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Hijab, skirts and a woman’s quest for choice

The hijab ban in Karnataka does not only invoke a question of faith but the larger issue of choice, which cannot be ignored at the cost of the other.

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“WHERE is your hijab?” For writer and political observer, Zainab Sikander, this is the question thrown at her most on social media, as she explains in an article for The Print. At this point, it has probably become synonymous with a “Hello, how are you?”

One could argue that for someone like Sikander, who is active on social media with her work covering Indian politics, would attract all kinds of scrutiny. But for Muslim women in India, the scrutiny always boils down to their faith and their choice of expression. This issue is at the heart of the Hijab controversy unfolding in Karnataka.

Also read: ‘Resham fails both the test of reasoning as well as the test of empathy’, says author and scholar, Arvind Narrai

Background of the hijab row in Karnatak

On February 5, the Karnataka Government passed an order exercising its powers under Section 133(2) of the Karnataka Education Act, 1983, which grants the state the authority to issue directives for government educational institutions to follow. The state had issued a directive in 2013 making uniforms compulsory for educational institutions with no mention of a hijab or a headscarf.

Women in general – religion no bound, have been struggling to express free will and choice across demographics. 

After nine years, the government issued a new directive, which specified that wearing a headscarf is not a part of the uniform, clarifying that it is not an “essential religious practice for Muslims” under Article 25 of the Constitution, which guarantees the freedom to profess and practice any religion to all persons.

This directive stems from a December 2021 circular issued by Udupi’s Kundapur Pre University College, which banned students from wearing the hijab in the classroom, to ensure uniformity, as reported by The Wire. The circular has created a tense situation in the state, with some students not being allowed to enter classrooms by the college staff and fellow students.

Additionally, in institutions across the state, some students wore saffron scarves to college in protest against hijab wearing students, which also includes a violent clash between students and the police, as reported by the Hindustan Times.

When the matter reached the Karnataka High Court on February 10, the court passed an interim order, which banned all religious garments on campuses until the case is finally decided. On March 15, the high court upheld the state directive. In the operative portion of a 129-page judgment, the full bench of the high court noted that “prescription of a school uniform” is a “reasonable restriction” that is “constitutionally permissible” and the practice of wearing the hijab is “a cultural practice” and cannot be classified as an “essential religious practice in the Islamic faith”.

Also read: Dissecting the Karnataka HC’s hijab judgment

But this is as much as where the legality of the matter ends. The ambit of the actual issue is far more widespread than the matter before the high court. It is imperative to understand that women in general – religion no bound, have been struggling to express free will and choice across demographics.

Question of women’s freedom of choice of clothing

This struggle to express their choice has spared no woman, including Deepika Padukone, an A-list actor in the Hindi film industry who was trolled on social media in January and February for her clothing choices, and was also subjected to vile questions asking her if she sought “permission from her husband to perform intimate scenes”, while promoting her latest film Gehraiyaan.

The hijab ban not only invokes the issue of secularism but also pricks at the choices available to women in leading a dignified life, including the choice to wear whatever they want. 

If an actor of Padukone’s stature is incessantly hounded for the hemline of her skirt, then the virulent accosting of a young hijab-wearing Muslim student in broad daylight by what can be only be described as thugs should not come as a surprise.

It is no surprise that even the Parliament is interested in the event that unfolded in Udupi. Opposition Parliamentarian Supriya Sule in her Lok Sabha speech in February addressed Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman by pointing to the “beautiful Sambhalpuri saree” she wore while presenting the union budget as a representation of “Indian traditions” that we so revere.

But when an elected representative wholly attributes “women’s clothes” as the reason for rape, does that form part of the Indian tradition as well?

Sule called out the Bharatiya Janta Party [BJP] legislator Renukacharya from Karnataka who while addressing Priyanka Gandhi’s stand against the hijab ban, said that women get raped because of their clothes. Sule said“If women wear hijabs, BJP has a problem, if they wear something else also they have a problem…they are carrying out moral policing as well as thought policing”.

Anshi Beohar, a lawyer with Common Cause India, an NGO that takes up public causes to courts, believes that the hijab ban not only invokes the issue of secularism but also pricks at the choices available to women in leading a dignified life, including the choice to wear whatever they want.

“The Constitution of India guarantees that women across religions may choose to clothe themselves as they see fit in public and private. But the objectification of women has ensured generations of conditioning that prevents women from exercising their choices to clothe themselves in any manner they see fit,” she said.

It is not only a question of faith that is at play here, but the larger question of choice which often goes wholly unrecognized, bringing faith at the forefront of this issue.

“A lot of women in India rarely have the autonomy to make decisions for themselves, let alone choose clothes. If the hijab is banned, then if not all, at least a certain section of Muslim women will be deprived of the opportunities that their families allow,” Beohar added.

Also read: Doctrine of constitutional morality favours girls’ choice to wear hijab, counsel tells Karnataka HC

Therefore it is not only a question of faith that is at play here, but the larger question of choice which often goes wholly unrecognized, bringing faith at the forefront of this issue. Women have the choice to practice their faith (or not) protected under the Constitution. Women also have the right to express themselves, which includes choice in clothing, also protected under the Constitution (Article 19).

Courts can take cognizance of whether the two are mutually exclusive or not, but any conversation that only focuses on faith and does not address choice will only disempower women. And that is something that we cannot afford to allow.

The Leaflet