On a piece of cloth called the hijab, Hindutva has chosen to show its fury against Indian Muslims. This fury has persisted since the founding of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in 1925 – and has reached a new peak in the last seven years. From targeting Muslims for eating beef to refusing to offer prayers in public places, the Hindutva brigade has now targeted the hijab.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not yet clarified his sense of the hijab. Yet, looking to the past, he is likely to echo colonial rulers who portrayed their rule as a civilized mission. Like her, Modi trumpeted his decision to ban and criminalize triple talaq as a historic measure to free the victimized Muslim women. Late last year, the day his government announced its intention to raise the legal age of marriage for women from 18 to 21, he chuckled, “Everyone can see who’s in trouble.”
Obviously, Muslim men, whose religion allows them to cling to women, or so believe in Hindutva.
But the controversial hijab order of the Karnataka government is about harnessing the notion of modernity and freeing Muslim women to assimilate for the larger Hindutva project, removing all distinctive markers of religious identity other than those bearing the Hindutva stamp from public life. It’s about erasing.
For supporters of the project, the hijab is bound to appear as a red rag, as the number of Muslim women in higher education has recorded an impressive increase. For example, the Indian Express reported that the gross attendance ratio—that is, the proportion of Muslim women aged 18-23 in college to the total number of Muslim women in that age group—increased from 1.1 percent in 2009–2008 to 15.8. Percentage in Karnataka in 2017-2018. A percentage of them are wearing the hijab, a view that Hindutva probably considers indecent for the land of Hindus.
Only this can explain Karnataka’s sudden decision to allow Muslim students to wear the hijab in classes, a true return to the policy of unveiling carried out by France during the Algerian occupation. The anti-colonial intellectual Frantz Fanon described French psychology as follows: “Let us win over the women and the rest will follow.” It was believed that who would not want to be free from the veil? And so, Fanon argued, “every new Algerian woman proclaimed to the occupier an Algerian society whose defense system was …. disbanded.”
The same violation has led to Muslim students choosing to boycott classes until they are allowed to attend wearing the hijab – and acknowledging the high cost their “politics of denial” would inevitably require. This form of denial was also observed when in 2004 the French government banned the display of religious symbols of students in public schools. Private institutions emerged to cater to the religiously inclined. As of 2020, according to academician Carole Ferrara, there were 70 Muslim, more than 7,500 Catholic and more than 200 Jewish schools in France. The secularism of the French government does not seem to have produced uniformity.
The hijab protest challenges not only Hindutva but also liberal-feminist politics. Liberalism emphasizes individual reason to distinguish between right and wrong, socially and morally, to take action simply because it is divinely ordained. The traditional view of feminists and liberals is that the hijab symbolizes inequality between the sexes, as it places the responsibility on women to protect themselves from sexual predators.
It could be argued that liberalism and feminism, pursued to their logical end, should make their supporters reject religion altogether. If not for anything other than “illusory happiness”, as Karl Marx put it, religion prevents and prevents people from realizing their “real happiness”. Liberal-feminists have instead chosen to debate whether the Quran makes it mandatory for women to wear the hijab. Ijma or general consensus among various schools of Islamic jurisprudence is that it is mandatory for women to cover their heads. But this consensus has been increasingly opposed.
Yet, to assume that all women who wear the hijab are unconcerned followers of Islam is to deny them agency. American scholars such as Saba Mahmood and Leila Ahmed have shown that countless women became religious or wore the hijab in their later years after reading and contemplating religious texts. For these women, in addition to meeting functional needs, the hijab is an expression of their religiosity as well as an expression of resistance against attempts to erase an important part of their identity. It can also be seen as a rebellion against the soullessness of modernity. This is equally true of India.
As we await the Karnataka High Court verdict on the hijab, it may help feminists and liberals gain perspective by recalling how the Sangh tried to stall the implementation of the Sabarimala verdict. Or wondering why there is a Saraswati statue at the entrance of Delhi’s Indian Institute of Mass Communication – and why many schools in Delhi organize pujas. Or why did Modi participate in Bhoomi Pujan before the construction of the new Parliament started. Once they stop treating women of faith as sheep, they will see that the hijab controversy is designed to Hinduize public life, which Karnataka’s hijab-wearing students are protesting.
The author is a senior journalist.
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