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    Beyond Binaries: Hijab row raises key questions on public religiosity and the state

    Beyond Binaries: Hijab row raises key questions on public religiosity and the state

    Beyond Binaries: Hijab row raises key questions on public religiosity and the state
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    By Vikas Pathak   IST (Updated)


    Hijab row: As of now, polarisation is what rules Karnataka campuses. A sort of competitive deployment of overt religious identities — coupled with religious slogans — is making headlines all over.

    Beginning from Karnataka, the hijab controversy has become national news, drawing in reactions from Priyanka Gandhi, Asaduddin Owaisi and from a host of commentators.
    The controversy erupted at Government Pre-University College for Girls, the only all-girls’ school in Udupi. The ‘college’ building has classes 8 to 12, with classes 11 and 12 being considered the first and second year of pre-university, as per a report in News 18. It all began when six Muslim girls protested when they were not allowed to attend class in headscarves. In reaction, many Hindu girls tried to attend college wearing saffron shawls, and the state government said that both headscarves and saffron shawls be banned on campus.
    There are two diametrically opposed views on the vexed question. One says that in insisting that Muslim girls should not wear the hijab, schools are not just targeting the minority community but also discouraging Muslim girls’ education. The other view is that insisting on the hijab is a sign that distinctive religious markers are being seen as more important than education itself — something that is far from a secular position.
    There is hardly any middle ground between these two positions. Girls in hijab are now protesting for their ‘right’ and ‘freedom’ to wear the hijab, and there are counter-protests by Hindu boys and girls, who have been coming wearing saffron shawls, in the state.
    Overt colours of religious identity have painted campuses in the state in communitarian hues.
    The turn of events is leading to a polarisation that may benefit the BJP by bringing the debate to the turf of religious identity. Critics are claiming that this is being done at the behest of higher-ups in the party not just to polarise the state but also to impact the Uttar Pradesh elections that kick off today.
    Owaisi has said that to wear the hijab is a fundamental right guaranteed to Muslims by the constitution. Priyanka Gandhi has also said that none can decide what a girl wears. However, the ‘colleges’ — it began from what is a school but is called a PU college — in question have dress codes. So, disallowing the hijab is not actually anti-constitutional.
    The moot question here is the importance of reform in a secular democracy. Gender reforms have been part and parcel of the history of modern India — from the abolition of Sati, the coming of widow remarriage, the banning of child marriage — even if there are reports that it is still performed illegally — and the abolition of polygamy among Hindus.
    Does a secular dress code and not wearing a hijab signal reform? Which agency should ideally bring about such reform? Is hijab a symbol of free choice having nothing to do with social reform?
    There is a line of argument that wearing any dress is never a free choice if it is socially sanctioned and enforced. In the case of the hijab, it may imply more of ordering than free choice in a conservative milieu. A hijab in France may be a sign of resistance — though framed in terms of religious identity — but it is doubtful that a hijab in a conservative milieu means anything but gendered ordering of attire.
    In such a context, religious markers like a hijab or sporting a tilak are best avoided in schools, colleges and offices. These are fine in leisure hours or during a ceremony that pertains more to the realm of the private. The position is complicated by the unique practice of Sikhs almost always wearing turbans, though some do not.
    The example of Sikhs is often cited to argue that if a religious marker can be publicly displayed by one community, why not by another? It is now said that hijab is also essential to Islam, just like the five Ks, including uncut hair, for the Sikhs, but one does not cease to be a Muslim is one does not wear it. To be fair, even a few Sikhs discard the turban, though the proportion of Sikhs donning turbans and never cutting their hair is far greater than perhaps any other community sporting a religious marker. Yet, the question of Sikh insistence of a turban — almost ubiquitously associated with the community — complicates the matter and makes the handful of Muslims wearing a hijab argue that it is fundamental to their faith, even if several Muslim women don’t wear a hijab.
    There is little doubt, however, that competitive employment of religious symbols isn’t healthy for any workplace, for the emphasis would then be on being seen as distinctive rather than as part of a shared work space. This is what is happening in Karnataka after the controversy took the state by storm. Hindu boys and girls have also begun to move around campuses sporting saffron shawls. While this has been condemned by those supporting freedom of attire — and may well be a result of a coordinated plan at reacting to Muslim girls by displaying an overt Hindu identity — there is little doubt that seeing distinctive religious markers as essential can lead to competitive parading of religious markers.
    The central question here is that a BJP government is in power in the state. The question being asked is whether a state under the BJP has a right to enforce a secular dress code. Governments can always enforce or even modify rules — subject to judicial review — though a BJP government may show greater alacrity to discourage the hijab than a Congress government. Having said that, it is true that not having distinctive religious markers is better than having them, if the aim is to secularise society. If that isn’t the aim, all religious markers can be permitted, leaving it to individual choice. This would, however, require doing away with dress codes in schools and colleges. The reforms should ideally have come from within the community — or by the agency of the secular state long ago — but this did not happen.
    As of now, polarisation is what rules Karnataka campuses. A sort of competitive deployment of overt religious identities — coupled with religious slogans — is making headlines all over.
    Indian securalism isn’t French secularism that shuns religion in the public sphere. But this also makes the task of Indian secularism more difficult, as identities on all sides have a tendency of public display. How far that can secularise the mind — secularism in the public sphere cannot be built on the pillars of social conservatism in the mind — is anybody’s guess.
    The school where this began was an all-girls’ school and the question of the hijab signifying ‘modesty’ did not, thus, arise, even if the question itself is problematic in a modernist sense. However, the ensuing news breaks led to the problem spreading and competitive Hindu displays of saffron becoming visible.
    Thus, Sarva Panth Sama Bhava was realized in a perverse manner — through competitive displays of identity. However, it was realised as a threat to secularisation rather than an aid to it.
    —The author Vikas Pathak is a columnist and media educator. The views expressed here are personal. 
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