To Hijab or Not: Let the Women Decide for Themselves

Social Commentary

To Hijab or Not: Let the Women Decide for Themselves

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Female students wearing hijabs are being heckled by a mob in saffron shawls in Karnataka where protests are turning violent; yet our concern is not that about the safety of these women but of the sanctity of one’s perceived religious rights. If that doesn’t highlight how morally bankrupt we are, no religious teaching has been effective enough. Shah Rukh Khan’s alleged “spitting” outrage reflects how little we know of the practices of those who are our fellow countrymen and who are supposed to be protected by the Constitution.

Female students wearing hijabs are being heckled by a mob in saffron shawls in Karnataka where protests are turning violent.

When Sikhs were being attacked in America mistakenly for being Muslims – we, sitting here in India – take immense joy in deriding the “stupid white American” for his limited worldview. We’re so far up our own castles of arrogance that the irony of this ignorance for cultural norms and insensitivity is entirely lost on us. We thrive on selective oversensitivity; demanding that the West learn more about our cultures but not sparing a moment to extend the same to our own countrymen. This is not a new phenomenon though. Hypocrisy, like cricket, is in our blood.

Colleges have long been the crucible for politicians across the spectrum to cultivate religion-based vote banks among students. A kind of free trial before the paid subscription of religious bullying begins, if you will. To say that religion should be kept out of campuses is too little too late. This is our reality and there will always be bullying by numbers, ragging with religious overtones which find patronage in skewedly written codes of uniform and conduct, or worse, in youth wings of political parties.

Yet our concern is not that about the safety of these women but of the sanctity of one’s perceived religious rights.

The hijab has repeatedly come up as a controversial piece of clothing. History is replete with chest-beating political parties that have heckled and assaulted women for wearing seemingly “provocative clothes” (aka sleeveless tops, shorts, mini-skirts… basically anything that strange men with no right to object, find obscene).

These men and women are today party to the heckling and stone-throwing because they are offended by protesters who want to be allowed to cover their heads. In Article 25 (1) of the Constitution, the citizens are guaranteed “freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion”. While this is not an absolute right, the only instances where the government can control this is on grounds of public order, morality, and health.

History is replete with chest-beating political parties that have heckled and assaulted women for wearing seemingly “provocative clothes”.

Logic would tell us that the hijab prima facie cannot possibly be a health issue and establishing grounds for morality or public order is tricky, to say the least. Public order is actually maintained if we just learn to live in harmony. Since that ship has sailed, we must recognise that the disorder is not the scarf but within those who are riled up by the sight of it. Setting grounds for morality is a lost cause because a politician-helmed council for morality is among the greatest ironies in this news alone.

The Karnataka government’s shoddy handling of clothing-related issues is obviously reflective of the endemic patriarchy at play.

The Karnataka government’s shoddy handling of clothing-related issues is obviously reflective of the endemic patriarchy at play. Prestigious colleges in Mumbai have been known to ban sleeveless tops on women and not hold the possibly-but-not-surely aroused men accountable.

Some have been ludicrous enough to oppose the colour red because we women didn’t get the memo that bulls may be colour blind but male humans are not. What to wear and what not to wear is a favourite pastime of people who do not truly want to bring reforms in the education sector but want to be seen like they’re doing something for students. Just like telling people what to eat and what not to drink. Governments and institutions want you to make this a battle of fundamental rights so they can browbeat by majority instead of governing with maturity.

Governments and institutions want you to make this a battle of fundamental rights so they can browbeat by majority instead of governing with maturity.

The judiciary has to ascertain if the wearing of the hijab is essential to the religious practice and not something that is a custom developed over time. Muslims, particularly women, are expected to cover as much of their bodies as possible since exposing skin is forbidden within their long-held practices. Obviously, not all of them feel compelled to follow such rules strictly but for those who do, these customs are sacrosanct. High court after high court has found that to be true.

As a concept, this is neither alien to any of us in this country over the last 70 years, nor to those making rules for uniformity in colleges that advocate unity in diversity while enforcing homogeneity. It’s not like Sikh men are asked to remove their turbans once they enter colleges. Let’s be clear, this isn’t about all religious dressing choices.

The hijab is problematic for those who find it offensive simply because of what it represents: being Muslim in the India of today.

The hijab is problematic for those who find it offensive simply because of what it represents: being Muslim in the India of today. Depriving students of their chance to be in class is helping nobody. It is an abuse of power that is masquerading as custodianship of college dress code. There is no winner in this. And there is no accountability either. Unchecked chauvinism is our gift to future generations. Our silence is only making us complicit.

Comments