Divisive politics and its effect on minorities
The right to education and religious freedom are at loggerheads in India’s polarised milieu, with Muslims forced to bear the brunt. This is evident in the hijab row
We are witnessing egregious developments in Udupi and elsewhere in Karnataka. What possibly started as a disciplinary matter over girls in the hijab being denied entry into the classroom by their college administration has exploded into an all-out Hindu-Muslim conflict. The right to education and the right to religious freedom are made out to be at loggerheads in a politically charged and religiously polarised milieu. There are frightening war-like visuals of male students in saffron scarves harassing a girl in a hijab on campus.
Yes, the college authorities are entitled to frame rules governing the institution, but these rules cannot be violative of the fundamental rights granted by the Constitution. The issue has become politicised with different religious and political groups jumping in to trawl troubled waters. Karnataka recently saw communal trouble with extremist groups disrupting Christmas celebrations. There have also been instances of harassment of interfaith couples in the name of “love jihad”. The minorities are bearing the brunt of divisive politics.
On Thursday, the Karnataka High Court (HC) passed an interim order allowing the opening of colleges, but stated that no student in colleges with uniform codes should insist on wearing “religious clothes” until such time as the court decides the matter. The HC must rule on whether the hijab is an essential practice in Islam and deliberate on the girls’ right to education as well as their choice of attire.
India’s democracy is a fine amalgam of secularism and religious freedom. We have, by and large, lived peacefully as fellow Indians even as the practice of secularism remained deeply flawed. But this seems to be fast-changing now as we are being divided into rigid identities such as Hindus, Muslims, or Christians, thanks to Hindutva politics.
According to some, this is not the right time to discuss whether the hijab is mandatory for a Muslim girl. However, a frank and open discussion on the insidious role of political religions in our multi-faith democracy is long overdue. The bigotry and misogyny it entails are playing out openly, dragging young minds into a dangerous political game of divide and rule.
The hijab has been a contentious issue in different western countries. Some have enacted laws against religious symbols in public such as the Jewish kippah, Muslim hijab or Christian cross. There was a furore in France when religious symbols were legally banned in public places, including schools and government offices. For the French, such religious symbols are violative of the secularism laicite that they hold dear and strictly adhere to.
However, in India, singling out the hijab for criticism is politically motivated. Those opposing the hijab do not subscribe to secularism. Many Hindutva leaders are decrying secularism as a western idea. Moreover, we have a saffron-clad minister in the Union council, as also a chief minister of an important state. So, why single out the girls in hijabs?
There is enough evidence highlighted by Islamic scholars showing that the veil is not essential to Islam and to the teachings of the Prophet. Sociologist Fatima Mernissi has done pioneering work to establish how a harmless Arabic word sitr with its various meanings ranging from curtain to barrier to simple covering (depending on the context) got converted into a “veil” for women. She delineates how, over centuries of a male-dominated social order across Muslim societies, the sitr or covering came to be exclusively applied to women. We are also aware of how patriarchy systematically distorts religious teachings and constructs norms that confine women across religions.
The hijab is a recent phenomenon in India and South Asia. Our grandmothers did not wear a hijab. They covered their heads and shoulders with large dupattas over and above their saris or salwar-kurtas. They were not anxious that not a strand of their hair should be visible. Today, we have little girls going to kindergarten classes in an all-encompassing burqa in what are referred to as Islamic schools.
The argument about the hijab being a woman’s choice is slippery. She has as much choice as a woman fasting for the well-being of her husband. How can it be a free choice when so much premium is being put on a woman in a hijab. A “good woman” is always in a hijab. Let us not underestimate the power of religion over believers. In my activism, I have been frequently asked, “Why are you not in an Islamic dress?”
Parents would not permit girls to go to college without a hijab and college authorities would deny them entry because of the hijab. The price will be paid by the girls and by future generations. When the divisive politics of religion threatens to destroy society, ordinary Indians need to take initiative. We can endlessly discuss the false or real equivalence between majoritarian communalism and minority communalism. If only we had collectively confronted and resolved these issues during successive communal riots or at the time of the Shah Bano episode or even at the demolition of Babri Masjid, the nation would perhaps not have had to confront the present quagmire over religion and religiosity. Gandhiji remains relevant because competing religiosities will leave us all battered and irretrievably bruised.
We can learn from our neighbouring Afghanistan and Pakistan about the road to perdition. Hindus and Muslims must begin to question the harm caused in the name of religion. We must refuse to be pawns in the politics of religious division and hate. We must keep our religion in our hearts and soul, and leave it behind at home. We must shun the tendency to wear religion on our sleeves. We need a humane public discourse to save the plural soul of India.
Zakia Soman is co-founder, Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, and a women’s rights activist
The views expressed are personal