Islamophobia has stoked the hijab controversy

In India, the hijab controversy has now turned into a nationwide debate and people from both communities must act responsibly. The children need to be made to understand that they should follow the dress code laid down by the schools until the matter is resolved in the courts.

A car passed, the driver’s window rolled down and the man spat an epithet at two little girls wearing their hijabs in New York’s Brooklyn area: “Terrorists!”

It was 2001, just weeks after the World Trade Centre twin towers in New York fell in a terror attack, and 10-year-old Shahana Hanif and her younger sister were walking to the local mosque from their Brooklyn home. Unsure and afraid, the girls ran.

Two decades have passed since then but those girls in the US have not been able to forget the incident. The treatment meted out to Muslims in the West has had far-reaching consequences, which have now even reached India.

The hijab controversy did not originate in Karnataka that is now roiling the state. It had been brewing for more than two decades. Lately, hijab or headscarves have become a part of the religious identity of Indian Muslim women. Earlier there used to be a burqa or niqab. The seeds were sown in the post 9/11, 2001 world, which led to Islamophobia. America’s “war on terror” gave rise to certain prejudices against Muslims. The US action aimed at the terrorists was misdirected toward the Muslim community in general. Many Muslims faced hostility and surveillance, mistrust and suspicion, and had to answer uncomfortable questions about their faith.

On 1st February every year, World Hijab Day is celebrated. This initiative was started by Nazma Khan, a Bangladeshi girl, who settled in the US. She faced discrimination when she wore hijab to the school, where students would either call her Batman or Ninja.

When she entered university post 9/11 some students would call her Osama Bin Laden. So, wearing a hijab became a powerful tool for her. She claims World Hijab Day is now celebrated in 190 countries. On this day women are encouraged to wear hijab.

Over the years Islamophobia took hold in the public domain as a consequence of the propaganda for the war on terrorism. The more the West criticised Muslims, the more religious hard-line the latter adopted and it became a trigger.

In the world of Internet communication, Muslim adolescents and young adults started assuming a public Islamic identity by wearing a hijab. For many Muslim girls, a quest for asserting their feminine identity of self-respect made the hijab a symbol of dignity.

A resistance against demonisation of Islam started growing. Many Muslim women, who would have otherwise shunned the hijab, either started wearing it or started coming out on the streets to protest against the banning of the hijab. Stiff resistance was seen when hijab was banned in France and some other European countries.

India, which had been out of the hijab controversy even when the debate was at its peak in other parts of the world, has now been drawn into it although there has been a tradition of purdah and ghunghat in the country. The purdah was prevalent among the Muslims in the form of burqa or dupatta, which has now assumed the shape of the hijab or a headscarf. It is now an accepted transition in Muslim society.

Ghunghat, which was prevalent, especially in the Rajput society has largely been phased out but the custom is still prevalent in conservative Hindu families. This commonality of the veil was also a source of bonding between the women of the two communities.

In India too, during the last 15 years or so hijab became a hallmark of dignity and celebration of Muslim womanhood, free from the abuses of gender-based objectification.

When this issue was raked up in a Karnataka Government College recently, it sparked a nationwide debate in an already politically-charged environment. The sudden raking of this issue gave the impression that it was done purely for political reasons and nothing else.

The present controversy surrounding Muskan Khan’s heckling by a mob of boys was debated in courtrooms. There is a point in the argument of the government’s contention that the schools have certain prescribed school uniforms and all students must follow the rule.

Karnataka Government in its affidavit to the High Court has given the reference of the Karnataka Education Act, 1983, which prescribes rules for the educational institutions of Karnataka, Rules 11 to 15. It says every recognised educational institution of the state may specify its own set of uniforms.

Such uniform once specified shall not be changed within the period of the next five years. When an educational institution intends to change the uniform, it shall issue notice to parents in this regard at least one year in advance. The government in its affidavit has also stated that the students had given an undertaking at the time of the admission that they shall abide by the dress code. However, only at the end of their term in December 2021, they applied for the special privileges.

In view of the sensitivity of the students of the two religions involved, a high-level committee is being formed which would submit its recommendations, but till then, the existing rules must continue. The idea of having a school uniform is to ensure that there should be no difference in the appearance of the schoolchildren, even though the students may belong to different castes or religions.

