In Pursuit of Uniform-ity: The Hijab Row

Shehnila Athar (Shehnila.202@gmail.com) is a PhD candidate at IIIT Delhi.
6 January 2023

The issue of the Hijab Ban holds several layers underneath it. On the surface, it appears that it is solely the case of students asking for amendments in the rulebook of "uniforms". Another angle is that of Women's dress (uniform in this case) which solicits the attention and control of the community and society. Furthermore, considering the current socio-political climate in India, one is bound not to ignore the possibility of the Islamophobic facet to the case of the Hijab Ban. Thus, a question that arises is how to make sense of the Hijab Ban? Is it a case of “School uniform”, “Women’s clothing”, or “Callous Islamophobia”?

It started with blue and then came in saffron. Blue was simply the colour of a uniform at the onset of the issue. What the blue did not foresee was intervention from saffron and how that would completely change the face of the movement. To me as a school goer, saffron mainly denoted the topmost colour of the Indian national flag. In the years since the election of 2014, India has witnessed a spike in polarisation and concerns over the safety of minorities in India by a number of global watchdogs. Saffron has been recast as the symbol of nationalism, the symbol of oneness, belonging, power, and the ultimate goal of a Hindu nation. Amidst the shameless march of colours that Karnataka witnessed in the early days of February, colours became associated with religion and symbolic of the young being enlisted in ideological-religious battles.

The state and its representatives claim that the issue was merely a case of abiding by the school uniform (Razdan 2022). Thus, the Karnataka High court is justified in taking a stand for the school administration banning Hijab, considering it a deviance from the prescribed dress code. It interprets dress code in just as restricted a way as it interprets religion. The High court, in fact, went a step ahead by taking a stand for the community altogether, claiming the Hijab to be a non-essential religious practice. Such a stand undermines the agency of a Muslim woman as the debate now shifts to the essential/non-essential symbol of Islam. The debate on Hijab has been reduced to a question about religion where both court and the community weigh in at the cost of women's voice (much as the case has been since India's independence). While some may say, the court of law, determining the degree of acceptance for religious symbols seems to be a major overstepping of bounds and going against the currents of secularism and constitutional freedoms. Such an argument will reduce the matter to state versus community, the casualty of which is the Muslim woman. The question should be, what does the Muslim woman lose? What risks does one run in marking/not marking the body with religious symbols seen as essential/unessential to Muslim identity? Why must religious symbols be restricted to Hijab when the “uniformity” that the schools aspire for is an illusion (Arunima 2022).

 

Understanding the Hijabi schoolgirls

 

Only if we pretend to stop living in a secular heaven would we realise that religion cannot be separated from a person. Choices are not made in a vacuum. They are profoundly contextual and temporal. People bring their whole selves to the places they navigate. Thus, schools should be open to accommodating a Hijab as much as they accommodate a turban, tilaka, crucifix and kalava. What should ideally be endorsed is differences in how each student looks, and most importantly, tolerance should be the highest virtue. Yes, the schools have rules, but shouldn't the rules be made keeping the elements of all faiths in mind?

It is noteworthy that the women who got into trouble for wearing a piece of clothing on their heads were born in the late 2000s. Needless to say that they grew up and made sense of their surroundings in a highly polarised environment. There have been discussions on various social media fronts, and otherwise, about how the school children did not know their friends' religions, ideologies, castes and beliefs. All they knew were great lunch boxes, festivals they celebrated together, who excelled in sports and academics etc. The school-children in today's era are not untouched by the vitriol on social media, the hate campaigns sponsored by politics, and the divisiveness manifested through generations and related discussions their parents and grandparents have at the dinner tables. This generation has started questioning what was earlier believed to be a normative idea (Mandal 2022). While they accept the hegemony of Hinduism in public affairs, what they do not is the breach of the psychological contract between themselves and the state that they are free to practise their religion (Mandal 2022). So, when they see Sindoor, sandal, Sikh turban and crucifix as a valid part of the daily public presentation, they question why only the Hijab is a problem here.

 

Hijab in India

 

Hijab is one of the most widely discussed, heavily criticised, contentious articles of clothing of recent times (Rumaney & Sriram 2021), often assimilated with strands of nationalism, stigma, security, discrimination, feminism and agency. Rumaney and Sriram, in 2021, studied Indian Muslim women's veiling experiences and observed that the "Hijab was more than just a piece of cloth, the Hijab was embedded with many meanings: it was a symbol of faith, modesty, protection, resistance, a means of connection with their family and the larger Muslim community, a regulator of “anti-Islamic” behaviour, a promoter of pro-social behaviours, and was a very significant component of the participants’ self-definition as Indian Muslims”. Thus, ideally, it should only be the women who decide the status and importance of the Hijab in their lives. Unfortunately, a woman's decision is only the hindmost when deciding the dress to be worn in public. The community which drives the family stance would want to portray its women as coy, modestly dressed, well-behaved and obedient while taking the garb of the Islamic veil. The state would want to criminalise the Islamic veil and ascribe all its negative connotations by portraying the veiled woman as radical, extremist, illiterate and oppressed. It is always tiring for women to fight these forces incessantly and simultaneously.  

