hijab in India
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Here’s What You Should Know About the Fight Over Hijab in India

The Southern State of India has emerged as a new battlefield to decide on the issue of whether Hijab (an Islamic veil) can be allowed to wear as part of a girl’s uniform in public schools or not.

The epicenter of conflict is the Udupi’s PU Women College where in December last year six hijab-clad Muslim students were debarred from attending physical classes, as headscarf is not a part of school dress code. This has  led to protests and counter protest in several districts of the state by student groups. Some were wearing saffron shawls to oppose Muslim girls, while other were protesting for their rights to wear hijab. 

The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Karnataka & its supporters argued that the controversy has been ignited by Campus Front of India, a student wing and a subsidiary of Popular Front of India  (PFI) which is accused of colluding with terrorist entities like Al-Qaeda to spread radicalization in Kerala and a few other Indian states.

 The other side hit out at the right-wing brigade for spreading frivolous conspiracies and rather charged BJP for following apartheid-like policies where girls in hijab are made to sit in different classrooms because the matter is sub judice. 

The harmless piece of clothing has garnered controversies not just in India, but in most parts of the world. To fight off Islamophobia in Western nations, February 1, marks World Hijab Day to support the religious identity of Muslim women who are the victims of stereotypes, hatred, prejudice, and sexism in the white “progressive” world. 

Unfortunately, this symbol of resistance becomes a tool of systemic oppression in Islamic countries. There have been various accounts reported about Muslim women who are serving sentences, and even murdered, for taking off their hijab. Because of this, ex-Muslim and Canadian activist Yasmine Mohammad started the initiative in 2017 to mark No Hijab Day on the same day.

In this matter, advocate Devadatta Kamat appeared on behalf of petitioners and quoted verses from Quran and Hadith to back the argument that  wearing of hijab is an essential practice under Islamic law & its potential ban must be treated as a violation of fundamental rights guaranteed under Article 19 & 25 (Freedom of Expression and Religious Rights) of the Indian Constitution.

Some activists and celebrities also argued that when Sikh men wear their turban, it is assumed that they wear it out of choice. On the contrary, hijab-wearing Muslim women are popularly believed to be oppressed by their conservative families.  

But those who are in favor of this opinion should realize that gendered reality for men and women is wide apart and thus cannot be used for plain comparisons. 

The religious obligation to practice modesty in daily life is not similar for both genders. Men have devised a way to accommodate their needs and desires with the religion they practice.

The flexibility to conveniently discard or follow the religious beliefs/customary rituals, exclusive to the masculine gender and this overt freedom, gives them an option to even choose a life that is deemed immoral according to their very own religion. 

This phenomenon of differentiated definition of decency for men and women secularly transcends across all faiths, to understand how it works, we just need to relate the experiences of women from different religious backgrounds. 

So instead of comparing Muslim women with Sikh men, it’s more sensible to relate the experiences of women from different religious backgrounds. For instance, in December last year, the marriage of two Sikh women with Kashmiri Muslim men was forcibly called off in Indian Administered Kashmir.

The Sikh groups alleged that both were kidnapped and converted to Islam but the ladies themselves denied these allegations; later one of them was married to a Sikh man against her will. 

Similarly, many BJP ruled states in India have introduced legislation to prevent the so-called love jihad and inter-faith marriages, specifically between Hindu women and Muslim men.

Our madness to coerce everyone to wear the same type of clothes, eat vegetarian food, watch sanskari, and please the majority mindset is causing a stain on the diverse fabric of this nation.

These are just a handful of examples that corroborates India’s 140th position out of 156 countries in the 2021 Global Gender Gap Report published by the World Economic Forum.

For a woman in India, it is a privilege to assert choice and follow dreams, sadly most of the time they have to make peace with the deep-rooted patriarchy of the rigid family structure where their roles are predetermined by religious texts and scriptures. 

Many in India are even batting for things like the Uniform Civil Code and French model of secularism, Laïcité, to be at least adopted in school education.

Some even questioned the credibility of choice because students in schools are still very young to make their own decisions; is it really a choice for a girl in fifth or sixth grade who has to wear a headscarf, and knows no life without it? What if she’s never been given an option by her caregivers because of caregivers not knowing the difference between culture and religion, and not understanding that hijab shouldn’t be forced? 

That’s why it is reasonable that once a girl becomes a legal adult and starts her next level of education in a college and university, then she should have the liberty to choose whatever she wants to wear. Realistically, it’s reasonable that she should have the liberty to wear what she wants at any time, but we know that caregivers are often going to influence clothing choices since they are the ones providing clothing to those in their care.

But there is other side of the debate which has been reiterated by champions of human rights in India who rightly contend that our madness to see uniformity & coerce everyone to wear same type of clothes, eat vegetarian food, watch sanskari content  to please the majoritarian mindset is causing a stain on the diverse fabric of this nation, introduction of these alien & impractical concepts in Indian context will cost us our democracy which has already become too flawed and fragile in last few years. 

These two contentious views in a deeply polarized India are not appalling, but expected. Indian politicians of all kinds equally deserve the credit for this, who over the years have built this deep communal divide between communities and flirted with Muslims and other minorities by way of appeasement politics to fetch their so-called “secular votes” in elections. 

The farmers’ protest in India have taught us an important lesson that discussion, debate, and dialogue with the affected party — in this case, Muslim women — cannot be neglected or ignored by the government before arriving at any policy decision. Protest and placards are necessary tools in a constitutional democracy to assert the demands, but violence and vandalism from either side are not justified.

In all this ruckus, we must not forget that the literacy rate among Muslim women in India is even lower than other marginalized communities like Scheduled Caste andamp; Scheduled Tribes. Due to poor outreach of education, Muslim women contribute less than ten percent in total to the female workforce participation, claims the National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) data. 

Wearing of hijab — or any outfit — should not be an obstacle for women to get desirable education and achieve financial independence. At the same time, every religion needs their own version of a renaissance to eliminate the bigotry and fundamentalism that has fixed a ceiling for women, and created dozens of barriers to stop them from taking a step ahead in the name of feminine virtues.

Ajit Singh is an economics student and is currently pursuing a bachelor's degree in education. His particular interest lies in the intersection of religion, caste, class & politics. He can be reached at ajitsinghmarch6@gmail.com.