The uniforms may be a symbol of discipline but the schools must not suffocate the diversity and inclusivity among children. A school teacher recently wrote a very interesting article saying that teachers should not become gatekeepers of bigotry and parochial interests.

By wearing hijab in schools, Muslim girls may inadvertently isolate themselves due to the difference in their outfits. But at the same time, there is a need to understand that Muslim women are loaded with the baggage of what they have learned or heard about Islamophobia in foreign countries. Hijab has become a marker of their identity.

So, when they are asked to remove the headscarf and change their physical identity, which they have internalised over the last two decades, there is a stiff resistance on their part, they even get agitated. More so due to the ongoing religious polarisation in the country.

The bad optics of a Muslim girl being chased by a mob of boys pestering her to remove her headscarf has further worsened the situation. It was bad publicity for the government and the country. Ironically the incident did not happen in the same district where the issue had first surfaced, it happened in another district of Karnataka.

Something which should have been a non-issue had been magnified to the extent that the state government had to close down schools fearing a law-and-order situation. This has only led to the loss of children’s education. This is more harmful than anything else because their studies have already badly suffered due to the coronavirus pandemic. Those who had studied in schools two decades ago were much better-off, at least they did not face such issues.

In small towns these days, Muslim girls normally wear headscarves as they go out of their houses. Some of them could be seen smartly riding a scooter. When they enter the school, they neatly wrap their headscarves and keep them in their schoolbag, it comes out again over their head when they leave their schools.

That’s why when a video of a Muslim girl being hounded for wearing a hijab was uploaded it became viral, the girls could relate to it. It became a subject of intense discussion on social media platforms. Sadly, it turned into a Hindu vs Muslim trend.

Let’s look at this issue in another way. Suppose if a Hindu girl likes wearing a saffron scarf in the school, will she be allowed to do so? Certainly not, she will have to abide by the dress code laid down by the school authority. What’s good for goose is good for the gander.

Some people would argue that Sikh children are allowed to wear turban in schools and nobody points out that difference. We need to understand there are provisions in place for them. But it’s not there for the Muslims yet.

Worldwide governments have used hijab or niqab to demonstrate their own commitment to either Islamic piety or secular values. In Saudi Arabia, for instance, Islamic law is interpreted as requiring women in public to cover their entire bodies with a loose robe (abaya) and women are usually expected to cover their faces by wearing a veil.

In Iran, women must similarly cover their entire bodies, but the niqab is not required. Women are required to dress in a concealing manner in Saudi Arabia and Iran in line with the Islamic laws in the two countries.

France prohibits women from dressing in this manner and makes wearing a veil punishable offence as a sign of that country’s commitment to secular values.

A similar debate took place in Canada’s Quebec, where Bill 94 proposed to deny women who chose to wear the niqab access to public services. In both cases, a key argument was that the niqab, even when worn by choice, subjugated women who needed to demonstrate their belief in gender equity, assimilation, and liberal democracy by renouncing certain types of dress.

In Singapore, Halimah Yacob, the first lady President of the country herself wears the hijab. Interestingly until recently, the Muslim women who worked in Singapore as nurses, civil servants or in the police department were not allowed to wear hijab. Yacob had herself given a statement saying wearing hijab would be problematic at workplaces for professions that require a uniform.

In Turkey, the headscarf is officially banned in public settings, though the ban is not strictly enforced, and the headscarf is seen as a litmus test for one’s religiosity and commitment to secularism. The method of gauging women’s freedom and independence as directly proportional to how much they are covered was called into question by mass demonstrations in 2011 in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, and Yemen, where women both in veils or without have played and continue to play key roles in public life.

Ironically, in the US where the movement to wear hijab was intense in protest of the biases, Ilhan Omar, a senator wears hijab. In India too, the hijab controversy has now turned into a nationwide debate and people from both communities must act responsibly. The children need to be made to understand that they should follow the dress code laid down by the schools until the matter is resolved in the courts. They need not give up their beliefs but respect each other’s diversity. They need not be insecure about their religious identity.

Teachers and parents must make a conscious effort in this direction to insulate children from the evils of bigotry.