A data-driven view of the ongoing Hijab controversy

Updated on Feb 15, 2022 11:34 PM IST

On February 11, the Supreme Court refused to hear a petition on the ongoing hijab controversy, even as the case is being heard before the Karnataka high court

Women holding placards stage a protest in Thane against the hijab ban imposed in the few colleges in Karnataka, at Mumbra, in Thane(ANI)
Women holding placards stage a protest in Thane against the hijab ban imposed in the few colleges in Karnataka, at Mumbra, in Thane(ANI)
ByRoshan Kishore and Abhishek Jha

On February 11, the Supreme Court refused to hear a petition on the ongoing hijab controversy, even as the case is being heard before the Karnataka high court. The highest court’s decision might have been motivated by a hope that the controversy will be contained in the state of Karnataka, where it started, although it may still have to weigh in.

“Don’t spread these things to a larger level...We are also watching. We also know what is happening in the state. You (should) also think whether this is proper to bring such things to a national level,” remarked a bench headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) NV Ramana, refusing to specify a date of hearing.

The CJI’s hopes of the controversy being contained where it started do not seem to be working as conflict around Muslim women wearing hijab is spreading to more states. The debate around the propriety or the lack of it surrounding the wearing ofa hijab in educational institutions is much more than a legal issue. There are aspects of religion, gender justice and secularism involved here. Notwithstanding the arguments from both sides, what do numbers tell us about the issue?

How common is the hijab in India?

There is no official data to answer this question. However, a private source can throw some light. Between 2019 and 2020, Washington DC-based Pew Research Centre conducted a survey on religion in India. Its report, Religion in India: Tolerance and Segregation, was published in June 2021. If the survey findings are to be believed, as many as nine out of 10 Muslim women in India cover their head in various forms when they step out of their homes. This practice was largely independent of age cohorts, regional location, financial condition and level of religiosity of the respondents. However, region did play an important role in the use of the three popular forms of head covering among Muslim women: burqa, niqab and hijab. Hijab wearing seems to be more common in the southern states. Nearly two-thirds of Muslim women wear a burqa in India.

Are Muslims the only religious group where women dress differently in public?

The Pew survey report’s findings do not support such a conclusion. It found that as many as 61% of Indian women reported covering their heads outside their homes. While the practice is the most prevalent among Muslims (89%), it is at almost similar levels among Sikhs (86%) and higher than the halfway mark (59%) among Hindus as well.

However, what is remarkable is that when it comes to the use of head covering in any form among Hindu and Muslim women, there is a difference caused by the impact of personal religiosity. Among Hindu women, the practice of covering their head while stepping out of home sees a sharp drop with decline in religiosity (62% for those who said religion was very important against 42% for those who though religion was less important), while religiosity does not seem to matter on this issue among Muslim women (the share of women reporting use of head covering was 91% and 88% among the two categories).

Why is individual religiosity (or the lack of it) a weak determinant of dressing choices among Muslim women?

This question cannot be answered without engaging with the issue of patriarchal notions within the Muslim community. The 2006 Sachar Committee report on the socioeconomic and education status of Muslims in India had noted this in an unambiguous manner.

“Women in general are the torchbearers of community identity. So, when community identity is seen to be under siege, it naturally affects women in dramatic ways. Women, sometimes of their own volition, sometimes because of community pressure, adopt visible markers of community identity on their person and in their behaviour. Their lives, morality, and movement in public spaces are under constant scrutiny and control. A gender-based fear of the ‘public’, experienced to some degree by all women, is magnified manifold in the case of Muslim women. The lines between ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe spaces’ become rigid. The community and its women withdraw into the safety of familiar orthodoxies, reluctant to participate in the project of modernity, which threatens to blur community boundaries. It was said that for large number of Muslim women in India today, the only ‘safe’ space (both in terms of physical protection and in terms of protection of identity) is within the boundaries of home and community,” the report said.

The lament of the Sachar Committee’s report is vindicated from the findings of the 2015-16 National Family and Health Survey, which shows that Muslim women fare the worst when it comes to freedom of movement in India.

Will a hijab ban empower Muslim women?

What happens if the hijab ban in Karnataka schools is upheld in a court of law? Two logical possibilities follow.

Either the Muslim community accepts the verdict and normalcy is restored without use of hijabs, or there is a backlash against it and women are forced to either discontinue their studies or enrol in private institutions that allow this practice.

Religious sentiments about propriety of sociocultural practices hardly change immediately after judicial verdicts. Widespread protests against the Supreme Court’s (there’s now a de facto stay on this) order allowing entry to women of all ages in the Hindu shrine of Sabarimala is one such example.

While there is no point in predicting the future, any large-scale withdrawal of Muslim women due to a ban on what seems to be a widespread dressing practice will only worsen their educational gap vis-à-vis others. A 2017-18 consumption survey on education by the National Statistical Office shows that the share of Muslim women attending education drops faster from the 15-20 years age group onward (compared to the immediately younger five year age group) than for the overall population. The share of Muslim women in the 15-20 age group who are still pursuing education was 0.54 times that in the 10-15 age group, for example, while the ratio was 0.66 for the overall population.

India is not an outlier in the urge to mainstream women

Another Pew Research Centre report published in December 2020 found that the tendency to dictate what women should wear or not wear has been gaining ground across the world. “Religious restrictions around the world often target women, who in many countries face censure because their clothing is considered too religious – or not religious enough. These restrictions frequently take the form of social harassment by individuals or groups, but also sometimes involve official government actions,” an article published on Pew Research Centre’s website said.

Between 2013 and 2018, the number of countries that regulated women’s religious clothing by law or policy increased from 41 to 61. The number of countries where women were harassed for their religious or secular dress increased from 53 to 56 during this period.

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