Question: Who gets to decide whether young women can cover their heads with a piece of cloth in school? Most definitely not the young women themselves, so that’s ruled out; we can’t allow such indiscipline in our schools, who knows what they might dare next.
After all, they have their fathers to decide for them. If not fathers, they have uncles; the Indian family is an all-encompassing institution with blanket authority. If family elders are ill-equipped to decide correctly, the school is competent to do so. And then the young women have a government that knows what’s best for them and can rescue them through an executive order with good intentions.
If someone disagrees with the government, there’s a long-established legal structure to adjudicate. A recalcitrant young person not willing to be a slave to a politically dictated education system has the option to drop out. A student unwilling to drop out and ready to fight for herself, with a little help from friends or even “instigators”, is not a problem either.
We have other problems. We have a macro nanny State because we have a micro nanny family. The same uncles form extended families and resident welfare associations and ultimately the government, their avuncular diktat the default destiny the young must submit to.
That is what leads to travesties, such as courts having to all of a sudden decide matters of religious scholarship. It takes a lifetime to study law; for religion, that may not be enough. Compelled to assume the intellectual duties of clergymen, their lordships are expected to shoulder a heavy burden indeed. The Karnataka high court’s order holding that the hijab is not an “essential” practice in Islam and can rightfully be banned in school has been challenged in the Supreme Court and the last word has not been had on it. Muslims hold varying views on whether the hijab is essential. The essentiality doctrine itself is being debated in circles of jurisprudence.
Yet the plain fact is that to those young women insisting on wearing it, the hijab is very much a sacred symbol, one that is part of a religious identity they are at liberty to carry, one that they cannot deposit in a collection bin at their school’s doorstep. To others it’s an academic point, to them it’s lived religion. They do not wear it as a fashion accessory, though some prints in the Arab world are positively trendy.
One may argue that the students’ hard position on the hijab is just down to patriarchal indoctrination and cultural conditioning. But that’s true of all faiths; else religions wouldn’t exist so many generations after their founding. Certain rituals get abandoned with time, but that process happens organically, not through government policy.
Whether the hijab is mandatory in Islam is beside the point. A large number of Muslim women wear it. Religious practice for regular folks is mostly a matter of custom rather than a scholastic interpretation of scripture — hardly anyone is in for constant research into something of settled personal value.
The hijab does not hinder learning or disturb the peace. If anything, it only adds to classroom diversity and a normalisation of “others”. The argument that “school has a uniform, which by definition is equal for all, so why don’t you just take that thing off” rings empty when made from a position of sociopolitical strength and majoritarian privilege. Well-meaning uniform apologists in this case remind one of white Americans saying “All Lives Matter” during the “Black Lives Matter” movement. All lives matter, of course, but using it as a counter to a movement against racial discrimination is where the problem lies. In the American context, white lives matter anyway. It’s the minority black people who have to hold banners and shout slogans. Discrimination is the issue, not just execution without trial.
In India’s schools and the public sphere at large, religious sensibilities of the majority are privileged anyway, as is the case in nearly every country. A rule targeted at banning the hijab needlessly shakes the confidence of an ethnic group. Lately, the French word laïcité has been fashionably invoked to stress the need for total secularism bereft of all religious insignia. That may be convenient to cite against the hijab, but it is disingenuous in our country whose secularism mirroring its cultural ethos is like an ancient banyan tree sheltering all comers.
The French word we should perhaps pay attention to is dirigisme, direct State intervention in economic and day-to-day affairs, something we’d do well to avoid. Meaningful intervention is what we need on the other hand, such as the central government’s ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ (save the daughter, educate the daughter) message.
On the first objective, no data is available as the practice of selectively killing unborn daughters in the womb is illegal. On the second, Muslims lag other communities in girls’ education, according to government data, so further dropouts over the hijab will abort more dreams. Asked to choose with a gun to their head between something religious and educational, take a wild guess what people will pick.
Somewhere outside the rarefied circles discussing the essentiality of the hijab lives a feudal guy for whom this is about power: “We’ll take your women’s hijabs off and you can’t do a thing”. Those ruling Karnataka should not overindulge that guy; he will vote for them in any case.
The Kauravas began to disrobe Draupadi after they won her in a royally sanctioned gambling match, so they felt they were within their rights to do with her as they pleased. The legitimacy of their actions wasn’t in question; their humanity was, so much so that it forced the hand of god. India, the timeless civilisation, may not see any of its abundant spiritual capital erode if a few women are not allowed to wear something sacred to them. But India the present-day Republic owes it to every one of them that their faith in it is honoured.
The views expressed are personal