Anyone who thinks that the anti-hijab campaign is about discipline and dress code needs to have his or her head examined. And anyone who thinks it’s about the emancipation of Muslim women needs to have a frontal lobotomy without any further loss of time. For it’s clear as crystal that this is just the latest provocation in the right wing tool-kit for the de-identification of the Muslim community- to deprive them of their visible symbols, rituals and practices that define their identity. The attack on the hijab, remember, has been preceded by the various jihads ( love, covid, spitting), and contrived agitations against public Namaz, abattoirs and beef, non-vegetarian food stalls, alleged conversions, birth rates, immigration of “termites” and of course the eternal mandir-masjid binary.
As usual, our Prime Minister has not spoken on the subject. Is it because he realises the pathetic ironies implicit in this latest demonstration of double-speak? That to deprive young girls of education while preaching Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao is nothing but chicanery of the highest order? That victimising this most vulnerable section of society while proclaiming empathy for them via the triple talaq law is not just a contradiction but an unscrupulous betrayal?
The hijab is not so much about religion as it is about a woman’s modesty and choice, like the ghunghat or the dupatta. It has been worn by generations of girls without stirring up dormant religious fervour in society. It has quietly merged with school uniforms without inviting any undue attention, just like the Sikh turban has with army and police uniforms. It is permitted in the Central govt’s own Kendriya Vidyalaya’s dress code which prescribes it in so many words: “scarf with red hemmings for Muslim girls, matching with the lower.” And that makes eminent sense to any one but a lumpen- let the head scarf match the colour of the uniform and become a part of it, rather than what it is falsely being made out to be- a defiance of the uniform.
One would have expected the courts to appreciate this simple truth and reality. Sadly, the Karnataka High Court has not; in its quest for a deeper constitutional meaning and interpretation of the hijab it has only strengthened the position of the Hindutva fundamentalists. Its interim order of 11th February 2022 prohibiting the wearing of any religious dress- hijab or saffron scarf- is unfortunate, and misconceived on many counts, as per my humble opinion. It has only made a bad situation worse.
Before this particular order, many colleges were permitting the hijab in classrooms, even after the campaign against it was started in the first week of January. Now, according to an NDTV report of 16th February, even they have stopped it, fearing charges of contempt of court ! The order has strengthened the hands of a state govt. which has made Karnataka the new laboratory of Hindutva, and vigilantes for whom such agitations are bread and butter, for they can now legitimately piggy- back on this order to do what they wanted to do in the first place. Their ulterior motive has now acquired judicial legitimacy, till the final order comes, only the good Lord knows when.
The interim order also ignores a basic principle of jurisprudence- that unequals cannot be treated as equals in law. It accords the same status to the saffron scarf as to the hijab, which is unjustified: the hijab has been a standard and traditional dress for Muslim girls for centuries and they have been wearing it for decades, including in educational institutions and in public. It has been practically de rigueur for them, whether out of religious dictat or modesty or sense of safety is irrelevant. The wide use of the saffron scarf outside of religious institutions or occasions, on the other hand, is a recent innovation as an assertion of Hindu identity, it is not intrinsic wear for members of the community, and certainly not in schools or colleges. By treating both on par, the court has diminished one and elevated the other, considering them equal in tradition and usage, which cannot be correct.
Equally disappointing is the court’s decision to hold that the hijab is a religious accessory, and to therefore examine in depth whether it is an essential part of Islam. The whole issue has now been given a constitutional dimension, and will be examined as such. The last time this happened, in the Ram Janambhoomi case, it took more than fifty years for a verdict to be delivered. The same time frame is likely in this case, and in the meantime the status quo ( as directed by the interim order of the court) will mean that Muslim girls can no longer wear the hijab in schools and colleges. This is patently unfair as the enforced status quo suits the anti- hijabists and the state govt. The hijab is a form of dress, not a religious talisman, just like the salwar kameez or the sari or the ghaghra- why, in God’s name, should Muslim girls be prevented from wearing it ? By imparting a religious hue to the issue the court is falling into the trap set by the right wing fanatics who would like nothing better than everything to be viewed through a religious prism. Ironically, by doing so the court is also pushing these young Muslim girls into the embrace of the Islamic fundamentalists, adding more grist to their ” Islam is in danger” mill. Surely, our judges could not be blind to this?
Quite often we miss the woods for the trees, and get entangled in undergrowth of no consequence. It must be remembered that the statue of the Goddess Justitia, which is the universal symbol of justice, holds a sword, not a scalpel. It is time our judges used the former, to slash through the thicket of obfuscations, jabberwocky, fabrications, mendacity and duplicity which comprise the tool-kit to harass minorities today, rather than using the ineffective scalpel to probe for a chimera that exists nowhere but in the politics of a certain party. Give them back their hijab, their education and their sense of dignity.
Avay Shukla retired from the Indian Administrative Service in December 2010. He is a keen environmentalist and loves the mountains.
He divides his time between Delhi and his cottage in a small village above Shimla. He used to play golf at one time but has now run out of balls.
He blogs at http://avayshukla.blogspot.in/