Interference by State in Religious and Cultural Matters

A century ago, a female on the death of her husband had to burn along with her husband’s pyre or had to take her life in some other ways in many parts of Nepal and India. A living widow used to be considered as a disgrace to the society. So to preserve the honor of her husband and her family, she had to die along with her husband (the practice called sati). Thankfully, it was abolished in India by Queen Victoria in 1861 and in Nepal by Chandra Shumsher in 1920.

In present day, no woman would show a will to burn along her dead husband. Imagine a fourteenth century woman in Indian subcontinent whose husband has died, would she go against the sati practice? It must have been natural for the society to accept a burning living woman and woman exercising her cultural right of self-immolation. She must have had seen a lot of women ascending the pyres of their dead husbands to since her childhood and might have kept it in her mind that she might have to undergo the same in future in the case of her misfortune. The change in culture is natural but it might be slow, and sometimes interference from the state is required to safeguard the freedom of its citizens by facilitating the cultural transformation even though it might seem as if the state is curtailing the cultural or religious freedom.

In modern times, even for a wise government, it is very difficult to interfere with the religious and cultural affairs no matter how bad they are. The argument that prevails in the cases of attempts of interference by the state is that of freedom to practice their religion and follow the cultural norms, and a government in democracy has to bend the knees before their vote banks. To illustrate, there are charlatans called astrologers and clairvoyants who have opened their registered business to predict your future. They have their roots in the magical and supernatural aspects of faith. But the government cannot do anything against them despite of the fact that they are spreading superstition and impeding progress; they are in fact the insults to human reason. To give another example, there is a divorce system (among many others) in Islam called triple talaq where declaration of talaq three times by the husband irrevocably terminates the marriage. This is shameful but an attempt by the state to make it illegal is met with immense resistance from the faithful calling it an interference with their religious laws undermining their beliefs and reflecting discrimination by making a special law for certain people in a multicultural country.

Few days after the terror attacks in Sri Lanka on 21 April 2019, the government of Sri Lanka boldly banned the burqa or any face covering that hinders the identification of individuals to strengthen national security. Does it take more than two hundred and fifty human lives to bring this change? Not only from the point of view of national security but from the point of women liberation too, this decision of Sri Lankan government is commendable. The decision still evokes outrage of the faithful and sympathizers of ill traditions in the name of religious and cultural freedom. But these sorts of interference from the state is essential for the greater good of people in contrast to the senseless parroting of pseudo-freedom slogans. Just like the law made for sati practice is useless today, the burqa ban will also be useless after few decades when the coming generations of women get the liberty to wear the kind of dresses they want to wear (in contrast to this imposed garment). This ban lifts the ban on Muslim women on wearing only certain types of garments and hence helping in their liberation from the cage of ideals made by men. Now at least in Sri Lanka, the parents will not feed their daughters’ minds to wear burqa or face covering garment compulsorily.

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