Hijab Debate

Dress Code and Prior Credence

Arup Baisya

Clothing is political, as all public art is. “Fashion is violence of production touching us most intimately on our screen’. Racism and anti-Muslim hatred often manifest through disparaging remarks on what people wear, particularly for women and the LGBTQ+ community. (Hoda Katbei, Iranian Chicago-based feminist and activist in, March 8, 2019). In Iran’s history, the hijab has been both forbidden and mandatory; in none of the periods Katbei presents was there agreement on a singular dress-code for women, as there is little agreement elsewhere in the world.

Katbei illustrates fashion’s intersection with international politics through a picture of Kabul in the 1970s, where women wear mini-skirts and “look all cute”: according to the Washington Post, that picture was shown to Donald Trump in an attempt to convince him not end the military presence of the US in Afghanistan because “essentially, the country could be civilised.”

The recent imbroglio within the student community of Karnataka has emerged centering around the episode of wearing hijab by Muslim girl students. Like every social upheaval, this has also its apparent immediate cause and the role of perpetrators and conspirators to achieve brownie points in their endeavour to define and redefine the mass social psyche. But the social debate that emerged from this episode revolves around the liberal bourgeois viewpoint of individual freedom versus obscurantist view of uniformity in dress-code. This obscurantist forces asserts their idea of uniformity through a counter-narrative displayed by wearing saffron scarf. The argument of uniformity is couched in the Hindu-Muslim divisive format.

The scene that sparked the conflicting divisive trends in student community of Karnataka’s educational institutions depicted a landscape where modernity and pre-modernity is intermingled in such a way that it becomes imperative to delve deep into the here and now to draw a probability path to the future. It was seen that a girl student parked her two-wheeler which she was driving herself and started marching towards the institutional building. Then suddenly a group of saffron-clad students emerged and started verbal attack on this girl even chanting “Joy Shree Ram” slogan which was countered by the girl with an Islamic vocabulary, but with utmost individual courage and boldness. The landscape that depicted the girl’s movement is in sharp contrast to the scenario of rustic hinterland where the veiled Muslim girls and women always track the extreme edge of the village road as if the space of road is meant for the dominant section of the society especially for male and they use to bow whenever they come across a village elderly or a cleric as a symbol of submissiveness.

The liberal bourgeois argument on individual freedom does not augur well with the Indian mindset. It is to be remembered that most memories are cherished records of the past. If one wants to situate everyday lives as human beings in a natural world, one of the first goals must be to understand how the flow of time relates to individual lives. But the bourgeois liberal viewpoint rests on a surface phenomenon that delineates the individual freedom that emerged from free movement of commodities and their exchanges. That’s why Donald Trump was shown the picture of women wearing mini-skirts with a tag-line “look all cute” to justify the imperialistic presence of US force for civilising the so called uncivilised. This is the reason why the liberal bourgeois discourse is too weak to challenge the viewpoint of obscurantist forces, and their fascist version to control the women’s body get traction with even the educated student community. When the whole system is in deep crisis and the social value system is in deep malaise, it is imperative to initiate a new discourse that addresses the prevailing conflicting viewpoints from a deep understanding of the here and now to tread a futuristic pathway that generates emotions and passions within the student community with a desire for building a new just society.

The left liberal view is also problematic. They resonate the bourgeois concept of individual freedom and then extend it to the logic of cause and effect. Their confidence on the efficacy of such rationality is based on the assumption that the entropy was lower in the past than the current state. When such rationality think about cause and effect, certain events are uniquely singled out as responsible for events that come afterwards. Here in this episode of communal polarisation of students in Karnataka, one is the cause and other is the effect. Which one is the cause depends on which way one looks at. ‘Memories’ and “causes” are concepts that people invent in order to provide useful descriptions of the macroscopic world. When one speaks of the actions taken by human beings, people like to assign credit or blame to them; that won’t work if one can’t even say that their actions caused any particular outcome. The arrow of time plays an important role and the state internalises this logic. Either action of the girl generated the reaction from students with obscurantist mindset or the long drawn out polity of obscurantist activities was responsible for the suppressed ego of the girl to ventilate her accumulated anger through the display of Burqa and the reaction in religious vocabulary. Both ways state can intervene in the politics of women’s body and neutralises the action and reaction through coercive measures. When the fascist ideology dominates the social polity, it is inevitable that the state’s role implicitly or explicitly goes against the action of the girl or the freedom to wear the dress of a minority community in a secularist version of the space of educational institution. Along with the bourgeois liberal version, the left liberal version also concedes defeat here.

If people listen to the statement that a group of hijab or burqa clad Muslim women is walking through a rural road or a group of hizab clad Muslim girls is roaming around a modern space of an educational institution, the second statement gives the impression of Islamic assertion. What is the prior credence here? The law of causality is replaced by the probability of believing the idea emerged from a particular context.

Bertrand Russell once put it: ‘The law of causality, I believe, like much that passes muster among philosophers, is a relic of a bygone age, surviving, like the monarchy, only because it is erroneously supposed to do no harm’.

The prior credence states that the struggle in the terrain of culture cannot be settled dwelling on cultural terrain only. It needs to be ascertained how culture relates to what is not culture and from this context, the direction of conflicting cultures can be reconciled to the arrow of time that tells  about the probability of a progressive future.  

EPThompson said in theory of poverty that “any theory of culture must include the concept of the dialectical interaction between culture and something that is not culture. We must suppose the raw material of life experience to be at one pole, articulate and inarticulate, formalised in institutions or dispersed in the least formal ways, which ‘handle’, transmit, or distort this raw material to be at the other. It is the active process – which is at the same time the process through which men make their own history.”

The still picture of the modern landscape of an educational institution where the girl wearing symbolic dress-code of a religion drove her two-wheeler and faced the verbal onslaught of a fascist verbal group with counter-religious slogan epitomises the embodiment of past for a journey towards future. The precapitalist particularism is intertwined and does exist within the garb of capitalist modernity. The participation of women in social labour due to transformation of social relations into capitalist one generated a new tension within the society. The ramification of the women’s participation in social labour is the double exploitation of women, both in a patriarchal set up of family space and in a capitalist set up of exchange of women’s labour power in social space. According to Marx, when capital makes it appearance on the historical scene, it subordinates to itself all the varied forms of pre-capitalist social relations and remoulds them after its own fashion. On the question of women’s labour, the emergence of capitalist social relation epitomises the remoulding of both family and social space. The grand old patriarchal family values resurfaces to assert itself against the changes in the social terrain and takes shape in targeting the women body in the feudal framework of religion. The modern rationality and the left liberal fail to address this tension that capitalism generates and sustains from a working class perspective for building a new society transcending capitalism for equality between men and women.

The historic decal age is the insertion of the most dynamic power of the contemporary world into the power relations of a world still living in the past, the paradox of an advanced bourgeois culture regressing from its Universalist drive to a compromise with precapitalist particularism. The particularist viewpoint of dominance and subordination within the garb of modernist viewpoint of hegemony and consent needs to be transcended from egalitarian idea. The debate on superficial layer of freedom of choice versus domination based on uniformity cannot adequately challenge the prior credence. The prior credence is shifted towards the acceptance of women’s rights on her body in the backdrop of a struggle for egalitarian society. This demands a new narrative of left-radical version.

Back to Home Page

Vol 54, No. 38, March 20 - 26, 2022