Muslim women everywhere have varied and often changing relationship with this piece of cloth throughout their lifetimes.

A woman in a hijab and niqabImage for representation via
Voices Hijab row Monday, March 21, 2022 - 18:35

It is exam season in India but there are hundreds of Muslim students in Karnataka who have been unable to write their preparatory exams and are also worried about their final exams later this month. These students had been expecting the Karnataka High Court to back their fundamental right to education, their fundamental right to liberty, and their fundamental right to religious expression. What they got instead was a 129-page judgement that can only be read as an abdication of the court’s responsibility towards this role.

The judgement says that school managements and CDCs (College Development Committee) can decide the dress code for all students in these institutions. The education of the girl child has always been a national priority and so it’s fair to demand the same reasonable accommodation allowed to the turbans, the bindis, the sindoors, and the bangles thus far, is ensured for the hijab too. It’s important to point out here that many institutions already recognised the hijab in prescribed colours as acceptable uniform and it is imperative that no outside force places pressure on these institutions to change this existing rule.

The hijab is many things to many women. It represents complex constructs of gender, identity, faith, choice, and liberation all at once. Muslim women everywhere have varied and often changing relationship with this piece of cloth throughout their lifetimes. It is surprising to me that the court has weaponised the hijab itself and denied basic rights under the assumption that every woman who wears it is a victim of compulsion. The court must recognise that to coerce these students into removing the hijab to continue their education is as vile as coercing any woman into wearing one. The court seems to have backed itself into a strange anti-feminist judgement as a result of which hundreds of women have been left in a state of educational emergency.

Many students, including the petitioners themselves, are unwilling to choose between the hijab and their education. They have pinned their hopes on the Supreme Court, and in doing so they have clearly demonstrated that they do not want to depend on CDCs to be unbiased in their approach to the hijab. They would rather have a clear and loud declaration of the right to education and personal liberty no matter what their choice of attire. But what happens in the interim? The High Court has not mandated all CDCs to ensure that exams can be taken unhindered. Neither has it mandated that the impacted institutes ensure compensatory classes or a way to take preparatory exams again. Many students have spoken passionately about their dreams in the last month. They consider education as their weapon of choice to access greater independence. Are their dreams less important because they assert their legitimate right to wear a hijab?

Others are reluctant to shed the hijab, but are willing to do so to ensure their education can get back on track. They are likely to face indifferent or even hostile responses from their college mates – we’ve already seen numerous videos of their peers policing and threatening them at college gates. This has been in full view of media cameras recording the act. When such incidents have gone unpunished and when harassers have the full backing of supremacist groups it’s easy to assume that much worse is likely to occur. 

What becomes of their relationship with the educators themselves in these colleges? Many educators and administrators made their bigoted discrimination against Muslim students and their prejudices about the hijab clear – again videos of incidents and student testimonials of these are easily accessible. This is in no way an atmosphere conducive to learning. Has the court in its wisdom ensured protection against further discriminatory practices by educators who have abdicated their primary role as protectors of student rights?

It’s important to remember that what began as eight women and their parents waiting to discuss one Principal’s sudden and unexpected objection to the hijab disintegrated into public harassment of students and teachers all over the state. Colleges that had never prescribed uniforms to students, and teachers who did not come under the purview of the interim order that was passed, were all fair game. The entire drama that played out live on our television and mobile screens is a sign of worse things to come. The very same supremacist groups who orchestrated the distribution of saffron scarves to teenagers and incited them to go against their own classmates, now stand vindicated in their despicable acts. It’s not difficult to see that any and all hijabi women on the street, in offices and institutional settings, in banks, hospitals, or anywhere else now becomes fair game too. We have already seen videos to this effect. We can expect to see more.

The students and their parents have had tremendous scorn sent their way in the last two months from commentators and ‘well-wishers’ who claimed this whole situation could have been sorted out at the local level. And that the situation spiralled only because of the involvement of Campus Front of India, a socio-religious student organisation. Today there is lot of grandiose advice going their way again – to remember what is at stake in terms of their future and to not give up on their education. In a blinding and unpardonable appeasement of majoritarian politics, these secular parties abdicated their role too as protectors of minority rights and organisations like CFI stepped in. Alienated politically, a traumatised community struggles now to navigate a hostile social environment. Many questions arise about the future – which part of our identity will we need to step up to protect next?

The High Court judgement also mentions unseen hands at work to engineer social unrest and disharmony. So the court is cognisant of these politicised actions by Hindutva supremacist groups. This entire game that was orchestrated was never about the hijab. It has always been about cleansing public spaces of Muslimness and cornering Indian Muslims into giving up their legitimate rights as equal citizens. The window of opportunity to set this travesty right is fast closing. The onus of arresting this basic and most sacred social contract from disintegrating further is strictly on secular forces and democratic institutions in the country.

Nisha Abdulla is an artist and educator based out of Bengaluru.

Views expressed are author's own. 

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