Culture, religion, identity: For Muslim women, hijab row more than a question of what to wear
If people are interested in ‘liberating’ women from wearing a hijab, they must recognise that forcing women to do anything in the name of liberation does not achieve their goal
The Karnataka hijab row is still simmering.
The pro-ban argument states that Muslim women raised by conservative families are taught to wear the hijab without questions. They do not choose to wear it. If that is the case, how do we explain women who take up the hijab in adulthood? How do we define when a woman has a free choice in taking up the hijab? If the argument then becomes that a woman never has a free choice because of the way the world is structured – patriarchal and sexist --- then is forcing them to take off their hijab and stripping them of their agency the best way forward?
The immediate issue is not about whether Muslim women in India should be wearing a hijab. The issue is whether anyone should be deciding if they are “allowed” to do so.
If people are interested in “liberating” women from wearing a hijab, they must recognise that forcing women to do anything in the name of liberation does not achieve their goal. This method of liberation reveals the real intent – an intent not in favour of Indians, Muslims, women, or hijabis.
How can one claim to be working for women’s rights by denying them education based on their clothing? Let us assume that perhaps there is a practical argument that this is in the interest of India at large. That still results in two issues. One, the religious problem, and two, the moral conundrum.
If the argument is that religious symbols should be banned in India, then stop wearing the janeu, teekas, mangalsutras, and sindoor.
This will lead to two questions: What is essential to which religion? What connotes religious clothing and what connotes cultural clothing?
These questions cannot be answered satisfactorily by any entity. Therefore, the answer to question number one will also be arbitrary and not based on consensus.
The second question will require us to decide what’s our culture, or rather whose culture we are talking about.
Why isn’t Indian Muslims’ culture considered Indian? How long do Muslims need to live in India and make their flesh one with its earth, to be considered fully Indian?
Conversations around clothing are often centered on women. What a woman can and cannot wear is a control tactic used to subjugate them. Forcing them to remove their hijab is an example of control tactics, which stokes fear and alienation, but perhaps most importantly, hatred.
In 2022, we are moving towards greater acceptance and respect for people’s identities – how they choose to be addressed or dressed. If one has issues with the hijab, they should speak about it, aiming to educate people with their rationale. But no one has the right to force women to de-hijab.
To sum up, banning all forms of religious markers only leads to a question of culture over religion, and the answer to that will not do justice to citizens. We are too diverse to look the same. And whether or not one agrees with the hijab, one must agree that aggression against women is not the answer
Ruha Shadab is a medical doctor and Harvard graduate who provides mentorship to young Indian Muslim women through her social startup LedBy Foundation
The views expressed are personal