Along coastal Karnataka, many colleges have caved in to the demand by right-wing groups, including the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad(ABVP), the student wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), that Muslim women cannot be allowed to enter college wearing hijabs even if the headscarves match the colour of the college uniform. Instigated by the ABVP, Hindu students declared that they would wear saffron stoles if Muslim women wore hijabs. In response, the BJP government of Karnataka banned in campuses “clothes which disturb equality, integrity and public law and order”. This decision draws its legitimacy from the Supreme Court’s interpretation of Article 25(1) (all persons areequally entitled to freedom of conscienceand the right freely to profess, practise 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 had held in Amnah Bint Basheer v. CBSE (2015) that the CBSE could not prevent a Muslim girl from writing her exams while wearing a hijab, on the grounds that the hijab is an “essential practice” in Islam and thus deserving of protection under Article 25 (1). On the other hand, the Kerala High Court, in Fathima Tasneem v. State of Kerala (2018), held that the court could not tell schools to allow Muslim girls to wear hijabs. It conceded that girls do have a fundamental right to wear a hijab, but concluded that their rights serve mere “individual interest”, and must thus give way to the fundamental right of the educational institution’s management to administer an institution as it wishes, since such a right serves “public interest”.
The elephant in the room
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. Hindu supremacists are achieving their 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. How can such an outcome be in public interest? 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 for over a decade by violently coming down on interactions between Hindu and Muslim classmates, friends and lovers. 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 the 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 the country’s 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 the country’s 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 hijabs is dangerous. Muslim women are not wearing hijabs 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 bindis/tilak/vibhuti with uniforms. The ABVP has never worn saffron turbans to protest against Sikh turbans. They are singling out the Muslim hijab, and their saffron stoles — a political, not religious, garb worn by BJP and RSS followers all over India — are clearly motivated by Islamophobia.
The constitutional freedom to practise religion should mean protection fora woman’s freedom to interpret and practise her own religion in keeping with her own conscience. Religious institutions cannot be allowed to violate the constitutional rights and liberties of individual citizens in the name of their “freedom to practise 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.
Pressure of patriarchy
Every day, girls and women across communities accommodate their family’s patriarchal concerns to go to 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 women wearing hijabs 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 their choice of clothing, no matter if it’s a hijab or high heels; burqa or spaghetti-strap tops. Supporting the struggle of women in hijabs in Karnataka does not amount to endorsing the patriarchal notion that deems 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 women, forbidding jeans for women and violently harassing couples on Valentine’s Day. Its Hindu supremacist fellow travellers attacked women in 2009 for visiting a pub and dancing in “western” clothes. In the past year, they 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 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.
Kavita Krishnan is Secretary, All India Progressive Women's Association, and Politburo member of CPI (ML) Liberation