennis courts not only doesn't cover large parts of her body but leaves nothing to the imagination."

Mr Siddiqui said Islam did not allow women to wear skirts, shorts and sleeveless tops in public.

"She will undoubtedly be a corrupting influence on these young women, which we want to prevent," he said.

Now this is a pronouncement that is guaranteed to piss off a very large section of the Indian public. Coming after the controversial Imrana case and intense public scrutiny of fatwas, this seems to be yet another instance of the Islamic clergy running wild.

But perhaps all is not what it seems. Google searches for both Haseeb-ul-hasan Siddiqui and the Sunni Ulema Board yielded nothing meaningful. It seems to me that the guy is a lightweight. But the Indian news agencies make no mention of this, they do not even mention his name or organisation, just that he is a "religious scholar from Kolkata". Since fatawa are only binding on the muftis who issue them and their followers (see the Wikipedia article on fatwas), it may not even apply to Sania Mirza. What, then, is the big deal? The scholar in question is obscure, the judgement not binding on Miss Mirza, and since no one has indicated that Mr. Siddiqui is a mufti, the whole thing may not even be a bonfide fatwa. Why is this such a big news story?

The answer, I think, is ratings. As Saeed Naqvi wrote in Indian Exprees, "...
newsdesks have been alerted to the idea that stories of fatwas embarrassing to the Muslims has a growing audience." Fatwas are big stories, and a about Sania Mirza would be a very big story indeed. Fatwas, as the Wikipedia article informs us, are a legal pronouncement in Islam, issued by a religious law specialist on a specific issue. Most fatwas are clarification of religious terms or advice on how to be a better Muslim in response to specific queries (see the Darul Uloom Deoband's archive of fatwas).You can make a Muslim cleric issue a controversial fatwa by asking him a leading questioin the same way you can make the Pope say something controversial by asking him his views on, say, homosexuality. If Mr Siddiqui rang up NDTV and told them Sania should be banned, then that would be bad. But if he was asked if he thought whether Sania's clothing was un-Islamic and a bad influence, I don't see how a conservative, religious man could have said otherwise. Replace "Islam" with "Indian culture" and I could show you several Hindu men who would say the same. Since I don't have the transcript of the NDTV interview, I can't say for sure, but it seems to me like this whole thing was something of a setup.

To be sure, many sections of the Muslim clergy have some pretty extreme views on Life, the Universe and Everything. Anyone who says that a woman raped by her father-in-law is no longer married to her husband, is in my view, a pretty disgusting individual. But this does not justify tricking someone into making a controversial statement to increase your ratings (if that is indeed what happened). However, I think that some good may still come from this incident. I predict that either the mainstream Muslim clergy will condemn this fatwa, or will take flak for not having done so. But please, let's get some perspective on this.

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