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Hijab row, when religious 'duty' to practice modesty isn't the same for both genders

By Ajit Singh*

A southern State of India has emerged as the new battlefield to decide on the issue of whether hijab (an Islamic veil) can be allowed to wear as part of girls uniform in public schools. The epicenter of conflict is the Udupi's PU Women College where in December last year six hijab-clad Muslim students were debarred from attending physical classes as headscarf is not a part of school dress code.
This has led to protests and counter-protests in several districts of the State by student groups. Some wore saffron shawls to oppose Muslim girls while others protested for their rights to wear hijab.
The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Karnataka and its supporters argued that the controversy has been ignited by the Campus Front of India, a student wing and a subsidiary of the Popular Front of India (PFI), which is accused of colluding with terrorist entities like Al Qaeda to spread radicalization in Kerala and a few other Indian States.
The other side hit out at the right-wing brigade for spreading frivolous conspiracies and charged BJP for following apartheid-like policies, as girls in hijab are made to sit in different classrooms while the matter is sub judice.
The harmless piece of clothing has garnered controversies not just in India but in other parts of the world as well. To fight Islamophobia in the West, February 1 was celebrated as the Hijab Day to stand up for the cultural identity of Muslim women who are allegedly the victims of stereotype, hatred, prejudice and sexism in the 'white progressive' world.
No doubt, this symbol of resistance becomes a tool of systemic oppression in Islamic countries. Time and again, various accounts of brave women have been reported who are serving sentences, and some even murdered, for taking off of their hijab. To acknowledge and support women's resistance, for whom this attire is suffocating, ex-Muslim Canadian activist Yasmine Mohammad started the initiative in 2017 to mark No Hijab Day on the same day.
Advocate Devadatta Kamat, who appeared on behalf of the petitioners, quoted verses from Quran and Hadith to back the argument that wearing of hijab is an essential practice under the Islamic law and its potential ban must be treated as violation of fundamental rights guaranteed under Articles 19 and 25 (Freedom of Expression and Religious Rights) of the Indian Constitution.
If one goes by this definition of 'essential practice’, that has received garlands from liberal activists and celebrities, when Sikh men wear turban, it is assumed that they wear it out of choice. However, the hijab-wearing Muslim women are popularly believed to be oppressed by their conservative families.
Those favouring this opinion should realize that the religious obligation to practice modesty in daily life is not the same for both genders. Men have devised a way to accommodate their needs and desires with the religion they practice. The flexibility to conveniently discard or follow religious beliefs/customary rituals is exclusive to masculine gender, and this overt freedom gives them an alternative to even go for a life that is deemed immoral according to their very own religion.
This phenomenon of differentiated definition of decency for men and women transcends across all faiths; to understand how it works, we just need to relate the experiences of women from different religious backgrounds.
In December last year, the marriage of two Sikh women with Kashmiri Muslim men were forcibly called off in the Valley. The families of the adult Sikh girls alleged that both were kidnapped and converted to Islam but the ladies denied these allegations; later one of them was married to a Sikh man against her will.
Similarly, many BJP-ruled States in India have introduced legislations to prevent the so-called love jihad and inter-faith marriages, specifically between Hindu women and Muslim men.
Such examples corroborate India's 140th position out of 156 countries in the 2021 Global Gender Gap Report of the World Economic Forum.
For women in India, it is a privilege to assert choice and follow dream; sadly most of the time they have to make peace with the deep rooted patriarchy of the rigid family structure where their roles are predetermined by holy texts and scriptures.
Many in India bat for Uniform Civil Code. Others favour the French model of secularism, Laïcité, to be made part of school education. France in 2014 voted to ban the display of any conspicuous religious symbols and clothing in government-funded schools.
Some people have questioned the credibility of choice because students in schools are still very young to make their own decision; is it really a choice for a girl of grade 5 or 6 to wear a headscarf? Isn’t indoctrination by guardians to obliges her to adhere to Islamic beliefs from the early childhood days?
But there is other side of the debate, reiterated by champions of human rights in India. They contend that it is madness to see enforced uniformity, coerce everyone to wear the same type of clothes, eat vegetarian food, watch sanskari content -- all to please the majoritarian mindset. This causes stain in the diverse fabric of the nation. Introducing alien and impractical concepts in the Indian context will cost us our democracy, which has already become too flawed and fragile over last few years.
These two contentious views in a deeply polarized India are expected. Indian politicians of all kinds equally deserve credit for this; over the years they have built this communal divide between communities and flirted with appeasement politics to fetch votes in elections.
Farmers’ protest in India has taught us an important lesson: that discussion, debate and dialogue with the affected party, in this case Muslim women, cannot be ignored by the government before arriving at any policy decision. Protests and placards are a necessary tool in a constitutional democracy to assert demands but violence and vandalism from either side are not justified.
In all this ruckus one must not forget that the literacy rate among Muslim women in India is even lower than other marginalized communities like Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Due to the poor outreach of education, Muslim women contribute less than ten percent in total female workforce participation, as per the National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) data.
Wearing of hijab or any outfit should not be made an obstacle for women to get desirable education and achieve financial independence. At the same time, every religion needs its own version of renaissance to eliminate the bigotry and fundamentalism that has fixed a ceiling for women and created dozens of barriers to stop them from taking a step ahead in the name of feminine virtues.
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*Sophomore in Bachelor's in Education (B Ed) programme

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