A government pre-university for women in Udupi in Karnataka recently made the decision to disallow hijabs on its premises. India’s continuing slide into minority suppression in the name of uniformity is Islamophobic and counterintuitive, writes KHUSHI VARDHAN.
IT has been almost a month since the students at a Government Women’s Pre-University College in Udupi have been banned from wearing Hijabs within the premises of the institution. The administration claims that the move is meant to ensure ‘uniformity’ and has also initiated a ban on “saffron scarves”, in order to diffuse the tension. While blatant acts of Islamophobia have become a trend in recent years, there is more to the actions of a state-endorsed educational institution preventing students from wearing clothes with religious connotations.
The banning of Hijabs, Niqabs, and Burqas is not a new phenomenon, unique to Karnataka. Similar bans have been used to limit the mobility of women across the world. Recently, the French Government, which is infamous for earmarking religious Islamic clothing as dangerous, banned the hijab in women’s sports. Similar actions have been taken across Europe. Since as early as 2010, a number of European countries have made moves to ban burqas, hijabs, or the full Islamic headdress for women. At present, Burqas are banned in Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Austria, and Bulgaria with several other legislations ruminating on the constitutionality of the same, such as in France. Italy, too, has already banned these articles of clothing at a local level.
The justification for the ban
Various justifications have been put forward for the said ban, including national security, integration, and women’s liberation. Walter Wobmann, chairman of the referendum committee and a member of parliament for the Swiss People’s Party, in reference to the burqa ban said that, “In Switzerland, our tradition is that you show your face. That is a sign of our freedom.”
Various justifications have been put forward for the said ban, including national security, integration, and women’s liberation.
Also read: Udupi college hijab ban: the uniform of uniformity
Discussions of national security and integration have been the core argument when the banning of burqas is being discussed. But the shadowed reality is that there is a growing uneasiness in Europe, which has given rise to alarming levels of discrimination that affects approximately 20 million Muslims living in the European Union. From a short walk to the neighbourhood grocery store to a job interview, this narrative of the mythical Islamification of communities has ignited xenophobic, populist parties across these nations, whose actions directly affect the daily lives of Muslim men and women.
This defensive approach can be credited to an ongoing ‘identity crisis’ for these nations, which leads to the identification of a host of experiences as “problems”. The changing balance of religion and secularism, as migration and globalization take place in the society, are all labeled as invasive by extremist groups. Their approach continues to identify religious fashion as oppressive towards women, and is interconnected to issues of freedom and diversity. Most of these discussions tend to revert back to the “need” of integrating Muslims in the Western society and educating them. However, these Western States also endorse the notion of separation of church and State. This begs the question, why the hypocrisy when it comes to a certain ethnic and religious group? There seems to be a much-needed requirement of collective thought and education in respecting individual identity and private spaces.
The burqa ban, on the face of it, does give the illusion of political action and reaffirms the sacred ‘Western culture and values’ these legislations are trying to preserve, but this also makes tensions run high and renders the dialogues around women’s liberation and expression of religious identity more difficult to initiate. Making such laws would not help these countries solve their identity crisis, nor will it help in national integration or security. The burqa ban is a crystallisation of these tensions, caused by entrenched Islamophobia and misogyny in these Western countries, in a tussle between the desire to accommodate token diversity, while all the while misinterpreting notions of freedom.
French President Emmanuel Macron cited similar “feminist” arguments to claim that this would help and protect Muslim women, and allow them to live freely.
Mainstream feminist movements across the globe seem to have failed the issue of the Burqa ban. In Switzerland, feminist organizations have propped up the burqa ban. The White Saviour Complex has left little to no space for intersectionality in these feminist spaces. The mainstream (read white) idea of “saving” and “freeing” Muslim women and considering burqas, hijabs and niqabs as inherently oppressive, has given rise to gendered Islamophobia in the movement. This idea of liberation has fueled the bans across Europe and allayed the guilty conscience of legislators. French President Emmanuel Macron cited similar “feminist” arguments to claim that this would help and protect Muslim women, and allow them to live freely. Quite the contrary has happened as women wearing Islamic attires have shared experiences of structural discrimination in Europe.
Also read: Dissecting discrimination against Muslims
Intersectionality continues to be an essential trait in feminist movements led by women of colour, concerning different ethnicities and religious identities. Given the small Muslim population in Switzerland of 5.4% as of 2021, the responsibility to support the cause of Muslim women falls greatly on mainstream feminist groups. It is interesting to note that women who do not belong to the Muslim community are often not able to understand the nuances of choice, religion and imposition debates that surround burqas or hijab, but they continue to be flagbearers of the mainstream feminist movement in these countries. This leads to Muslim women having to bear the outcomes. It is essential that the mic is passed to those most affected. In France, for example, there have been continuous protests during the pandemic, with support from local feminist organizations and the youth. This has given rise to hashtags such as #handsoffmyhijab, #Francehijabban etc.
The Udupi case
Coming back to the amber doors of the Government college in Udupi, one can argue that the exclusion of hijab wearing students from the premises of the college is a clear violation of Articles 14 and 25 of the Indian Constitution, which ensure the right to practice one’s religion freely. An educational institution doing this in the middle of the academic year makes matters worse, as these students are now forced to file a writ petition before the Karnataka High Court in order to attend classes, when their exams are just two months away.
India, like Switzerland, seems to be going through an ‘identity crisis’. However, given our history of integration and diversity, this new wave of saffronization appears to have ignited extremist ideas.
While the European Union struggles with approaches towards secularism and unification of religious groups, India might feel like it’s at a different crossroad. However, the traits are similar; the Hindu Saviour Complex is evident in the discussions and incidents pertaining to love jihad, where women are treated as the entire community’s property and their own decisions seem to have no weight. So, are these acts truly saving our women?
The Hijab ban row in Udupi is akin to a state sponsored act of marginalisation of Muslim women, limiting their mobility and access to education. It goes to show that women’s education as an issue seems to be a petty game of collecting brownie points for the government. Moreover, other students have started wearing saffron scarves and shawls to show support for the Hijab ban at the College.
India, like Switzerland, seems to be going through an ‘identity crisis’.
India is at a crossroads and it must decide where it wants to go from here. Suppressing women from one community under the garb of uniformity is a slippery slope that will put the country at par with regressive societies with little respect for equality and human rights. The authorities at the college must introspect and address the true motivation for such a policy that detrimentally affects girls’ education.
(Khushi Vardhan is a third-year B.A., LL.B. (Hons.) student at the Gujarat National Law University, and an intern with The Leaflet. All views expressed are personal.)