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A covering that bares one's faith

The Bangkok Post, Jan 14, 2012

Bangkok, Thailand -- For years the mosque in my neighbourhood was registered as "Wat Muang Kae Mosque". The Buddhist temple, Wat Muang Kae, is a cat's meow away from the Islamic house of worship, and the mosque's name, so Thai and so un-Arabic, suggests the presence of interfaith amicability even before the term "interfaith" had any political undertones.

Naturally, the Buddhist kids come to receive bags of food from the mosque at the annual charity before the start of Ramadan - they still do today - while a lot of Muslim children are packed off by their parents to the temple school (or a Catholic one nearby). Some in veil, some not.

This is not a romantic picture of multiculturalism: It's an everyday happening: automatic, banal, unthinking. It's not even progressive; it's biblical, it's Canaan, and it's a setting found not only in my Bangkok quarters. Many mosques in Thailand are so closely related to the Buddhist wat; they share walls, wells, schools, food, fields, labour, and in some districts of Ayutthaya, architecture too. The Buddhist residents hear the muezzin's call in the morning and the Muslims hear the chanting of monks at funerals in the evening. Again, this is not the romance of religious co-existence; it's only that the burden of being Buddhist or Muslim isn't as significant as the burden of being Thai. Of being a citizen struggling to have a life.

What's happening at Wat Nong Chok School is not inconceivable but it is unnecessary. In that largely Muslim district, the temple school bans girls from wearing hijab to class, citing that it's against the rules of the temple for a person to wear a headscarf on the premises. On Tuesday, activists from the Muslim for Peace staged a protest in front of the school, while inside, a group of Buddhist parents gathered. There was tension, but there was no confrontation.

The recent flare-up was an aftershock of a similar situation last year when a group of 17 Muslim students, with the backup of Muslim for Peace, submitted a request to Wat Nong Chok School's director asking permission to wear the hijab to class. The petitioners claimed it was their constitutional right. Girls are permitted to wear hijab to schools in the South, they said, correctly, even though the are temple schools. The request was tabled before the school's council comprising parents and community leaders, and it was turned down.

In the past few decades, the issue of hijab - to wear or not to wear, to allow wearing or not to allow - has become the central debate in the politics of Islamic identity and global multiculturalism, perhaps second only to the topic of terrorism.

From France to Turkey, from Tunisia to Malaysia, the argument for and against has dug deep into a wide range of frameworks and philosophies, from theology to secularism, from human rights to feminism, and the most frequently cited word from advocates and detractors alike is the one that feels as modern as it is mouldy: Freedom. In some countries, to take off a veil signifies a woman's liberation; in others, to put on one means exactly the same. To wear or not to wear - what these debates are doing is reduce women to mere symbols. It is a larger clash of forces in the middle of which they've become a character.

The case of Nong Chok School shows the small-mindedness of the Buddhist-based body, which evoked a religious rule of the temple when this clearly was not a religious issue. At the same time, I would not dismiss the attitudinal problem of some Muslims who, while fighting for freedom, have pounced on the issue as if to stir up a controversy even when this case was settled months ago. What we should fear most from both sides is a slip into paranoia and extremism, than the ignorance of those who believe without reason that God or Law is wholly on their side.

Fourteen-year-old Nichada Dawazaw, a student at Nong Chok school, summed it best, as reported by the Bangkok Post last year. "I still can wear the hijab after school. Besides, the ban, or its lifting, doesn't affect my studies here at all."

The hijab shouldn't be forbidden, she said, nor should it be compulsory for every Muslim student. "It should be up to the individual to decide."

That's the best quote on this Children's Day.

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