By Mohamed Harees –
The chain of events being witnessed in Karnataka, is the latest controversy to bring the issue of the women clothing back into the conversation in India, whose so-called secularism has for years imposed restrictions on where and when Muslim women can wear head and face coverings. The tensions have frayed further in recent days in Udupi and elsewhere in majority Hindu Karnataka as students with saffron shawls – typically worn by RSS Hindu far-right wing groups – prevented hijab clad Muslim female students entering colleges and even thronged into classrooms to show their support of their schools’ hijab ban. The issue has now gone to the higher courts for adjudication, like it has gone few times before, both in India and even in Europe. Not surprising that a wee piece of fabric is also being made into a political tool in hate filled Modi’s India and also be the subject of another ruling in the highest court?
Fiercely criticised, demonised and misunderstood, the hijab has become one of the most hotly debated topics in secular countries, including India and in Europe. Simultaneously seen by some as a symbol of female oppression and by others as a symbol of religious freedom to wear what one wants; one thing is for sure: worldwide more women are choosing to wear the simple scarf that covers the hair than ever before.
In Karnataka, battle lines were drawn and tensions escalated near a college in Udupi, when the Muslim female students barred by the authorities from entering their classrooms wearing hijab, began camping outside. The scene of a hijab clad Muslim female student Muskan Khan confronting the far-right wing protesters (mostly outsiders) wearing saffron scarves as she arrived at her college went viral and reflected the present stand-off between the protagonists and antagonists of the Hijab issue. The controversy over ‘hijab’ in Karnataka has been finding resonance in street protests and social media outrage across the country. The young Muslim women students in Karnataka have demonstrated great courage under extreme provocation from Hindutva mobs.I n Sri Lanka too, a Muslim teacher wearing Abhaya was harassed and ‘kicked out’ of her school Sri Shanmuga Hindu Ladies’ College’, Trincomalee ,despite a court ruling to allow her in, leading to suspicion of the RSS outreach beyond the shores of India.
What was worrying in both Karnataka(and in Trincomalee) was that the racist hate is being promoted by vested interests among the young generation, which do not augur well for the well-being of the Indian subcontinent.A popular Hindi song written by Shailendra snug by Mohammed Rafi, translated, read:‘O small child! so petit. What do you in your palm’s grasp keep? If Shailendra wrote this today, perhaps he would add the next lines in response to this as ‘a broken destiny in my palm’s grasp I hold nothing but hatred’. Today, we are in an age where we should be celebrating knowledge, but instead we are becoming a witness to toxicity in society. Haven’t we come a long way (in a negative sense) with even the young generation being made part of power games to sow communal hatred?
What is this Hijab controversy in India? How much is it legal and how much political? Media channels are making a feast of this contentious issue. Videos showing students pleading to let them join school are all over the social media. Till recently, they were welcome and now suddenly no entry! School administration says the students violated school uniform code; the students however disagree and maintain it is within the code guidelines. Political opportunists have been trying to scratch open healing cracks. Earlier it was Namaz in the open, then the meat ban and now hijab ban is making news headlines. Senior advocate Dushyant Dave said the controversy over hijab in Karnataka was a “political issue being deliberately raised during elections”.
The legal angle is being ignored to accommodate petty political gains of the State’s BJP government. The petitioners who filed actions have claimed violation of their fundamental right to profess their religion, and the right to freedom and dignity. The students can’t be asked to choose between their right to education and right to Hijab because both are the rights guaranteed under the constitution, and they are entitled to them. The lawyers for petitioners argued before the court that the Constitution gives everyone the fundamental right to practice their religion, and barring students from attending classes due to their dress violates these fundamental rights. Article 25(1) of the Indian Constitution guarantees right to profess, practice and propagate religion. It is the duty of the State to ensure this basic right, subject to restrictions such as public order, morality and health. In this context, question should be asked : does Hijab harm decency, morality , health or public order or does it promote them?
The Indian Courts have examined what can be done in the name of religion? In the Shirur Mutt case in 1954, the Supreme Court held that the term ‘religion’ will cover all rituals and practices, integral to a religion. The test to determine what is integral is termed ‘ Essential Religious Practices ‘Test. Thus, all essential practices and rituals need to be protected. ? In the 2004 case of Anand Marga, Supreme Court held that the Anand Marga sect was not allowed Tandava dance in public street, because it was particular to the sect and not essential to the religion itself and therefore do not constitute an essential religious practice. There was a more controversial judgment in 2016 when the Supreme Court upheld a Muslim airman being discharged by IAF for keeping a beard; thus keeping a beard was held to be not an essential religious practice as no evidence was brought to prove otherwise.
However, Hijab is considered an essential part of Islamic code of dress and conduct which can be seen across many fields.- teaching, airlines, pilot or Police among many others. In India, the issue of religious clothing or symbols is not new. While the Karnataka government has raised the argument that “religious symbols and clothing” cannot be allowed, other state high courts have permitted students to do so in various cases. In 2016, a case came up before Kerala High Courts challenging the prescription of dress code for All India pre medical entrance. The courts however directed the authorities to put additional measures in place for checking students who intend to wear a dress according to religious custom, but contrary to the dress code. The Delhi High Court also passed similar orders in 2018, where a division bench directed the CBSE to allow a Sikh candidate wearing kara and kirpan to enter the NEET exam hall, even though the dress code banned any metal items. The bench had in its order noted that the candidates, who were wearing such religious symbols, could be called in one hour early for frisking to ensure that there is no misuse of the objects. In 2002, the Bombay High Court also took up a case involving ban on hijab as part of a school dress code. The court, in the Fathima Hussain Syed case in 2002, noted that wearing of hijab was a part of essential practice of Islam as cited in various verses of the Quran. However, the court dismissed the case itself, as the girl was attending an all-girls school.
