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Hands off my hijab: India’s Muslim women battle Hindu hardliners

Although, using women’s bodies to attack the minority is not new

Udupi, a small town in the southern state of Karnataka, India, is known for its popular cuisine and temple tourism. In the past week, though, the city has become a flashpoint of religious hostility against the Muslim minorities thanks to a recent injunction in a school that barred women students who wore a hijab from entering. When the order first came almost a fortnight ago, a group of students staged a sit-in outside their campuses while the authorities refused to budge. But last week, the issue gained momentum when a viral video of a veiled Muslim girl, Muskan Khan, being heckled by saffron mobs brought global attention to the matter. Shortly, condemnations from international quarters followed.

Domestically, this matter has now reached a few other states proclaiming (or being on the verge of doing so) similar orders.

Historically, the debate around Muslim women’s clothing first became a topic of global discourse in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks. As Lila Abu-Lughod writes in her book, Do Muslim Women Need Saving?, during this period, ‘the images of oppressed Muslim women became connected to a mission to rescue them from their cultures.’

Global Islamophobia and secular peculiarities

Muslim women wear a variety of scarves or veils ranging from full-face covers (niqabs) to headscarves (hijab). Several countries in the European Union have banned the full-face covering, most recent examples being Belgium and Switzerland, while the first country to bring in such a ban was France in 2011. Clearly, the urge to regulate Muslim women’s clothing is a global trend, and as this piece will demonstrate, it is a concerted effort by state authorities to perpetuate Islamophobia. The hardened stance of France particularly – articulated often by its President – on this matter offers a model and inspiration to several leaders who wish to emulate this ban. The authorities have provided several reasons ranging from security threats to the dampening of secularism by religious symbols in public spaces.

In her seminal book The Politics of the Veil, gender studies scholar Joan Wallach Scott asks the fundamental question: Why is it that out of several religious symbols present in public spaces, only Muslim women’s status and clothes require ‘special remedial action’. She warns us against responding to these questions in polarities such as a battle between tradition and modernity or an inevitable clash of civilisations. Scott locates this policy in France's contentious relationship with its Muslim subjects, many of whom have origins in erstwhile colonies. For other European nations, she suggests that this debate offers them ‘a defense of the European nation-state as they grapple with concerns about national sovereignty while being members of the European Union’. Within these political anxieties, it is easy to identify a threat in Muslims and to thrust the burden of performing the peculiarities of country-specific secularism on Muslim women and their disrobing.

Yet, irrespective of what the women affected by the matter have to say, this discussion is hijacked entirely by a polarising discourse that frames it in terms of tradition (read bad, archaic and therefore not nationally assimilated) vs modernity (read default: White). The white or western culture of women’s bodies on display is strictly the norm. Everything else, including any attempt at modesty, is an exception, therefore wrong and worthy of regulation. As suggested by Abu-Lughod, this is done by presenting ‘Muslims as a special and threatening culture— the most homogenised and the most troubling of the rest. In this new common sense, Muslim women symbolise just how alien this culture is.’

Using women’s bodies as sites where so many of these existential anxieties of nation-states can play out allows states to attack minority populations and disarm them of their rights in the name of saving them.

The curious case of Indian secularism

Article 25 of the Indian constitution guarantees freedom of religion to all individuals. Yet, when the hijab ban matter reached the state high court, it ordered maintenance of the status quo, i.e. asking the girl students to comply with school orders. Several students came forward saying that this order asked them to suspend their faith temporarily. In the last few days, discourse in the media has been focused on identifying whether the hijab amounts to ‘essential religious practice’ or not. Anybody worth their salt has jumped into the debate, especially on social media, proclaiming that these women are victims of patriarchy who are fussing over a piece of cloth. In trivialising this discussion by focusing on the nature of this garment, we disregard the women's agency not just to wear what they want but also their choice to abide by faith. As latest videos have shown, actively asking women to take off their garments in a public space strips them of dignity and agency in a single moment, thereby not just violating but simply snatching their basic human rights to just be.

India's current right-wing, ultra-nationalist regime has created an environment that actively penalises the Muslim identity. Since 2014, a spate of violent hate crimes and lynchings in the name of cow protection and mass gatherings calling for a genocide of minorities have been organised with unabashed impunity. In this context, the state-sanctioned violence against Muslims has acquired a gendered angle wherein Muslim women are being saved through what the government proclaims are benign injunctions (first through a law that criminalised a form of Islamic divorce and now this hijab ban) from their male counterparts who are being subjected to other specific brutalities. The Indian Muslim man is a savage, the Indian Muslim woman is a passive, hapless victim, and a right-wing government that thrives on majoritarianism is their saviour. Together, they are the prongs of a secular republic.

In creating a narrative that calls these women to choose between their faith and education, the state wishes to establish that the two are mutually exclusive and fundamentally incompatible. The trick is borrowed from a global playbook but has a local twang to make it palatable. Such a ban violates the students’ right to practice their religion and even hinders their right to education. But as responsible citizens in a globalised world, one must ponder why right-wing governments across nations are drawing from the same playbook and why a woman is wearing a headscarf as its leitmotif?

As the world’s largest democracy, India prides itself on being distinct from China as the two countries house more than a third of the world’s population. Since Independence, the form of democracy within the country has evolved based on political circumstances to the form today, which political scientist Christopher Jaffrelot classifies as an ethnic democracy. He states that while this term came to social sciences from the Israeli model of the “Jewish state,” in India, it is characterised by the ‘promotion of a Hindu definition of the nation in opposition to the secularism enshrined in the 1950 Constitution’. By using the law to create scenarios that penalise the practice of faith, there is an attempt to criminalise the bare state of being a minority. The state will not actively kill you but will strip you of indignity (by disrobing if you are a woman and by vigilante violence if you are a man), a blatant and violent violation of the right to life firmly enshrined in the Constitution. If global Islamophobia had an epochal moment rooted in imperialism in 9/11, then the present moment is a turning point in perpetuating Islamophobia through majoritarianism.

Either way does not bode well for a world that should have thrived instead in cross-cultural flows but is stuck instead in evolving forms of divisive politics being played out on women's bodies.

About the author

Sarah Zia is a journalist and researcher based in Delhi.