Karnataka's hijab row: A fragile regime's latest assault on the right to choice

Does wearing a hijab affect a girl’s ability to be a student? The continued attacks on choice of clothing and demanding uniformity in attire is a thinly veiled attempt by the state to push a segregation policy.
Muslim students dressed in a hijab protest outside their school
Muslim students dressed in a hijab protest outside their school
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My grandmother was 60 years old when she began to wear the hijab. Until then she wore a saree because my grandfather wanted to participate in what he believed was a marker of a modern Muslim family. But after his death, she declared to the rest of us that she was going to do as she pleased. Perhaps she was relieved to finally make her choice without judgment, perhaps she was responding to the assertion of identity that swept Muslim communities in India in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition. Maybe she was conscious of her own mortality due to his death and wanted to do right by herself. I was 13 years old when it happened and was shocked at this turn of events. Here was my grandmother exercising her individual right to choose the hijab. That this assertion of individual choice was the whole point of feminism was clear even to my teenage mind, but did that mean I was wrong to celebrate my grandfather as a progressive man? I was well into my 20s when I was ready to admit to myself the answer to that question. It took me even longer to unpack the majoritarian gaze that my grandfather, and indeed the many Muslim communities in India across caste locations, were responding to. 

The farce playing out in Karnataka today is plagiarised from the theatre of Global Islamophobia. 

India is a nation that has always defined the secular as Positive Secularism – where all religions are equal before law, and not Negative Secularism – which advocates for the separation of religion from State.  That the Indian constitution protects the right to faith and individual choice in these matters is the only factor that must be at play. Does the wearing of the hijab impact the Indian Muslim woman’s ability to be a student? We know it does not. The women’s choice of hijab was compared to Talibanisation by an elected leader here in Karnataka. Ironic when it is the state that is mimicking the Taliban and keeping the women from accessing their education. Where does this binary of education or faith come from? Who’s next in this line of attack? Will it be the hijabi teacher? Every individual has the right to choose their clothing for whatever reason is important to them. For some, faith is that reason, for others it may be functionality, affordability or whatever else. No member of the family or institutional space they occupy can threaten them with withdrawal of this right. When a student or a teacher goes to college in a salwar, a dress, a turban, a nun’s habit, with amulets or threads or tikkas, these acts are recognized as citizens exercising their right to secularism. Why then is the Muslim body expected to erase their secularism? 

‘To ensure uniformity’, say the BJP leaders with the most to gain from this manufactured controversy and the principals that refuse to recognise the trauma this creates in their students. This argument of uniformity itself is a distraction, a barely disguised entry for apartheid as state policy in institutions across our society. Are bhajans and hymns not sung in school assemblies? Don’t educational institutions perform Ayudha Pooja on computers and buses and lab equipment? Yet again, rules are different for the Muslim. Differentiated social codes or laws for different citizens is the very definition of apartheid. Personal opinions of the BJP MLA, of the Principal, of the neighbourhood sanghi or liberal are all equally irrelevant in light of constitutionally protected rights of both education and religion.

Muslims as a community have long been accused of not entering the mainstream and participating in the modern project of education. An accusation that does not consider the history of caste oppression - most Muslims in India are Pasmanda, which means a large majority do not enjoy a legacy of access to education. But even that’s an accusation that is not true anymore. Muslims are sending their children to higher education in record numbers - the All India Survey on Higher Education 2019-20 shows that the enrolment of Muslims in higher education has gone up from 2.53% in 2010-11 to 5.45% in 2019-20. Why then does the State deem it appropriate to make yet another unconstitutional attack on a community that in reality needs active support and schemes to join the mainstream in greater numbers? 

This regime has demonstrated consistently that it is most fragile when facing the secular body - the secular body that accesses public spaces and resources, asserts individual rights, and dissents with the regime. With state power, institutional backing, and an unthinking violent mob to back them, this fragility takes the shape of unending assaults on the secular body - on the street, in shared spaces, on our psyches. This assault is inflicted most on the Muslim body undoubtedly. Like these women students in Udupi, or CAA-NRC protest sites led by Muslims, those in the beef trade, students making a play in Bidar, the comedian who was arrested for a joke he never cracked or the cricketer whose performance is questioned. But really the list is endless – the Sikh farmer, the Christian priest, the academic, the journalist, the lawyer, the comedian, the artist. 

For too long, the most marginalised and the minority have taken on the burden of fighting this assault with little or no help. This burden cannot be on them alone. Those at the frontlines are exhausted and are in need of relief and resources to keep going. It is imperative that you - the caste privileged Hindu most likely to be reading this in the comfort of your home, you who believe in the plural ethos that anchored the potentiality of this nation - join in however you can. Take action in all and every space you occupy – confront the followers of this fragile regime in your home, in your institutional spaces, write letters to elected representatives, hold peaceful protests at public spaces, invite difference into your home and your relationships, breach boundaries of caste and faith. This is not a drill anymore. Too much is at stake for too many exhausted minority and marginalised bodies – resources, rights, dignity, and lives. You can no longer afford to ignore their plight. 

Nisha Abdulla is an artist and educator based out of Bengaluru. Views expressed are the author's own.

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