Muslim women should think about the fundamentals of hijab

The growing number of Hindus and Muslims wearing religion on their sleeves will lead to further polarization in society and expand the influence of those who engage in the politics of religion

Image used for representational purposes. AFP

Recently, we have seen disturbing reports of a group of teenage Muslim girls wearing hijab who were denied entry to class by their educational institute in Udupi, Karnataka. College authorities insist that students must adhere to the uniform which does not allow hijab in class. Girls in hijab staged a democratic protest inside campus, defending their right to education as well as their right to wear hijab.

In a religiously polarized climate, it’s no surprise the issue has become politicized with ministers jumping into the fray. If the collegial authorities are free to establish their own rules, they can in no way violate the fundamental rights recognized by the Constitution.

Constitutionally speaking, this is an open and closed case of the right to education as well as the right to religious freedom. Whether this is a simple overreach by university authorities or another case of Islamophobia, singling out girls wearing the hijab, is hard to say.

Consider a third dimension to this impasse. Parents would not allow girls to go to college without hijab and authorities would deny them entry because of hijab. In both cases, girls’ education is bound to suffer. Religious symbols in public life have always been an important issue in our multi-faith society. This takes on greater significance in the religiously charged and polarized atmosphere in which we live today.

Controversies over religious symbols in public places, such as the Jewish hijab or yarmulke or the Christian cross, are not new globally. A few years ago, there was a huge outcry when France legally banned them from public places, including schools and government offices. For the French, such religious symbols violate the secularism to which they adhere in public life.

But clearly, in our country, we don’t practice the French variety of secularism. The right to religious freedom is as much a principle of our democracy as secularism. Only the hijab to criticize would be unfair. Nor are those who oppose it known for their penchant for secularism. Students affiliated with politically supported outfits have started wearing saffron headscarves to counter girls in hijabs. Secularism is an outdated political practice, with politicians rushing to visit temples before every election.

When divisive politics threaten peace and social harmony, it becomes necessary for us, the people, to play a proactive role. Ordinary Hindus and Muslims must begin to question the harm done in the name of religion. If we don’t wake up even now, we are somehow complicit in the politics of division. Hijab with saffron scarves, the question of who decides what constitutes faith can only arise. It is important to respect the principle of essential practices and leave religion in the private domain. The growing number of Hindus and Muslims wearing religion on their sleeves would lead to further polarization in society and expand the influence of those who engage in the politics of religion.

Just as Hindu women and men too should question dictates about the bindi or against jeans, so Muslim women should also reflect on the fundamentals of hijab. Unless we start doing this, public discourse will forever be trapped in extreme binaries in the expected sense.

But does a Muslim woman necessarily have to wear a hijab? Fatima Mernissi, a Moroccan feminist scholar who has done groundbreaking research on the origins of the hijab and burqa, has extensively studied the occurrence of the Arabic word sitr in religious texts and its various meanings, ranging from curtain to physical barrier passing by the simple cover according to the context. She also reckoned that in most cases, sitr applied to men in various situations and social backgrounds.

She established how, over centuries of male-dominated social order in Muslim societies, the sitr or blanket came to be applied exclusively to women, leading to today’s understanding. She skillfully illustrated how patriarchy systematically distorted religious teachings and built myths leading to norms that lock women in.

Although Indian Muslims are not a theologically and culturally speaking monolith, there has been a noticeable increase in religiosity in recent decades. Many have fallen under the influence of Wahhabism which emphasizes overt religiosity as evidenced by dress codes for men, women and even small children.

Today, there are many more women and girls wearing the burqa from head to toe. Several others wear the hijab. Girls whose grandmothers or mothers never wore hijab are adopting hijab today. Of course, it was common in Muslim societies for older women to throw a wide dupatta loosely over their shoulders and head. My grandmothers and other older women in the neighborhood followed this practice of their own volition. They had no fear at all that not a lock of their hair would be visible!

Today, I often hear a girl say that the hijab is my personal choice. I hope one day she will realize that she didn’t really have a choice. She will realize that she has been influenced by the premium given to a woman wearing the hijab in our society. A woman wearing the hijab is a good woman because she is “properly dressed”. In my activism for Muslim women’s rights, I am regularly asked the question “why aren’t you in Islamic dress!

Collectively, Indian Muslims have never deliberated on issues related to Islam, culture and identity. Invariably, popular common sense has been based on conservatism and a patriarchal worldview. Serious collective reflection on issues such as multiculturalism is long overdue. This must be done with the same vigor with which we demand justice and equality as citizens.

The author is co-founder of Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan. The opinions expressed here are personal.

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