Is the hijab patriarchal? Why this is the wrong debate to be having now

The objection to the hijab is on two grounds; one, it is a religious symbol and we must discourage it in educational institutions, and two, it is a patriarchal symbol and curtails women's rights.
Muslim girls in hijab speaking to male teacher in Udupi
Muslim girls in hijab speaking to male teacher in Udupi
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Karnataka colleges banning students from wearing the hijab to class has once again reignited an old debate in feminist circles. Should articles of clothing that reiterate the need for women to be 'modest' and are forcibly enforced by law in some countries and societal pressures in other countries, be defended? How does it matter who is asking for these patriarchal symbols to be done away with? Shouldn't feminists support the call because ultimately, it is about dismantling a patriarchal symbol? Also, isn't the hijab different from the burqa and the niqab and should the feminist position change according to how much of a woman's body is covered by the article of clothing?

I've hesitated to write my view on the issue not only because I'm not Muslim but also because I've never practised any religion or ritual from childhood. I've occasionally had questions about god as a child and teenager, fancied myself as an agnostic at one point, but I was never asked to follow anything at home because I'm a third generation atheist in my family. It's therefore difficult for me to gauge how much of a person's affinity to religion is conditioning and how much of it is by free choice. I find all religions to be largely useless and validating unspeakable acts of cruelty towards fellow humans, doesn't matter what their books say in which chapter.

When I was doing my Master's in Gender Studies at the University of Sussex, I had the opportunity to travel to Cambridge for a conference on gender and feminisms (yes, the plural). There were feminists from different parts of the world who'd come to the conference to talk about their aspirations, the problems they confronted in their society, and how they were structuring their battles (one of the high points of that conference, for me, was running into Catharine MacKinnon in the restroom and looking absolutely starstruck till she blinked and gave me a small smile, breaking the spell).

There were feminists from the Middle East, too, most of them wearing the hijab. They spoke not only of patriarchy but also Islamophobia; their difficulty in having feminist conversations within their home and outside while simultaneously having to fight against an increasingly hostile world where their religious identity was being isolated. They wore the hijab as an assertion of identity to a conference in a Western nation, and to underline that white feminists must not assume to speak for feminists from other cultures.

I understood what they were saying but also had my reservations about some aspects of it. When the hijab is mandatory in many Islamic societies and is not a choice, why should feminists dilute the debate by conforming and then calling it a choice? But over the years, I have read more, listened more and my view isn't quite the same as it was when I was 21.

The objection to the hijab is primarily on two grounds. One, it is a religious symbol and we should discourage religious symbols in public places, educational institutions and so on. Two, it is a symbol of patriarchy and curtails women's rights and we should therefore oppose it.

If we are to ban the hijab for the first reason, we should take a similar stance towards all other religious symbols — which is pretty much impossible in a country like India which has people following multiple faiths and displaying different kinds of religious and caste symbols, from the poonal to the turban. How will we categorize which religious symbol can be allowed and which cannot be allowed? When we say let everyone follow the uniform irrespective of religion, do we mean that no religious symbol at all should be seen or do we mean that only the religious symbols that have been normalized, accepted and approved by majoritarian forces can be seen?

The second reason sounds noble, and worthy of support, but it assumes that Islam is interpreted and followed in the same way everywhere. There are close to two billion Muslims across the world, and Islam as it is practised in Saudi Arabia is not the Islam practised in Turkey. Islam as practised in Bangladesh is not the Islam practised in African nations. Islam as practised in Tamil Nadu is not the Islam practised in Kashmir. Nobody assumes that a Christian from Tirunelveli and a Christian from Ireland will have the same beliefs, cultural practices and political views, but somehow, many of us find it easy to see Muslims as a monolith. This, of course, points to how normalised Islamophobia has become because whether we want to or not, we associate Islam with regressive views, extremism and violence.

In some Islamic societies, wearing the hijab/niqab/burqa is mandated by law and women face harsh punishments if they flout it. In other Islamic societies, there is no law but there is familial and social pressure to wear it. In some others, even if rare, women genuinely have a choice in the matter.

