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Why the hijab row is not an identity issue

It is an effort to further push Muslims to the margins, and Muslim organisations have walked right into the trap, not realising that they will end up harming the weakest among their own

Students who were barred from entering their classrooms for wearing hijabs speak to their principal outside the college campus in Udupi on Friday, 4 Feb. 
Students who were barred from entering their classrooms for wearing hijabs speak to their principal outside the college campus in Udupi on Friday, 4 Feb.  (AP)

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The religious-political mix has historically yielded great short-term benefits, but always for the majority. In independent India’s history, there has been no instance of any minority group ever having benefitted from competitive communalism. Yet, navigating the path strewn with the carcasses of past failures, Muslims continue to blunder their way into trap after trap.

The latest such “aa bail mujhe maar” event has been the hijab controversy in Karnataka. A quick recap: A bunch of teenage girls returned to the campus of their pre-university government college in Udupi in December after nearly a year’s gap, necessitated by covid-19. Six of them wore hijabs. When they entered their classroom, the teacher told them to seek the permission of the principal, who had decided that hijabs would not be allowed in classrooms. The girls could enter the college premises wearing the hijab but must remove it before entering the class, he said.

Citing precedence, the girls insisted on their right to wear the hijab. According to them, some among their predecessors wore hijab in classrooms. The principal denied the precedence. And the stand-off commenced. One of the protesting girls, Almas A.H., told a BBC journalist that once the principal dug in his heels, she contacted the Muslim students’ body Campus Front of India (CFI). Thereafter, supported by the CFI, the girls dug in their heels too. Word spread. As did the scent of an opportunity.

A few other colleges, which had not been objecting to hijabi girls in the classroom, swung into action. The gates of these colleges too were shut to the girls in hijab. As a mark of fair play, an assertion of Hindu identity was paraded through various campuses in the form of saffron scarves. The college authorities stopped them too. Taking a high moral ground, they said neither saffron scarves nor hijabs would be allowed inside classrooms, though students could wear them on campus. Having made their point, the students took off the saffron scarves and went in to attend classes. The Muslim girls remained outside the gates, screaming and pleading to be allowed in with their hijabs.

By the end of the first week of February, several colleges in and outside Udupi district had imposed the hijab ban. Invoking Article 133 (2) of the Karnataka Education Act, 1983, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led state government threw its weight behind the hijab ban. It said that “a uniform style of clothes has to be worn compulsorily”.

With the CFI’s support, one of the protesting girls has approached the Karnataka high court and the matter is currently being heard. However, even if the court rules in favour of the girls, time is not on their side. Since the protest began, they are being marked absent. Their final examinations will begin in March, with practical tests preceding them. Even if the court allows them to take the examination, nothing stops the colleges from penalising the girls for poor attendance or indiscipline.

Clearly, the issue is not about hijab any longer. What started as a small disciplinary issue in one college has grown into a political battle in which the colleges are mere fronts and young girls, pawns. Someone with foresight in the right-wing universe laid a trap to further push Muslims to the margins, and the Muslim organisations have walked right into it, not realising that they would end up harming the weakest among their own.

According to a Bengaluru-based activist who is assisting these girls, most of them come from less privileged backgrounds. Their best chance at improving their lives is education, which seems to be in jeopardy at the moment. Realising this, another body, the Students’ Islamic Organisation of India (the student wing of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind), is now trying to broker a compromise with the district and college authorities. The best-case scenario: The girls will be allowed to wear hijab on campus but not in classrooms. This is how it started. But this is not how it will end.

It will progressively become more difficult for Muslim girls to access mainstream educational institutions. The student community will become more polarised, leading to segregation within colleges. Electoral benefits will accrue to the ruling party.

Could it have ended differently?

Today, with positions hardened all around, the hijab has been elevated to the level of a critical Islamic identity. And well-meaning activists regard it as a matter of a woman’s choice. Both positions are flawed.

Let’s go back to the beginning. In an interview to The Quint, one of the girls said that they didn’t wear the hijab in their first year because they believed their parents had given an undertaking to the college. But once they realised this was not true, they decided to wear the hijab. Clearly, they had no problem attending the college without one. The principal had no problem in their wearing hijab to the college, his only condition was that it should be removed in class. This is neither unique nor a big deal.

If the CFI had not meddled clumsily, this is what the girls may have done. The issue would not have gained momentum and status quo across colleges would have been maintained. Today, with positions hardened all around, the hijab has been elevated to the level of a critical Islamic identity. And well-meaning activists regard it as a matter of a woman’s choice. Both positions are flawed.

Islam lays down no requirements for physical identity. Of the three verses that talk about appearance, only the last addresses women exclusively. It asks women to cover themselves with an outer garment so that they are recognisable as Muslims and are not harassed.

The important aspect of this verse is its timing. The Muslim community in Medina then was living in an area infested by bandits who used to abuse women when they went out to relieve themselves at night. Hence, if they were recognised as Muslims, the bandits would stay away, fearing reprisal by Muslim soldiers. Over the centuries, male Islamic scholars have interpreted this in the most conservative manner possible, invisibilising women, whereas the essence of the three verses put together was modesty; not drawing attention to one’s body.

And as far as choice is concerned, in a conservative society, the moment something is linked with religion, it is no longer a matter of choice. It is a religious obligation. Muslim women who say that wearing the hijab is their choice gloss over the fact that they wear it because they believe their religion asks them to do so.

I have no problem with Muslim women wearing whatever they wish to. My problem is with wannabe Muslim leaders who have once again reduced the question of Muslim rights and dignity to identity. It’s a throwback to 1964, when the Muslim intelligentsia got together to fight, not for Muslim lives and livelihood but identity. That’s what hurts. We have been running so hard to stay in the same place for 75 years.

Ghazala Wahab is executive editor, FORCE, and author of the award-winning book Born A Muslim: Some Truths About Islam In India.

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