A similar argument relating to “uniformity” were before the European Court of Human Rights in the cases involving ban on veils in France and Belgium. In both cases, in 2014 in the France veil ban issue and in 2017 Belgium case, the ECHR upheld the ban on the veils that cover the full face and head.
However, these bans were upheld on the grounds of gender equality concerns (France), and “preservation of the condition of living together” which allows persons to see and identify each other. However, neither of these doctrines are valid when it comes to a Hijab. The hijab is a scarf that covers only a person’s head and hair, unlike a full-face veil or ‘Niqab’, which was the subject of controversy in the European cases. Under the presidency of Emmanuel Macron, France had the audacity to ban Muslim women and girls under the age of 18 from wearing the hijab in public. What was the response from the liberal progressive world? Shameful silence. Liberals’ hypocrisy was very blatant with double standards. One the one hand, they argue that women should have the freedom to chose what they want to wear while on the other hand, they are mum when it comes to Muslim clothing.
From an Islamic perspective, attempts to understand hijab within the framework of liberalism alone may also be misleading. Muslim women wear hijab in accordance with the Quranic and Prophetic injunction, and this religious right has been protected in the country’s constitution. Hijab is an Islamic concept of modesty and privacy. This concept is however not unique to Islam, but embraced by other religions, such as Judaism (where the concept of modesty is called Tzuniut) and Christianity. The Islamic concept of hijab is most often expressed in women’s clothing. Expression of hijab varies within the Muslim world and beyond. These verses of the Quran offer insight into hijab and relevant ideas about modesty, respect, privacy, and humility: Chapter 24, verses 30 and 31; Chapter 33, verses 32 and 33; and Chapter 33, verses 53 and 54 and so are some clear Prophetic traditions.
What has therefore made these chain of events so confusing or suspicious and why are these students being used.? Let us look at the political exploitation of students in respect of these Hijab protests. The girls themselves did not understand why they were suddenly not allowed to enter their schools and colleges. Some media reports claimed the colleges were pressurized to do so. The fact was that if hijab was a problem, questions will also be raised other symbols too such as mangal sutra, Bindi, turbans, cross etc. In fact, the strength of a nation is in the unity in diversity. The issue is that politically the people can be identified by their dress which was what was happening to the students for their clothing. If this was a major problem, then it would have talked about internationally. However, hijab is a commonplace internationally stressing on tolerance and diversity, bar some countries.
Recalling old times when our friends were known by their first names was refreshing and their caste, creed , culture or clothing did not matter. It is difficult to understand why identities must complicate coexistence. As an activist pointed out, “Like in a fruit salad, we could be in a common dish but still retain our distinct colour and flavour. But when you try to blend us all into a juice, then the one fruit you add more will dominate the taste. That will be at the cost of others.” Today, it is a matter of shame that there is much segregation even in schools and colleges between students, thus giving tough competition to the British who practiced ‘divide and rule’ policy. What can this division even accomplish for these students? At least majority people in India too, like in Sri Lanka, thankfully realize that these are issues created by vested political interests to divert people’s attention from more acute issues such as unemployment, inflation and trade deficit etc and desist from questioning their rulers. Today, hijab has become the centre of attention. What all this means in the end is that nothing fruitful will come out this controversy and to think otherwise will be to give up our critical thinking faculty.
Hijab ban is a consistent attempt by the RSS led Indian majoritarian forces to marginalise the Muslims in the country. Political analysts warn that “such issues could deepen religious fault lines in India. They express concern at what they call the “active politics of religious divide being played by the BJP. The social harmony and peace of the giant in the Indian subcontinent is getting threatened and the Hijab issue will contribute to further polarization of our society”.
However, Hijab Controversy should be viewed in the greater context of marginalization and demonisation of Muslims in secular India. Since Modi’s re-election in 2019, the government has pushed controversial policies that critics say explicitly ignore Muslims’ rights and are effectively intended to disenfranchise millions of Muslims. The moves have sparked protests in India and drawn international condemnation. Experts say that ‘the longer Hindu nationalists are in power, the greater the change will be to Muslims’ status and the harder it will be to reverse such changes”. The international community, in their own ways have been condemning the divisive far-right politics being pursued by Modi, fuelling Islamophobia under garb of Hindu nationalism. Nobel Laureate Malala said ‘Objectification of women persists — for wearing less or more. Indian leaders must stop the marginalisation of Muslim women’. However, as protests now spreading across India, there is no sign that Modi will face a political cost at least internally, for his anti-Muslim policies. In a sense, internationally he is sadly joining an increasing list of leaders who are implementing anti-Muslim policies.
Genocide Watch Founder Stanton who predicted the Rwanda genocide said ‘We are warning that genocide could very well happen in India”. Genocide was not an event but a process which starts with hate speech and demonisation. Only determined intervention and preventive action by the international community against the racist bully India (like against China), can avert such an avoidable disaster waiting to happen in this part of the world.