One of my Muslim friends from college, who now lives in Europe, suddenly took to wearing the hijab, much to the puzzlement of those of us who'd studied with her. She'd never worn it in college and neither did any of the women in her immediate family wear it. Her husband was a liberal man as far as we knew, and we didn't think the pressure came from him either. And then, just as suddenly as she had worn it, she gave it up one day and stopped wearing it. I asked her about it some years later, and she said she wore it for two reasons. One, as an assertion of her identity in a society where Islam was seen as cancer, and another because she felt there was too much pressure for a woman to look 'put together' and 'made up' always in the circle that she was in now. She wanted to get back to a form of simplicity in appearance that she missed, and chose this as a way of life. Her husband, she said, was enormously uncomfortable with what she was doing because he was worried everyone would assume he was making her do it. Eventually, when she had made her peace with what was bothering her, she stopped wearing the hijab.

What about Muslim women who live in India and are not from liberal families? How free are they to exercise such choices? These are the automatic questions that spring up. But here's what I think we need to ask — what is their immediate threat? Is it the age-old patriarchy that women across cultures in India are fighting in their homes and outside, or is it the rapid erasure of their religious identity from the public sphere that has strong political backing? The Hindutva campaign against the hijab has nothing to do with women's rights; it has to do with isolating and ostracising Muslims, projecting them as backward and regressive. The champions of Hindutva will not speak against Sulli deals or Bulli Bai, and they will even support the gangrape of a minor Muslim girl, but they will fight against the hijab — because to them, it is a symbol of a religion they hate. Not because it is a symbol of patriarchy.

Irrespective of their personal view on the hijab, what must Muslim women do in such a situation? Bow to the diktat or assert their identity? It is not an enviable position to be in, and as a multicultural society, it is to our shame and failure that they are in such a place. There is yet another argument that the ban, even if it is due to religious hate, is a win against patriarchy. But how can we see it that way when we know that there won't be similar bans on the innumerable patriarchal practices that exist in other religions, including Hinduism? How can we expect Muslim women to selectively rejoice when their entire community is being alienated on an everyday basis? How can we celebrate it as a feminist win when it strips women of their agency?

I will end this article by making one last point. There is a difference between feminist choices (which, I must reiterate, varies from culture to culture) and women's rights. It is not a feminist choice to elope at 18 and get married when one is not financially independent and it's way too early for childbirth. But is it a woman's right to do so? Yes. And feminists should fight for her right to exercise it.

The feminist struggle is not for all feminists to get their rights, but for all women and people of oppressed identities to get theirs.

At the centre of feminism is emancipation from within. Meaning, I cannot force anyone to become 'emancipated' if they haven't arrived there by themselves. I also cannot force my idea of what it means to be emancipated on other women. I can debate and discuss it with them, I can share my ideas on emancipation with them. But I cannot force them to follow what I do in my life, not in the least because my own ideas about emancipation keep changing with time.

To sum up, here is what I think the feminist position on the hijab should be:

In a society where the state punishes women for not wearing it, the feminist should fight against the state.

In a society where the state punishes women for wearing it, the feminist should fight against the state.

In a society where the state does not punish women for wearing it but families and religious institutions do, the feminist should recognise that this problem isn't so different as the battles women from other faiths are fighting, be it their right to education, property or reproductive freedom. It isn't a 'Muslim' problem, unique to a 'regressive' faith. The feminist should build solidarity, and see how she can contribute to the fight without assuming leadership.

In a society where the state does not punish women for wearing it and neither do families or religious institutions intervene, the feminist should be accepting of individual choices.

Are these differing positions within feminism hypocritical? Not at all. Women form 50% of the world's population and there is no one size-fits all feminism. That's why the conference I attended at 21 was called 'feminisms', and my own understanding of what it means to be a feminist has changed so much over the years. And will change in future, too. 

Views expressed are author's own.

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