Cover Feature
Hindu-supremacy Not The Hijab Is The Threat To Public Interest and Order
by Kavita Krishnan

All over coastal Karnataka, colleges have caved in to the demand by the BJP student wing ABVP and overnight, have done away with their own rules that that till recently allowed Muslim women to wear headscarves (hijabs) matching the colour of the college uniform. Instigated by the ABVP, Hindu students declared they would wear saffron stoles if Muslim women wore hijabs. In response the BJP Government of Karnataka banned the hijab and saffron stoles on campuses as these disrupt “public order” and “harmony”. This decision draws its legitimacy from the Supreme Court’s interpretation of Article 25 (1) (the Constitutional freedom of conscience and the right to profess, practice and propagate religion) to the effect that “essential practices” of religions are protected from restrictions imposed by the State - except to uphold “public order, morality and health.”

The Kerala High Court (Amnah Bint Basheer vs CBSE, 2015) held that the CBSE could not prevent a Muslim girl from giving her exams while wearing a hijab, on the grounds that the hijab was an “essential practice” in Islam and thus deserving of protection of Article 25 (1). A subsequent Kerala HC judgement from 2018 on the other hand, held that the court could not tell schools to allow Muslim girls to wear hijabs. It conceded that the girls did have a fundamental right to wear a hijab, but concluded that their rights served mere “individual interest”, and must thus give way to the fundamental right of the educational institution’s management to administer an institution as it wished, since such a right served “public interest”.

These interpretations of “public interest” and public order” and “essential practices” may not offer the best guidance at this current juncture, since they seem to be shutting their eyes to the elephant in the room: majoritarian Hindu-supremacist intimidation which is holding hostage the fundamental rights of Muslim women to education, and dignity, and achieving its demand that Muslim women can only study with their peers from other religions if they erase any appearance of Muslimness. If Muslim women want to wear hijabs, says the BJP regime and its student stormtroopers, they can study in Muslim-run colleges. Such an outcome will enable the agenda of segregation and isolation of Muslims and radicalisation of Hindus, which Hindu-supremacist groups in coastal Karnataka have pursued since 2008 by violently attacking any interaction between Hindu and Muslim classmates, friends, lovers. How can such an outcome be in public interest? Public interest is served here only by nurturing diversity in educational institutions: by allowing Hindu, Muslim, Christian students to learn to look beyond their superficial differences and form lasting friendships.   

Majoritarian coercion and state-approved violence is wearing a veil of a “debate” over the “patriarchal” hijab. How hypocritical is it to point an accusing finger at the hijab as an offensive symbol of “patriarchy” when India’s only woman Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as well as our only woman President Pratibha Patil, both covered their heads in public – presumably in deference to the patriarchal expectations from women in public life in India? Can India’s imagination then not accommodate a hijab-wearing Muslim woman as our Prime Minister or President? Can we not then unequivocally defend the right of Muslim women to attend college without having to be coercively stripped of the hijab?

Whether the hijab is “essential” to Islam or not need not concern us; the fact is that hijabs are widely worn by Muslim girls and women in India and should not be stigmatised or banned. The false equivalence between the ABVP’s saffron stoles and the Muslim women’s hijab is dangerous. The Muslim women are not wearing the hijab to disrupt colleges or force any other group of students to adopt or give up any dress or practice. They are wearing hijabs with uniforms the same way Sikh men wear turbans or Hindus wear bindi/tilak/vibhuti with uniforms. Hijabs are not introducing religion onto campuses where the management already hosts official Saraswati Puja functions. The ABVP has never yet worn saffron turbans to protest Sikh turbans: they are singling out the Muslim hijab, and their saffron stoles (these are a political, not religious, garb worn by BJP and RSS all over India) are clearly motivated by Islamophobia.

The Constitutional freedom to practice religion should mean that the individual woman has the freedom to interpret and practice her own religion in keeping with their own conscience. Religious institutions cannot be allowed to violate the Constitutional rights and liberties of individual citizens in the name of their “freedom to practice religion” (see Sabarimala and instant triple talaq judgments); educational institutions cannot violate the rights of individual students in the name of their right to administer a school or college.  

Every day, girls and women across communities accommodate their family’s patriarchal concerns to go school or college. “Wear a hijab” is no different from “don’t mix with boys, don’t fall in love, outside the caste or community, dress modestly” – injunctions a young woman will hear from her parents no matter which community she is from. Keeping hijabi women from accessing education does not “empower” them, it only places added hurdles on this already thorny path.

All women feel the pressure of patriarchy on our choice of clothing, no matter if it’s a hijab or high heels; burqa or spaghetti-strap tops. Supporting the struggle of hijabi women in Karnataka does not amount to endorsing the patriarchal notion that deem the pallu or hijab to be modest and other clothes to be “immodest.” The point is that no institution should be allowed to shame us or discriminate against us for what we wear. Support women’s struggles against the Taliban’s  imposition of the burqa and ban on “western clothes” in Afghanistan; support women’s struggles against Hindu-majoritarian bans on the hijab or ban on “western clothes” in India.

It is worth recalling here the ABVP’s long track record of imposing dress codes on and forbidding jeans for women and violently harassing couples on Valentine’s Day. Its Hindu-supremacist fellow-travellers have attacked women in 2009 for visiting a pub, and dancing in “western” clothes; and in the past year have held online auctions of Muslim women, and made speeches at “Hindu Nation conventions” calling for mass sexual enslavement and rape of Muslim women. It is a travesty for Constitutional arguments of “public order” and “public interest” to be invoked to allow these thugs to tell women what to wear. Today they have achieved a ban on the hijab – tomorrow the government can falsely equate saffron-stole protests and women dancing at pubs or wearing skirts, and “ban both” to keep public order!

The Threat To Public Interest and Order