In a surprising move, Pakistani clerics have ruled that Muslim women are not obliged to cover their faces. The ruling comes after some conservative women refused to have their picture taken for official documents.
The Council of Islamic Ideology, an official religious body mandated to give legal advice on Islamic issues to government and parliament, announced on Monday that it was not necessary for women to keep their faces fully covered.
There had been reports that a number of conservative women were reluctant to have their picture taken without a veil for national identity cards and passports.
"Covering the face, the hands up to the wrists and feet is not mandatory for Muslim women," Maulana Mohammad Khan Sherani, head of the Council, told media in the capital Islamabad on Monday.
The council's announcement came as a surprise to many because of its controversial decisions in the past. Only last year, it said that girls as young as nine could be married off under Islamic law.
'A good sign'
Farzana Bari, an Islamabad-based feminist and rights activist, hailed the council's latest announcement. "It is a good sign. The clergy seems to have realized that their legitimacy is being challenged, and this ruling is aimed at improving their image," Bari told the AFP news agency.
"The orthodox clerics have been put on the back foot. Look at the Supreme Court decision about blasphemy laws: it's encouraged some clerics to come forward and speak about amending the laws," she said, referring to a case about the murder of Slaman Taseer, the former governor of the Punjab province. Taseer was killed by his bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri overblasphemy allegations.
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court upheld Qadri's death sentence in a historic verdict, a move lauded by Pakistan's liberals as an important step to tackle religious extremism and intolerance in the country.
Social media debate
The conservative sections of the country, however, denounced the Council of Islamic Ideology's ruling about veils.
"Pardah (covering the face) is a sign of a modest Muslim woman. It is ordered by Allah and his Prophet, hence it is compulsory in all circumstances," Raouf Gaznavi, a Pakistani citizen, wrote on DW Urdu's Facebook page.
Another social media user accused the council of taking money from nongovernmental organizations to issue "anti-Islam" edicts.
Responding to pro-veil comments, a young Pakistani girl wrote: "Why are only women taught to be modest? Why can't men learn to behave?"