(This was first published on 14 February 2022. It has been republished from The Quint's archives in light of the Karnataka HC upholding the hijab ban.)
As a Muslim woman from a conservative family, I've seen many Muslim women wear hijab proudly. My mother and sister began wearing hijab later in life, but out of their own volition. My parents and no one else in my family have ever asked me to wear a hijab – perhaps one day I will, perhaps not.
So, what you just read above were a set of two choices within the same family.
It’s sad that even in 2022, one needs to explain why choice is important, which many people in my country do not understand, especially when it comes to a Muslim woman's choice.
The Karnataka hijab controversy began when hijabi girls in a Karnataka college were denied entry inside the college because, according to the new 'rule,' they cannot wear a religious symbol in an educational institute.
The debate then devolved into a battle of the hijab and saffron scarves (saffron scarf is not a part of any religious identity, so comparing it with hijab is changing the discourse, it's demeaning the fight for basic religious right, and is false and derogatory).
'Saving' Muslim Women Complex
Being a Muslim in India comes with its own set of insecurities, especially for visible Muslim men and women. By 'visible', I mean Muslim woman wearing the hijab.
Furthermore, a lot of people do not know the difference between hijab, niqab, and burqa. Hijab covers the head, niqab covers the face, and burqa covers the entire body.
There is also a significant difference between a ghoonghat and a hijab. Hijab is a religious symbol, whereas the ghoonghat is a social custom, and that’s why the two cannot be compared.
The hijab debate should not be associated with feminism; it is about Muslim women's religious identity and her choice.
In the hypersexualised and anti-Muslim climate in India – where wearing a hijab is not socially accepted – for many Muslim women it’s a tool for self-empowerment.
The majority believes that if a Muslim woman covers her head, it is because she is submissive and needs to be saved, but who decided that a Muslim woman needed to be saved? Why are our identities, agency being stripped away from us?
The concept of 'saving' Muslim women is so deeply ingrained in the minds of the majority that they fail to recognise that we do not require saving.
This constant fascination with the 'oppressed Muslim woman' has time and again resurfaced in the media and political debates.
Growing up, I was subjected to subtle Islamophobia, but as I grew older, I began to see it through the lens of my identity, and it was then that I realised how deeply ingrained Islamophobia is among the people we know.
When I was in my late teens, I went to a Hindu friend's house for lunch. I had a wonderful time with them.
Years later, that same friend told me that her family was apprehensive about my Muslim identity, but after meeting me, their opinion of me had shifted. I have had several lunches and dinners with the same family, but after learning about their first impressions of me, I realised the image of a Muslim that they have in mind.
In college, one of my classmates told me directly to my face that her family would never allow her to have a Muslim man as a friend because they don't trust Muslims – it again hit me that how subtle Islamophobes can be.
The systematic hatred against my religion has made me feel like an outsider in my own country, the only home I have known.
We've always been made to feel excluded, but in recent years, Muslim women have faced institutionalised attacks on their identity because of Islamophobia, and the narrative surrounding it is constantly renewed to gain majority support.
Shouldn’t Have To Remove Hijab to Get Education
In the face of extreme bullying and attacks on their identity, visible hijabi women in this country have persisted, and they are fighting with all their might. It is ostracism to deny these women an education simply because they chose to cover their heads.
India is a secular democracy – we have the right to practise our faith, our Constitution guarantees us this. Article 25 of the Indian Constitution guarantees all citizens the freedom of conscience, as well as the freedom to profess, practise, and propagate religion.
Article 14 guarantees equality before the law or equal protection under the law within India's territory, so who gave the right to the Karnataka colleges to deny education to these women?
Karnataka is legitimising a majoritarian anti-Islamic discourse.
Muslim hijabi students have been subjected to majoritarian intimidation, violence threats, harassment, and aggression.
The ruling regime has stoked the anti-Muslim sentiments for political reasons, and the media has played a significant role in shaping this deep-seated anti-Muslim prejudice.
Are the students who are protesting really opposing a piece of cloth that Muslim women wear – or is it against Muslim women’s identity?
Do they realise the impact this will leave on their fellow Muslim classmates?
In Udupi – the first college that barred hijabi Muslim women from entering the college – students wearing hijab were allowed to enter the college, but were directed to a 'separate room.'
This is social ostracisation. Is the majority aware how isolated these Muslim women will feel, their insecurity increased, the feeling of being othered crushing their morale? Does all that even matter to them?
So, let's assume for a moment that this entire feud has been resolved, and Muslim hijabi women are back in their respective classes with the rest of the students. Will this solve the problem?
No, instead, the Muslim hijabi women will become more aware of their surroundings – they will realise that the other students they are sitting with are Islamophobic, that these students despise their hijabs, that they want them to leave college, and that they are ideologically different.
These are the students who would rather have their constitutional rights revoked than stand in solidarity with their hijabi sisters.
What Is Solidarity?
“Solidarity requires that one enter into the situation of those with whom one is solidary; it is a radical posture.” – Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
I've always heard different perspectives on hijab, but for most people, “it's submissive” – they can have different perspectives on it, and it's always up for debate.
The majority believes that the hijab is a symbol of oppression and that Muslim women wear it out of compulsion – obviously, Muslim women do not have their own agency, do they? This is what many want to believe, and what they want to hear.
But, at this point, when these hijabi girls need our help, the discussion should not shift to whether the fight for hijab is legitimate or not because it distracts from the real issue.
Even if people are opposed to what is happening in Karnataka, bringing in the "patriarchal, submissive" words and discouraging those girls and telling them that if education is more important to them, they should stop wearing their identity.
Why should they give up their individuality? They chose to practise their faith.
You don't have to be a hijab supporter to stand up for the girls fighting for their rights.
It is morally wrong to create this false equivalence between the perpetrator and the victims. This Islamophobic desire to remove Muslim women's hijab is sickening.
A Muslim woman does not need to remove her headscarf to feel empowered; if she feels empowered by covering her head, so believe her when she says she wants to wear her hijab.
(Arshi Qureshi is an independent journalist based in Delhi. She tweets . This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)