Iron Heels

Banning Hijab

Nivedita Menon

Images of educational institutions barring their gates to women in hijab are dense with implied violence. Used as people have become to the extreme physical violence on display during the period of this regime, both by state authorities and by street mobs launched by Hindutva outfits, in these images is captured in one frozen instant, the ideological violence of Hindu Rashtra. Here is the marked and stigmatised Muslim female body, exiled from the resources of the nation, kept out by iron gates, to be admitted only on the terms set by Hindutva.

In truth this is not “only ideological” violence, the power of which people in India have witnessed in plenty since 2014. Everybody knows what terror “mere” words can threaten. The murderously weighted words of the Prime Minister himself, that those who protest the CAA can be identified by their clothes.

So ideological violence yes, but implicit physical violence too, held only temporarily in abeyance—what if the women decided to climb the gates and insisted on attending class? Or sat quietly on dharna outside? What kind of violence by private security and police would not be unleashed? Just before the pandemic, did people not witness the brutality of police attacks on peaceful student protests against fee hikes in Delhi?

As more and more colleges in Karnataka deny women wearing hijab entry into colleges, and therefore their right to education, the RSS/BJP government of Karnataka backed such moves, invoking the Karnataka Education Act of 1983, Section 133 (2) of which states that students will have to wear a uniform dress chosen by the college authorities. The government directive while invoking this Section, added—“clothes which disturb equality, integrity and public law and order should not be worn.”

The first claim therefore, is that the hijab violates “uniformity of dress” (hence equality). This is the first level of Hindutva ideology, familiar in India since the 1990s, presenting itself as genuinely non-discriminatory, claiming that it alone is truly secular (hence the appellation “pseudo secular” for those who recognise and accept religious difference). This fraudulent claim was demonstrated in some colleges by students, male and female, who came wearing saffron shawls, whereupon the colleges banned both saffron shawls and hijab.

Groups of students suddenly wearing saffron shawls to college is stark evidence of political mobilisation, so it was darkly funny when Mohandas Pai, Chairman of Manipal University accused Congress MP Shashi Tharoor of “playing politics” when Tharoor criticised the ban saying “Let the girls in. Let THEM decide.” Said Pai—“A uniform code creates unity!”

No, a uniform code creates uniformity.

Compulsory uniforms do not create equality or justice. It is about discipline and the power of an educational institution to control its students and properly socialise them into the dominant norms of behaviour in society. There could be a more positive reading of compulsory uniforms, that it reduces the embarrassment and humiliation of visible class differences at least for the duration of school hours. But this element is not compromised by students wearing hijab.

Conflict is not produced by difference, but by the failure to acknowledge difference in the public domain. Abstract citizenship is already marked with a particular kind of difference—it is precisely because by default the abstract citizen is assumed (in Europe) to be white, male, Christian, or in India, savarna, North Indian Hindu, that the introduction of black, female, Muslim identities into it is so threatening.

In the directive of the Karnataka government, it is the invocation of “integrity” and “public law and order” that brings people to the more explicit Hindu Rashtra argument that has emerged in the public domain more and more since the planned genocide of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, and of course has become the predominant discourse since 2014. No longer claiming to be true secularists, the explicit project now is the building of Hindu Rashtra which marginalises, assimilates or physically eliminates minorities and all others who resist this project.

The “integrity of the nation” demands that difference be subsumed under a North Indian, savarna masculinist version of “Hinduism”, and anything that defies this vision is responsible for the breakdown of public law and order, because those whose sentiments are hurt will retaliate. And the responsibility of maintaining “law and order” rests not on those who react violently to dissent and difference, but upon the dissenters to Hindu Rashtra, and those who insist that their difference from Hindu Rashtra be noted.

A state that did ban head scarves in 2010 is France, and a comparison of French secularism with Hindutva politics is instructive.

France as the world knows, instituted a ban on “conspicuous religious symbols” in public institutions in 2010, which was a coded term essentially referring to the “Islamic head scarf”. Scarves worn for other than religious purposes (fashion statement, protection of hairstyle) continue to be accepted. For instance, eleven years after the French ban, as the European Union now considers strict limitations on Islamic head scarves, a “French art of living” blog says, “A scarf is the ultimate classic statement of the French wardrobe”, in an article titled How to wear a scarf like a French woman. That French woman evidently, can never be an observant Muslim.

Many swimming pools and beaches in France have banned the burkini, a body-covering outfit some Muslim women wear at the beach, sparking protests. The response to the protests and defiance of the ban was closure of pools, and in one case, four armed policemen in Nice forced a burkini clad woman to remove some of her clothing, fining her for not wearing “an outfit respecting good morals and secularism.”Meanwhile, the “conspicuous religious symbol” of habits of nuns, is not an issue in the French public domain. In response to the Nice incident, many people posted pictures of nuns at the beach, to point to the double standard.

If anything French secularism (and secularism in the European context generally) is closer to majoritarian Hindu nationalist politics than to the way secularism has been understood in India.

Indian secularism emerged under very different circumstances in a very different society some two centuries later. In India the term is meant to gesture towards a way in which many different communities can live together, while the state also intervenes to eliminate discriminatory practices internal to a religious community, like untouchability. Thus sarva dharma sama bhava is a common rendering of the secular ideal in India; that is, the state should view all religions equally; it recognises and respects religious differences unlike French secularism which does not. Under this understanding of secularism, the ban on hijab is a violation of religious freedom.

Those young women stopped by barred gates and security guards at the gates of colleges are observant Muslims, being excluded from education by the state, precisely because of their religious observance. It is yet another move in the overall project of Hindu Rashtra to establish a Hindu supremacist state.

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Vol 54, No. 35, Feb 27 - March 5, 2022