Mere libaas par ungli utha kar mujhe nicha dikha rahe hai,
Zamana jahaliyat toh dekho,
Kehte hai mere haq mei awaz utha rahe hai
Muslim women have always acquired a space in contemporary Indian political discourse. The need to talk about her has been imperative with the changing needs of time. However it does not stop there. From talking about her, to talking for her, the Indian political scenario has diverged into a form of dialogue where the Muslim women is present and absent at the very same time. From being auctioned online to being denied entry into colleges for wearing the hijab, it all brings us to one simple fact — that there exists a problem. Somewhere something is failing terribly. Is it our ideals on secularism? Is it the dire need for these women to assert their identity? Or is it that Islamophobia has anticipated Muslims to be ‘potential threats’ to social well-being?
The issue clearly cannot be deciphered at face value, the problem is way more layered and has several faces, but what essentially remains is the fact that these women clad in hijab are ‘easy targets’ even in what has conventionally been the most secure of all places — a classroom.
In recent events in Karnataka, not one but several colleges have denied women wearing hijab from continuing education for the simple reason that the hijab does not abide by the uniform of the institution. The pertinent question that arises is, why now? How come the hijab per se has come to induce a sense of unease in educational settings when they have been tolerated if not accepted before? If one keeps the role of fundamental rights aside for a moment, the answer to this is pretty simple. It is true that institutions do have regulations that need to be abided by the students but if the hijab is banned in these colleges then would they also do away with the bindi and other forms of religious symbols like the cross, janeu, etc. under the garb of secularism?
As per the statistics published by Pew, 84% of Hindu women (from the age of 18-25) wear a bindi in public places, and around 58% of Sikhs (from the age of 18-25) wear the turban and nearly 87% of Muslim women (from the age of 18-25) wear the burqa (which includes hijab and niqab) outside their homes. The debate regarding this controversy takes a stance where the expectation that religion is to be left at home is influenced by a French model of secularism that finds no place in how our constitutionalists have defined the Indian brand of secularism. Another stance that exists is the view that these Muslim women are being ‘forced’ to wear the hijab. This is a weak accusation. How are two-thirds of the total Muslim women population in India which amount to roughly 180 million Muslim women being made to wear something they do not want to wear? These are apparent elements in the discussion of the controversy that is being stemmed now and then and should acquire no relevance in political debate whatsoever.
Hence what must remain as the main element in discussing this controversy is what exactly has to be done to bring it to an end. On paper at least, Indian secularism would never ask its citizens to keep their religious identity under lock and key at home. The Constitution has allowed its proliferation as long as it did not harm fellow sentiments.
As far as the piece of cloth on a Muslim woman’s head is concerned, the affinity to an identity makes the picture of hijabi women in classrooms a dull scenario to many. To simply imply, the need to do away with whatever symbolizes religious affiliation is somewhat inconsequential and confusing. The instant reaction to the situation in Karnataka’s colleges bought certain shadowed groups of Hindu youths to appear the very next day with saffron scarfs around their neck, coupled with the hosting of the saffron flag in the college campus implies that these are simply speaking ‘reactions’ and ‘counter reaction’ to those supporting the cause of the women in Hijab. Herein, India’s secularism, that aims to be equi-distant of all religions, transforms to an ‘anti-religion’ perspective in a classroom and proves that our political debate itself is arising from the inability to apprehend what we imply by religiosity, secularism, tolerance and most importantly by ethical representation.
The implications of such persistent persecution of Muslims are evidently wide and large. If a Muslim woman was to take her hijab off to adhere to the demands of these extremist elements, her desire for education could be fulfilled only at the cost of her self identity. Or if she decides to not take it off, the (near) future might, in all likeliness, indicate practicing hijabi Muslim women disappearing from colleges, from universities and slowly from professional settings. What remains a pertinent question is whether we are now facing a present where there is a dire need for Muslim women to make a tough choice between education and self identity?
How does the hijab become an act of faith and the raising of the saffron flag a weapon? It comes down to one single notion- fear. If an act of faith is attempted with the intention to induce psychological fear to control those who do not conform to a standard set of norms, the act of faith then becomes obtrusively aggressive. And when there’s fear and control, then the options left for the other party is to either disappear, or make a compromise. And that’s exactly what Muslim women have been bought down to — make a compromise even when they do not clearly want to.
Nevertheless, to conclude, it is essential to note that it would be ridiculous to think that what happened in Karnataka, will stay in Karnataka. The ripples are already being felt in the whole country. A teacher in Puducherry has asked a hijabi student to leave the class. The consequences are evident and it is too late to stop it now.
The only thing that is left for us, is what next? Are our progressive liberal views so fragile that a piece of cloth can engulf it? Why is there an inherent need to estimate and calculate to what degree a personal choice to clothing is being made?
Hate spreads; and it’s spreading like wildfire today. Such events scar our secular fabric, and scars seldom heal completely.
Featured image source: Al Jazeera