Muslim women's workforce participation rate in India is markedly low in proportion to the Muslim women population (Ohlan 2020). They also lag far behind their non-Muslim counterparts in education, so much so that studies suggest government interventions to establish educational institutions in minority areas and provide female teachers so Muslim women can access education (Ohlan 2020). It is discouraging to see the consequences of the Hijab ban to such malignant trends because women are struggling with their conservative families while trying to make a place for themselves in the world. Their Hijab perhaps permits them to move out of their houses and gives them the strength to pursue their professional goals (Sayema 2022). Banning Hijab would be cathartic for women who perhaps are the first generation of females in their families to gain mobility and access to higher education and jobs. It is imbecile to think that families will not force their girls to drop out of schools/universities if asked to choose between Hijab and education. 

Albeit, a different kind of resistance is registered when considering the stigma associated with the Muslim identity and the construction of a 'radical' Muslim imagery. The families are against wearing religious garb. Parents are also wary about their veiled girls' safety and security when they navigate public spaces. It is only hard to imagine the state of a parent whose daughter got hounded by a group of saffron-clad in Mandya, Karnataka. Therefore, often parents purposefully give up their own Hijab and make their daughters do so, sometimes for the sake of safety and some other times in order to construct an identity of a ‘Moderate Muslim’ who releases the idea of ‘extremism’ and is accepting of modernisation (Chakraborti & Zempi 2013). The women, in this case, differ from their families and see their Hijab as a means of making a place for their Muslim identity in the state. To the rescue of such Muslim women, the fashion industry chipped in with dedicated labels for modest wear, and young women got a more relatable way of carrying their identity. The burqa has always been linked to negative connotations, but the Hijab gave them a subtler way to wear their identity while also looking moderate enough to navigate public places. 

The situatedness of Muslims in India

The portrayal of religious Muslims in media, Bollywood and otherwise, has always been highly cynical. Consequently, being a visibly religious Muslim did not go too well in public spaces. The rule of Hindutva bandwagons and the Muslim identity took a spin in India like never before. India has become more polarised than it has been in decades (Sahoo 2020). The social climate in India is rife with Anti-Muslim sentiments. After incidents of CAA and NRC which gave Indian Muslim identity a toss, the Markaz Covid incident played fuel to fire. The Hijab incident at Karnataka could be marked as another nail in the coffin of the integrity of Indian Muslims. The protesting girls here are tainted as troublemakers disrupting the knowledge flow in an educational setting and not as the ones that are debarred from the right to education. Moreover, the visible symbol of Muslim religiosity- the veil made to draw flak through the media discourse- started getting associated with education and peaceful protest in Karnataka, which were against the Islamophobic discourse of illiteracy and violence. How would the state let that happen? Altogether, Muslims in India now have to deal with a new wave of stigma and hatred, with social media incessantly fuelling the propaganda with the circulation of fake videos and Islamophobic hashtags demonising Muslims (Mukherjee 2020). The Hijab in the coming times would be viewed as a symbol of unrest and thus, the observants would find it challenging to secure admissions to schools and colleges, difficult to find jobs, run businesses and perhaps would be denied certain services as well. Even if we assume that things don’t turn this bad, the “normal” Muslim would always be engaged in an incessant exercise of excogitation to appear "normal" and live a normal life- a repercussion of an aggravated sense of stigmatised identity. Notwithstanding the succumbing pressure of having to live with all of this in a Hindu majoritarian country claiming to be secular. Small school-going girls taking off Hijabs at school gates, teachers doing the same, Hijabis followed by reporters, also eve-teased by their mates at the school gates, this sheer hooliganism should be discomforting for all. Surprisingly, neither the state nor the judiciary is taking suo moto cognisance of this violation of human rights.

Concluding remark

So how does one make sense of the Hijab Ban-a case of "uniform", a "women's issue", or "callous Islamophobia"? The present state of Indian Muslims makes one think if the Hijab Ban is only a case of Islamophobia. Had it been solely about uniforms, why was the assimilation of turbans and kalavas in the rulebook of school dressing so easy? Had it been about only the women, why did the movement witness meagre support from fellow women of other faiths and organisations working for women's rights? Nonetheless, reducing everything to Islamophobia would also not do justice to the numerous grey areas the issue encompasses. The discourses surrounding the Hijab are still relevant in that the opposition to Hijab reflects Islamophobia, and essentialising Islam is necessarily regressive and opposed to/in contradiction with the values of modernity. 

Shehnila Athar (Shehnila.202@gmail.com) is a PhD candidate at IIIT Delhi.
6 January 2023