Patralekha Chatterjee | The Hijab row: Beyond the hype and hysteria

Why do people care more about a headscarf worn by a woman than what is going on inside her head?

Why do people care more about a headscarf worn by a woman than what is going on inside her head?

The straight answer — because the controversy over whether colleges in a part of coastal Karnataka are justified or not in banning hijabs or headscarves for female students attending classes is not just about the hijab, worn by many Muslim women in India and around the world.

It cannot be decontextualised from the raging politics of polarisation in India, brought into even sharper relief as five states, including politically critical Uttar Pradesh, gear up to vote.

The context is one in which existing societal prejudices are being inflamed nationwide. Muslim hawkers and small business owners are being economically marginalised and prominent Indian Muslim women have woken up to find they have been put up for sale in fake online auctions.

The context is also about the overall state of human development in the country.

To me, fighting for every Indian girl’s right to study, to pursue higher education, including girls who cover their heads, is not necessarily the same as fighting for the hijab. Let us not oversimplify issues. Let us get the sequence right.

In a country where women’s status continues to be low, where female literacy is barely 70 per cent and where the female labour participation rate is one of the lowest among major economies, patriarchy needs to be fought, and not just among Muslims. It can only be fought by better equipping girls and young women who wish to study. Education is the key. Denying them education on any ground disempowers them.

The “hijab row” hit the headlines in December-January when six teenage Muslim girls were denied entry into classes as they were wearing a hijab alongside their uniform at a pre-university women’s college in Udupi district of Karnataka. Since then, tensions have escalated. Many more educational institutions in the state have sought to prevent hijab-wearing girls from entering classrooms. The girls are protesting.

A recent Karnataka government directive seeks to validate decisions of state educational institutions prohibiting Muslim girl students from wearing the hijab. Last week, the BJP-led state government said: “Clothes which disturb equality, integrity and public law and order should not be worn.” It says the ban on wearing the hijab to classrooms is not a violation of the fundamental right to religious freedom guaranteed by India’s Constitution.

Hindutva warriors have been quick to jump in. Unsurprising, given their strong presence in coastal Karnataka. There have been counter-protests by some Hindu right-wing students who took to wearing saffron stoles and turbans.

On February 8, with incidents of violence reported from several college campuses, the state government closed schools and colleges for the next three days.

The matter now lies with a three-judge bench of the Karnataka high court. The next hearing is on Monday (February 14) afternoon.

The standard argument against the hijab-wearing girls who wish to get back to their classroom has been that a hijab is a marker of women’s disempowerment and that weaning the girls away from head-covering hijabs will put them on the path of progress. The other argument in the same vein — colleges are entitled to enforce a dress code and if the hijab violates such a code, Muslim girls who wish to study should discard it.

As an agnostic and a feminist, I find myself in a piquant position arguing with not only Hindutva warriors but also many of my friends who I agree with most times. Much has been written on the matter already so let me stick to a few issues I see as pivotal to the ongoing controversy.

Firstly, hijab-wearing women are not a homogenous community just as women who don’t wear a hijab are not all the same. Everyone saw a video clip of a lone woman with her head and body covered, riding a two-wheeler, parking the vehicle and boldly confronting a large group of men trying to heckle her at a college in Karnataka’s Mandya district. She also yelled “Allahu Akbar” in response to the “Jai Shri Ram” chants of the young men. Did her body language suggest agency or disempowerment?

The reasons for wearing the hijab vary. Arguably, some Muslim women wear it as they come from conservative families where the hijab is the norm. Some Muslim students possibly feel that hijab comes before everything else. There are many others who don’t think so and who wish to cover their heads and study. Many Muslim women in India and across the world wear a hijab to demonstrate their adherence to their faith. But I have also met and know of Muslim women who wear the hijab as a marker of choice to assert their identity when they feel cornered.

The headline-making girls in Karnataka did not “suddenly” start wearing the hijab. Local reporters told me that in all colleges in Udipi in coastal Karnataka they have been wearing it for a long time, with their regular uniform. However, the principal of the college where the row started says the authorities never allowed the hijab earlier.

Whatever be the reason or circumstances for wearing the hijab, a young woman’s life options, career prospects and ability to take an independent decision depends greatly on education. How will it help if they find it more difficult to access education?

Dr Aqsa Shaikh, associate professor, department of community medicine, Hamdard Institute of Medical Sciences & Research, and a transgender activist, covers her head with a dupatta. “It makes me feel feminine,” she told me. “I have male pattern baldness. Can you reduce an educational institution to just its rules for uniform? Rules are created for human beings. Human beings are not created for rules; and rules evolve. Nurses in India at one time had to wear skirts as part of their uniform.”

The question that leaps out — can you reduce a woman to her headscarf or an educational institution to its dress code? What is the purpose of an educational institution? Is it mainly about enforcing uniformity in appearance or is it about imparting education and fostering critical thinking among students in their formative years? If there has to be uniformity, what happens to boys who wear janeu (sacred thread), girls who wear bindis or Sikhs who wear turbans? Can Muslim identity markers alone be framed as sectarian and undesirable in public spaces?

Let us debate the hijab and other religious markers by all means. But barring hijab-wearing girls from classrooms, or segregating them by making them sit elsewhere, will not empower them.

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