Two freedoms and the hijab in our midst

The discourse of the essential religious practice needs to be re-thought in a largely pagan context 

Updated - March 21, 2022 12:28 am IST

Published - March 21, 2022 12:15 am IST

Students leave after they were not allowed to attend class with their hijabs at a college in Udupi. File

Students leave after they were not allowed to attend class with their hijabs at a college in Udupi. File | Photo Credit: PTI

Upon hearing the petitions of Muslim students seeking permission to wear the hijab inside educational institutions, the Karnataka High Court recently ruled that wearing the hijab is not an essential practice in Islam. The judges also held that neither the prescription of a uniform in schools nor the Karnataka government’s order of February 5 disallowing the wearing of the hijab in schools where there was a uniform were violative of Article 25 of the Constitution.

Two concepts of freedom

In the debates around the hijab issue, two concepts of freedom emerge. One is whether Muslim women ‘freely’ choose to wear the hijab or do so because they are socially conditioned to believe that al haya (modesty) is a womanly virtue. However, this question can be asked of any of the choices we make, as women, men or transgender people. For instance, one can also ask whether women freely choose to wear high heels or are brainwashed by societal discourses about feminine beauty.

The other is the question of the freedom of the individual or of a community vis-à-vis the state. Consider the following set of questions that help explicate this: Am I free to eat whatever I choose or have I given up this freedom to the state? (Think of the ban on beef in parts of India.) Am I free to have sexual relations with whomsoever I choose or can the state interfere and tell me whom I can or cannot have such relations with? (Laws prohibiting homosexuality come to mind.) Am I free to have as many children as I want or can the state impose a one-child policy, as China did?

Each of these freedoms is also a right: My right to eat whatever I want, my sexual rights, my reproductive rights. At the heart of ‘liberalism’ is the question of liberty or freedom posed as the freedom of the individual (the ‘I’) vis-à-vis the state/social contract (the ‘we’). How much of my freedom do I give up to the state when I enter the social contract, and how much do I keep for myself? In social contract theory, this maps on to the distinction between the public and the private spheres. The freedom that I keep for myself, I exercise in the private sphere. When I enter the public sphere, I am a citizen, not a private person. I cannot do as I will.

And hence we have the distinction between a liberal state and an illiberal state. In a liberal state, the sphere of individual freedom is at a maximum. The state is minimalist. In an illiberal state, the private sphere is kept to a minimum. Citizens have given up most their freedom to the state and have few rights.

In a secular state, religion is in the private sphere. This means two things. One, I am free to practise my religion; I have not given up this freedom to the state. The state cannot interfere in my practice of religion. Two, the state itself does not profess any religion. The juxtaposition of A and B, as defined above, can create logical contradictions. Let me illustrate this with an example: Namaz is an Islamic practice. A Muslim must offer namaz five times a day. What if a Muslim happens to be at a public place, such as a railway platform, at the time when namaz needs to be offered? Should there be spaces for namaz in all public spaces such as schools, airports and train stations? But then, public spaces are supposed to be free of religion in a secular state. Where does the private sphere end and the public begin? Likewise, if a Muslim student is made to remove the hijab at the school, does this uphold the secular nature of the school or trample on her religious right to wear the hijab?

Editorial | Essentially flawed: On the Karnataka High Court’s hijab verdict

A further criticism is that the public sphere in India is implicitly Hindu. Sikhs are allowed to wear turbans, Hindu girls are allowed to wear the bindi or bangles, and these don’t stand out as aberrations; the hijab does. I would like to counter this argument in two ways: First, the hijab is not banned in the public sphere in India, as it is in some Western liberal democracies such as France. The issue at hand pertains to the uniform of schools. As discussed above, when a citizen enters the social contract, she/he gives up some freedom in the process. Something similar happens when one voluntarily enters into a contract with an institution, such as a school or a club. For instance, a school can have an attendance policy for students and require them to attend at least 80% of the classes. If a student voluntarily takes admission in the school, she/he gives up her freedom to attend classes as per her will. She must attend 80% of the classes. The uniform issue is similar.

Essential religious practice

Second, it may still be argued that schools allow turbans, bindis and bangles. Why not the hijab? The debate here meanders into the question of which of these is an essential religious practice. Is wearing the turban an essential practice of the Sikhs? Harjot Oberoi’s historiographical work on Punjab in the 18th-19th centuries reveals something curious: The doli (palanquin) bearers in Dalhousie, though Sikh, smoked tobacco during their months of hard labour away from home. During these summer months, they also cut their hair and kept it short. When they returned home for the winter, they paid a few annas and were ‘reinitiated’ into ‘Sikhism’. This is but one example. Oberoi gives several such instances of the amorphous nature of religious practices in 19th century Punjab.

From this apparent amorphous fluidity, how did we reach a point where the keeping of body hair (kesh) has become one of the ‘essential practices’ of Sikhism? Clearly, something happened between the 19th century and now: The Khalsa movement rose, and so did the Singh Sabha. The Singh Sabha identified a pure, authentic Sikhism, which was based on the texts/scripture, i.e. the Adi Granth. All those practices that were not in keeping with the Adi Granth were seen as corrupt accretions. Hence, Sikhism needed to be ‘reformed’ to remove these corruptions and bring it back in line with the texts/scriptures. Hindu reform movements like the Arya Samaj did something similar: They identified a pure Hinduism, as specified in the Vedas.

Comment | The interpretative answer to the hijab row

This equation of a religious community with a scripture or text is a feature of the Abrahamic religions. To ask whether there are essential religious practices in Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism is to ask the wrong question, and to do harm to these non-Abrahamic traditions. I would go a step further and assert that the practice of Islam and Christianity in the Indian context too is characterised by a fluidity that defies essence. Mother Mary wears a saree in churches in Bengaluru. Diwali is celebrated in the Nizamuddin Dargah. Hence, the discourse of the essential religious practice needs to be re-thought in a largely pagan context such as the Indian.

Lakshmi Arya Thathachar is Associate Professor and Associate Dean-Research at RV University, Bengaluru

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