Balanced conversation, anyone?

Much Ado About Hijab

By Poonam I Kaushish

What’s in a dress? Nothing, it’s a form of clothing, but politically, it spells a lot. Who could have thought the innocuous Muslim hijab (headscarf) would create a maelstrom when Muslim schoolgirls at Udupi, Karnataka attended classes wearing it were first barred entry and then made to sit in separate classrooms sans studies. Hindu students retaliated by sporting saffron shawls as a sign of protest. Leading to nationwide churning.
Last week the Bommai BJP Government invoked 133 (2) of the Karnataka Education Act-1983, which states a uniform style of clothes has to be worn compulsorily in public schools and colleges. Asserting the directive was for “benefit of all students” as a common uniform ensures they belong to a common family and behave in a manner that leaves no room for discrimination.
Further, it dismissed arguments touting Article 25 to justify hijab, as it clearly states freedom of religion is “subject to public law and order, morality and health and to the other provisions”. It advised Muslim girls not to wear clothes which disturb harmony in public institutions. Adding, like all Fundamental Rights, the State can restrict clothes which go against decency, morality, equality, integrity and other State interests.
Predictably a slugfest erupted with Congress’s Rahul accusing the State of robbing the future of India’s daughters and the Sangh Parivar giving a saffron colour to educational institutions, denying education to Muslim girls and creating communal disharmony in the name of hijab. The right to practice any religion means one can wear any clothes according to their religion, he argued. The Saffronites are using Karnataka as a laboratory for majoritarian Hindu politics.
The BJP countered that religion should be ousted from classrooms and strongly defended uniform-related rules being enforced by educational institutions. Calling the hijab a prominent religious symbol of Islam and a declaration of allegiance to radical Islamism it vowed to disallow Talibanisation.
Politically the hijab-saffron shawl is a power play with an eye on the minority vote in the ensuing Assembly elections in five States and Karnataka next year and indicative of polarisation between Muslims and Hindus. Whereby, the political class is busy exploiting the common man’s emotions and only looks at what will help popularize it more with its vote bank.
Muslims contend it is symbolic of Islamic dress and the Constitution grants them freedom of expression as long as public order is preserved. It is an infringement not only on our right to freedom of religion, but also an obstacle to enjoyment of other rights, like education, work, cultural rights and participate in public life.
Banning wearing hijab in the name of gender equality paradoxically can result in less equality and autonomy, and more exclusion and discrimination for Muslim women and girls. Why is there no ban on Sikh turbans, Christian crucifix and a Hindu tilak, they query?
Critics argue the Islamic dress is an issue of value conflicts and clash of civilizations. It could perpetuate stereotypical, biased perceptions about the Muslim faith and the role of women. The existing patriarchal system might lead women and girls to conform to societal expectations, even when they limit their freedom. Also, legal bans or restrictions are akin to punishing the woman herself which would further marginalize and perpetuate discrimination or perpetuate harmful stereotypes. Besides, stigmatizing Muslim women and prevent them from seeking redress.
The issue goes beyond what the Karnataka High Court decrees as it hears a petition today filed by five girls seeking a declaration that wearing hijab is a Fundamental Right guaranteed under Articles 14 and 25. Arguing the Constitution guarantees the freedom of conscience and right to profess, practise and propagate religion. A Right that guarantees the State shall ensure there is no interference or obstacle to exercise this freedom.
“How can someone ask us to keep away our modesty…. Are we saying those wearing saffron shawls should not wear it? Both hijab is our right while studies are equally important for us. We can give our lives but we cannot leave hijab”. Dictating by law what women should or should not wear is policing women’s bodies, they assert.
The Supreme Court in Shirur Mutt case 1954 held that “religion” would cover all rituals and practices “integral” to religion, but in 2004 it held the Anand Marg sect had no fundamental right to perform tandav dance in public. In 2016 it upheld the discharge of a Muslim airman from the IAF for keeping a beard.
The Kerala High Court in 2016 dismissed a plea by a Muslim girl student seeking permission to wear hijab stating collective rights of an educational institution would be given primacy over individual rights. However another Bench upheld the right to wear it even as the State Government said it would significantly affect secularism.
Questionably, is placing individual ideologies before national good wrong? Yes, if it on grounds of security as an anti-terrorism measure. Globally, UK, France, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Bulgaria, Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Russia etc have banned hijab, burqa and niqab from public schools, hospitals, public transport and public places. In France and Turkey the emphasis is on the secular nature of the State hence the ban.
Primarily the Islamic dress is seen as being incompatible with Western values, as symbols of religious obscurantism and oppression of women. Instead, they advocate values of Enlightenment liberalism, secularism and equality of women. A more extreme view is that which is freely chosen.
Ironically even Muslim-majority nations like Kosovo, Azerbaijan, Tunisia, Morocco, Lebanon have outlawed the hijab and burqa in varying degrees. Egypt and Syria have banned the face veil in universities. They argue the Quran does not clearly stipulate the use of hijab or niqab.
Over the past few years there has been an increasing sense that space for liberty is becoming narrower shown by repeated incidents of bans by State Governments and self-appointed censors thereby promoting religious intolerance.
The Government should have a balanced conversation and underscore equality for all where diversity is not just tolerated but fully respected and celebrated. This requires joint efforts by States, religious authorities, faith-based and civil society organizations with a view to ensuring non-discrimination and gender equality, denouncing any advocacy of hatred that incites to violence, discrimination or hostility as well as standing up for the rights of all persons belonging to minorities to participate equally and effectively in cultural, religious, social, economic and public life.
Clearly, in a milieu of competitive democracy whereby politics based on religion has better chance of polarising voters the time has come to desist from taking law into one’s hand and stoking seeds of rabid communalism. It stands to reason Muslim girls should abide by schools uniform rules as hijab can transform them into UCOs (unidentified covered objects), which are likely to turn them from an ‘us’ to a ‘them’. At the same time the hijab should not be used as a means of applying social pressure on people. Remember, there is no mysticism in the secular character of the State. It is neither pro God or anti God . — INFA