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Saying it with symbols

Students protest after Karnataka asked girls at government-run high schools in the state not to wear the hijab

Students protest after Karnataka asked girls at government-run high schools in the state not to wear the hijab

When I first came to Chennai, the fact that I don’t wear a bindi attracted a lot of attention. I was asked if I was Christian or Muslim or if I was widowed. The bindi is a strong sign of auspicious Hindu womanhood, just as the absence of a kolam outside an orthodox door can indicate a sorrowing household.

As a species, we are driven very strongly by semiotics, the desire to project meanings about ourselves. We do this via thousands of signs, tiny or large, subtle or in-your-face, each designed to indicate who we are or who we want the world to think we are. Philosopher Charles Peirce once said that we are Homo significans or meaning makers. We invest objects, smells, sounds, expressions, and now, emoticons, with specific, often culture-specific, meanings.

A tattoo shows you are cool, but it might be in Sanskrit to indicate your rootedness. The hairstyle we sport, the kurtas we wear, the book on our coffee table, everything is a banner filled with data we are transmitting, wittingly or unwittingly. Hollywood films invariably include a scene where a prospective lover looks at the tell-tale ring finger of a flirting partner. Even the most stylish mangalsutra signals the same thing: married. And who can miss the elbow-high bangles of honeymooning brides in hill-stations?

Many such signs pertain to religion. Up North, the red cord on the wrists of Hindu men and women is common, down South it’s the forehead mark, which can even indicate caste. People wear crosses on chains and skullcaps on heads. Some Christian denominations wear all white, as do some Jains. Yet, as with the bindi now, a lot of these signifiers in India are fluid and easy. South Indian churches are as likely to have kolams and lotus flowers as Hindu temples. Many Muslim women discard the burqa . A Christian woman we knew and loved in Kolkata adored wearing sindoor so much that she was buried with her parting filled with vermillion.

A land that’s had a myriad religions and sects and subsects merge, cohabit, meld and fuse for millennia cannot suddenly be segregated along rigid lines of clothing or food. The sudden banning of the hijab in Karnataka, which began in Udupi Women’s Pre-University College last month, is an artificial chainsaw being used to cleave people apart violently. Muslim students in hijab are no more a threat to other students than Hindu students in bindis or red wrist cords. If indeed the insecurity caused by a different garb is so severe that Hindu students feel the need for an entirely fabricated custom of saffron scarves, then that too is fine.

Students come to institutions to study and the institution’s responsibility is to let them. Whether or how much they wear their religion on their sleeve is a largely personal decision, like wearing their hair in pigtails or a bob. Unless carried to an extreme, authorities need not interfere in minor displays of religiosity or fashion. To make students’ entry into classrooms conditional upon their removing the hijab is an astonishing act of excess. Where can it logically end? Will the same authorities demand that a Sikh student abandon his turban or kada ? And what if a student going to Sabarimala takes permission to come in black vestments and without footwear?

Equally, it’s wrong to equate this ban with feminism. One can disagree strongly with any custom that demands a woman cover her hair or face, but that’s a different fight, best fought with education and emancipation and without threats.

What’s most important in these troubled times is a spirit of accommodation. It shouldn’t surprise us when a besieged minority clings to its cultural signifiers. Black women, for example, fiercely safeguard the cornrow hairstyle because it used to be a sign of resistance that slaves once wore. When one is engulfed by a majority’s extraordinarily rich and extravagant cultural overflow, it’s natural to clutch tighter to

one’s own markers. To be seen. To stand out. To shout out that you are different, that you matter. That’s what hijabs or silk kurtas or shorts do. They impart an identity. And we should let them. After all, we are first and foremost, as Peirce said, Homo significans .

Where the writer tries to make sense of society with seven hundred words.

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Printable version | Jun 10, 2022 4:12:24 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/saying-it-with-symbols/article65045028.ece