In The Hijab Controversy, Young Women And Their Education Have Become The Battlefield

If teachers and students can adorn their foreheads with bindis/ pottus/ vibuti/ kumkum and if married teachers can wear mangalsutras, taalis, shakha-pola, or any other sign of a married Hindu woman, then why the hijab controversy?

Even though most Indians are now aware of the hijab controversy, let me reiterate the events as they happened.

In January, the group of students at a government PU college in Udupi were prevented from attending classes unless they took off their hijabs. The visuals of these young women in full uniform, mask and headscarf sitting on the staircase of the building, studying for their exams captured the imagination of the nation. Almost everyone had an opinion on it, many even had more than one opinion, but you had to admire the almost Gandhian tenacity of the young women who turned up every day, hoping the school administration would relent and let them attend classes with the headscarf as they were used to doing.

There were essentially three positions that people took, depending on whether they were for or against-

“School uniforms are sacrosanct; there has to be uniformity”.

“The hijab is symbol of oppressive patriarchy and should not be encouraged.”

“The hijab is an act of faith, and the choice of the young women should be respected.”

Each of these positions could be easily countered, because in a situation like this you do not have a single “right answer”. Yes, in a country like India, the uniform is necessary to reduce visible socio-economic differences, but should the uniform be imposed when it goes against personal faith? Yes, the hijab could be something forced on women by a patriarchal society, but can that be countered by forcing a ban, or should it be dealt with through empowerment? Yes, the hijab is an act of faith, but the fact that many women do not practice the hijab shows it is not an “essential practice” the way a turban is for Sikhs.

While people approached the court and debated the nuances of the case, the young women were being denied their right to attend classes- an outcome that nobody would consider desirable no matter which side of the debate they were on.

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Fast forward a few weeks. An incident that should have been sorted out without fanfare blew up. Schools and colleges across Karnataka started barring entry to students in a hijab. The video of a principal slamming the college gate shut on a group of burqa clad girls went viral, and the incident was even picked up by the international media. The next day, another group of young women marched to college wearing saffron stoles and demanded their right to come to college wearing kumkum, flowers and sarees. By the end of the week, it had spread across the state. Students trying to go to college in burqas were intimidated by groups of “students” in saffron stoles.

Meanwhile, pending a decision, the High Court ruled that no religious symbols will be permitted in the classroom, unless expressly allowed by the rules of the institutions. Some schools and colleges took this interim order to the extreme and forced students (and even teachers) to take off the hijab even before entering the school premises. The videos of students and teachers being forced to take off their hijabs in public have gone viral, and they have touched a raw nerve with every woman who empathises with the pain and humiliation they are being put through. The students who insisted on continuing to wear the hijab have been forced to return home. The trouble is starting to spread to other states where educational institutions are unilaterally preventing the entry of students wearing hijabs. How this impasse will eventually be sorted out is anyone’s guess, but no matter what the outcome, it is young women who will suffer.

In this entire hijab controversy, two essential points were overlooked

The first incident of turning back students in hijabs took place at a government run PU college. Unlike in private schools which implement the uniform with greater rigour, in the government school system, the prescribed uniform has always been indicative.

Anyone who has ever been to a government school knows that while most of the students turn up in the uniform, they also wear anklets, bindis, hijabs, dangling earrings, bright coloured plastic hair clips, fresh flowers, strappy sandals, just about anything. Despite the stated purpose of the uniform being to ensure uniformity, Government schools always teem with diversity and colour. By wearing a headscarf in the same colour as the dupatta of the prescribed uniform, the students of the PU college were in conformance with the spirit of the uniform.

More importantly, the primary objective of an educational institution is to provide an education, and by depriving the young women the right to attend their classes, the school authorities were failing in their duty. With just two months left for the end of the academic year, they should have maintained status quo and if they really wanted to implement the rules differently, they should have done so from the subsequent academic year after giving due notice to the students and their guardians. By forcing the young women to sit outside the class, they were being denied their fundamental right to an education in a government run institution of their choice.

In the entire hijab controversy, it is important to understand where the pushback is coming from, and how it does not serve the objective it purports to serve.

Arguments being made for not permitting the hijab

There are essentially two seemingly progressive arguments being made in favour of disallowing students to wear the hijab in educational institutions.

The first is that educational institutions are secular in nature and should be free from all religious symbolisms and that personal religious markers should not be permitted. This argument is based on the French definition of secularism, or laïcité, which requires an absence of religion in public spaces.

In India, however, Secularism has traditionally been meant to indicate that no one religion will be given prominence over the others. If teachers and students can adorn their foreheads with bindis/ pottus/ vibuti/ kumkum and if married teachers can wear mangalsutras, taalis, shakha-pola, or any other sign of a married Hindu woman, then why the hijab controversy? More importantly, almost every programme starts with the lighting of a lamp, and Saraswati Vandana is sung during assembly- are these not religious in nature? Taken in this cultural context, the call for banning the hijab in classrooms doesn’t make sense.

The second argument is more insidious. It is the liberal narrative that draws a false binary between hijab and kitab. The proponents of this theory state that the hijab is oppressive and forced on girls, and that the only salvation for the girls will be after they cast off the hijab and embrace education. This argument is based on two contradictory statements- that the woman is disenfranchised and is forced to wear a hijab, yet, she apparently has sufficient agency to cast off her hijab for the sake of an education.

The argument falls under its own weight- if the woman lacks agency, how will she rebel? Isn’t it better to ensure she continues her education and becomes financially and emotionally independent after which she is empowered to make her own choices?

In the hijab controversy, who loses?

The young women who want to study and better their prospects.

For many of them, wearing the hijab is an act of faith and/ or a tradition, and the thought of taking it off in public is so inconceivable, that when they are asked to take it off, they prefer to return hone instead. While a few of them might be willing to remove the hijab in the classroom, the entire process is so disconcerting and traumatising that they hesitate go return to school. Given the atmosphere of hate and mistrust that has been built up, many families too might hesitate to let their daughters go to school or college where there is danger of them being subject to humiliation. All that banning the hijab will accomplish is to make it far more difficult for a woman to get an education.

If a hijab ban is enforced, many families will insist on taking their daughters out of school. Some may be home-schooled, or enrolled in minority institutions, but a large number may be forced to drop out of the education system. If minority institutions come up, even families of young women who don’t wear the hijab may be tempted to take them out of ‘secular institutions’ and enrol them in minority institutions where they will not have to be defensive about their religious identity. This will eventually lead to increased ghettoization.

Even if the Court rules that there is no prohibition on religious symbols in public spaces and upholds the fundamental right of education, this controversy has once again exposed the fault lines in the secular fabric of the nation. Parents of young women may still want to take them out of secular institutions and enrol them in minority institutions where they will be shielded from similar attacks in future. This will adversely affect the diversity of classrooms and young people will grow up with a sense of alienation.

In a battle which is supposedly for their ’empowerment’, the young women who wear the hijab have become the battlefield, and no matter what the outcome, they are the ones who will pay the price.

Image source: ikhlas_Sabilly on pixabay

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About the Author

Natasha Ramarathnam

Natasha works in the development sector, where most of her experience has been in Education and Livelihoods. She is passionate about working towards gender equity, sustainability and positive climate action. And avid reader and occasional read more...

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