Uniformity is neither equal nor representative. As an ideal, it cannot be dignified. All uniformity in a culturally and religiously diverse country inevitably shrouds a coercion to conform to the majority’s beliefs and practices. Therefore, any “uniform”, literal or legal, is primarily hegemonic, forced and unrepresentative, especially if it shows no regard towards the underrepresented minority.
With this understanding, the recent judgment of the Karnataka High Court to uphold the hijab ban in educational institutes seems neither ethical nor constitutionally sound. All expectations from the carefully delineated Indian secularism have been thwarted by this imposed uniformity and curtailment of religious freedom. There is also a total disregard of the mind, manner and method with which women’s issues should be resolved.
What the Quran Says About Hijab & ‘Modest’ Clothing
The High Court’s judgement, which upheld the government order to ban hijab in colleges, held, “Hijab is not part of essential religious practices of Islam.” The verdict added, “Petitioners have miserably failed to meet the threshold requirement of pleadings and proof as to wearing hijab is an inviolable religious practice in Islam and much less a part of ‘essential religious practice’.”
This statement by the three-judge bench of Chief Justice Ritu Raj Awasthi and Justices Krishna S Dixit and JM Khazi, seems to be oblivious of Quranic text, Prophetic precedent and the stamp of all four prominent Sunni schools of jurisprudence in Islam, which unanimously hold the obligation of wearing hijab for Muslim women.
It is also argued in the statement that “the Holy Quran does not mandate wearing of hijab or headgear for Muslim women” and that “at the most, the practice of wearing this apparel may have something to do with culture but certainly not with religion”. Previously, during the hearing, they questioned whether the Quran expected women to cover their heads at all.
This, too, is ignorant. The Quran, more specifically, uses the word ‘Khimar’ to delineate the attire of Muslim women. Khimar was a headcover that was used in the pre-Islamic era. It was then reformed through a verse in the Quran to cover one’s neck as well.
All legal provisions made in Islam either affirm, reform, or contest within which they operated. In this sense, the headcover did emanate from a cultural context but was reformed to become an Islamic obligation. Khimar, after this Islamic injunction, was then redefined to mean a covering of the head as well as neck. Additionally, a Muslim women’s attire was also dictated to be loose and “modest”.
‘Misguided Muslim Girls’
Applauding the verdict, Primary and Secondary Education Minister, BC Nagesh, who belongs to the BJP, said, “We will try to win the hearts of the ‘misguided’ Muslim girls who are against the move. We will bring them into the mainstream of education.”
Quite obviously, this was in keeping with the court’s view as well, which, in the verdict on the hijab ban, argued, “There is a lot of scope for the argument that insistence on wearing of purdah, veil, or headgear in any community may hinder the process of emancipation of woman in general and Muslim woman in particular.”
Although the issue of the anti-hijab row in Karnataka operates within a very specific context of the rising anti-muslim sentiment in India, the debates to stereotype it as “oppressive” are not new. Muslim women the world over have faced violence for their choice of clothes, which has then been rationalised as a progressive and justifiable rage against patriarchal clothing.
However, agential Muslim women deem their sartorial choice to be empowering and valid. It is not an uncritical or unheeding choice but one that they take to honour religious commandments. It is also primarily a declaration of their right to religion, which is an integral part of their spiritual freedom.
Before the final High Court verdict, following the interim order on 25 February, videos of Muslim women taking off their clothes, removing their headscarves and being denied entry to educational institutes went viral.
“In today’s world”, as the liberal dictum goes, it is surprising that flouting all progressive values, young women have been asked to strip to access education. What else is patriarchal, if not this? On all accounts, even when looking through the prism of liberal modernity, the inclinations towards banning hijab are backward, ignorant and coercive.
Muslim Women Already Lag Behind in Education
The hijab issue in Karnataka started with telling visuals of young Muslim girls standing outside Government PU College in Udupi being denied entry on account of face covering and hijab.
According to the National Sample Survey (NSS) released in 2020, the percentage of literates among Muslim women continued to lag behind other religious groups. It was at 68.8 per cent for Muslim women, as compared to 70.0 per cent for Hindu women, and 82.2 per cent for Christians.
Govt Ban & Diktats at Home: Where Do the Women Go?
Indian Muslims are often blamed for “backwardness”. However, legislation such as the one under discussion goes on to show that the problem may, in fact, be systemic.
Narrative duels aside, much like most women, some Muslim women in India are also at the receiving end of patriarchal dictations. Many women are indeed coerced into wearing hijab in households that hold patriarchal views about the same. In many of these households, women are allowed access to public spaces like schools and colleges only on the condition of them observing hijab. These restrictions on education, agency and access are neither exclusive nor restricted to Muslim women and are very common in the Indian context, in general, across communities.
Under this arrangement, hijab gives access to Muslim women to public spaces. With that gone, it would become even more difficult for Muslim women to access education now.
Additionally, the weaponisation of progressive values in denying Muslim women education will undo the strides in education that they have made. Even those with the agency who choose to wear hijab will be denied education. They’d have to make an uncomfortable decision to strip in order to access education.
It is unfortunate that amidst the loud cheers for Muslim women’s apparent ‘liberation’ or the sudden praise for “secular” uniforms, it is Muslim women who will be left with little to no choice to live on their own terms.
(The author is a Srinagar based journalist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)