Every girl’s hijab has a unique story, Hindutva supporters have only one reason to ban it

All the stories about uniforms and discipline and the wild threats to social order that is supposedly coming from women wearing hijabs are rooted in the worst and most gross of intentions.
Students of Udupi school in hijab
Students of Udupi school in hijab
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Every girl has a different reason for her hijab, I found when I was reporting about hijab bans a decade ago. Back then there were self-righteous rumbles about the hijab in France and also shrill attempts by the Sangh Parivar in Karnataka to ban hijab-wearing students from coming to college.

Back then I interviewed women from Old Delhi and shiny Hyderabad. I interviewed doctors, teachers, security guards, boxers, writers, and every kind of woman you could think of who wore a hijab. And this is what I learnt. Every girl has a different hijab. No girl wears her mother’s metaphorical hijab. Her mother may well have fought to not wear the hijab. Her mother may have mixed feelings about her wearing the hijab. Her mother may insist on her wearing it only to cope with family drama. Every girl’s hijab had a different story.

I knew this to some extent. When friends in my Bengaluru college started wearing hijabs months after the Gujarat pogrom in 2002, I had been startled. I understood a little more as they worked hard to keep a light hold on the relative innocence of our lives before the pogrom. And I understood, even while being a spectacularly clueless fool, that they were leaning into an identity that the country was trying to set on fire. That was them, articulate, charismatic young women. And that was their hijab.

Every woman I interviewed later as a journalist told me about the many stories of their hijab – faith, modesty, identity, habit, family tradition, politics, annoying neighbourhood, judgemental family members, hijab swapping with classmates to see their boyfriends. Every reason that you can think of. Every woman has a different reason for her hijab, but there is only one reason for colleges and governments in Karnataka to ban hijab-wearing women from attending class.

Once, I was at a journalism awards event in what we call a small town in India (meaning a mighty metropolis) and three school girls were due to perform two Bharatanatyam recitals at different points during the evening. After their first recital, they promptly went into the second one and the MC looked annoyed at this change of plans. From the front row an organiser called out that the girls had exams the next day and the whole audience of journalists from all over the country hummed and coo’d in agreement. Of course, they should be allowed to finish and leave. My friend’s parents found that she was making plans to elope after her class 12 exams and while they boiled in rage, they waited two weeks till her last exam to pounce on her and rain all their anger and disappointment on her. These absurdities to keep the exam-writing mind on an even keel seem normal to me. Don’t they to you? You don’t mess with girls a few months away from their exams unless your intentions are highly suspect. So why is it now, as if it isn’t hard enough to get higher education as a woman in India, that Muslim women in the war zone that is Udupi district being told that they are simply not allowed to enter college?

All the stories about uniforms and discipline and the wild threats to social order that is supposedly coming from women wearing hijabs are rooted in the worst and most gross of intentions. These are intentions that are willing bedmates with Hindu rashtra-demanders. After decades spent in vilifying Muslim men, the next project is the vilifying of Muslim women. Where the authorities have not been able to sexualise them and make them a threat in that particular way, they say that the women’s sheer presence will upend an educational institution. If it wasn’t the hijab, then there would have been some other way. Too sexual, too political, too much beef, too something else.

One of the most astonishing things about the success of Hindutva is to take the eye of people living on this subcontinent who have been used to diversity – not tolerant or kind or any of those things but simply used to looking out on the street and seeing a dozen people different from each other and themselves – and to retrain that eye to only see every minor variation as a threat.

The women being kept out of colleges know the authorities are talking nonsense. The ‘we will wear saffron shawls in protest’ crowd know that it is nonsense, that their silly scarves would be nothing in the absence of the hijab-wearing women. This is the other astonishing success of Hindutva – to make lakhs of people and our social institutions define themselves not as themselves but always in opposition to the threatening Muslim, the threatening Dalit, the threatening Christian. It is as if the monolith of the Hindu can’t stand without the scaffolding of a scarf conjured out of nowhere, a scarf that had no meaning before.

As a writer, I continue to be curious about why young women choose their particular political identity, how they choose to wear it in public and private. As a citizen, I have no interest in the supposed logic of the machinations of a state that makes the lives of women harder. I spend very little time thinking of why young Muslim women wear the hijab. Instead I spend days and nights dreaming of legal systems in which representatives of governments and heads of educational institutions could be sued for very large amounts of money and even imprisoned for their patently evil intentions towards young women.

Nisha Susan is a journalist and editor. Her debut book, The Women Who Forgot to Invent Facebook, was published in 2020.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

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