Indian students hold a protest in Chennai on March 16 against Karnataka High Court's decision to uphold a ban on girls wearing the hijab in classrooms. (Photo: AFP)
For centuries, men have told women what they should wear or not wear. And these diktats have usually depended on religion, class and ethnicity.
Thus Catholic nuns, for example, wore a prescribed habit — to distinguish them not just from their married sisters but also from each other.
And fashion, which is very much a class phenomenon, serves to distinguish the rich from the poor, the global from local, “us from them” and introduces attractive variations into ethnic clothing.
These few preliminary remarks may be seen as background to the recent controversies related to the Muslim hijab. How has this primitive tribal custom, which doesn’t even find a place in the Quran, become a defining garment for modern Muslim women?
The words burqa, abaya and niqaab are unfamiliar to the Quran. The word hijab is found but does not refer to a veil or headscarf as it does today. It’s been translated as a barrier, screen, partition or curtain. It has no reference to women’s clothing at all.
Then how has the hijab assumed such an important role in the social and political life of Muslim women? For this, it’s advisable to look at the political situation of the Muslim world.
"As immigrants in a strange land, they cling to their native cultures, careful to distinguish themselves from the values of their host countries"
The countries of West Asia, most of them feudal kingdoms or oligarchies, have come under Anglo-American hegemony for decades. Most have been reduced to pawns in the global game of thrones.
Many of these countries are Islamic today but have had rich histories of dominance and independence. Even more, a significant number of their populations are now migrants in Europe.
As immigrants in a strange land, they cling to their native cultures, careful to distinguish themselves from the values of their host countries. Keeping their womenfolk secluded and inviolate now assumes an importance far beyond its actual significance. Controlling the clothing that women wear is one way of doing this.
Something similar is happening in India, where Muslims who ruled the land for eight centuries discover that they are now strangers in their own land.
Simply put, the insistence on covering the female body is directly proportionate to the degree of unease and threat felt by men in a given society. For no matter the society, it’s men who call the shots. This is what patriarchy is all about.
And as always, one falls back on religion to lend support to social behavior. Thus Christians with the cross, Hindus with building temples, and Muslims with the veil.
"There are many who are not racist, yet cannot stand the veil — the feminists are among these — for they believe that it is demeaning and oppressive to all women"
As the French scholar on Islam, Olivier Roy, correctly observes, the issue is complex because two issues are entangled: ethnicity and religion.
There are many who are not racist, yet cannot stand the veil — the feminists are among these — for they believe that it is demeaning and oppressive to all women.
And there are racists who do not oppose the veil — because they think that anyway these people are "much too different from us" — and so let them keep their "inferior customs."
How does what we have said refer to the recent case of the hijab-wearing students in a Karnataka college?
The college, with the courts and the government behind them, are opposed to girls covering their faces in a public institution. On the face of it, this is secularism in practice — everyone, no matter what religious community they belong to, should wear the commonly accepted uniform to college.
But the girls in question proudly wish to assert their identity in a society that is rapidly being Hinduized and where minorities are being shown their place.
The insistence on a secular uniform comes from a political party that has no qualms about a chief minister of another state coming to office in the saffron robes of a Hindu monk!
"As India slowly slides away from the constitutional values of secularism, democracy and equality before the law, what looms ahead is not freedom but enslavement to archaic and feudal values"
And while Muslim women are attacked for wearing the veil, no one objects to Sikh men with a turban.
These female students want education but also wish to assert their identity as Muslims because religious identity has become a platform in all majoritarian politics.
Is this therefore an issue of a woman’s right to choose or is it a question of communal identity?
As India slowly slides away from the constitutional values of secularism, democracy and equality before the law, what looms ahead is not freedom but enslavement to archaic and feudal values.
Religion is being invoked not as the freedom to believe and dissent but as the hotbed of indoctrination and rigidity.
And as always, it is women — whether dressed in a hijab or jeans — who pay the heaviest price
* The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.
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