Is the hijab question a feminist question?

We must acknowledge that feminine agency negotiates a matrix of power — whether caste, class, or community

February 25, 2022 02:30 pm | Updated 03:48 pm IST

As the Islamic headscarf or hijab dominates the news, it predictably reignites old debates and heated discussions — particularly amongst feminists — can the donning of hijab be seen as a sign of women’s agency?

The immediate context is its ban in classrooms in Udupi, Karnataka, which led to a stand-off between women students and the college administration. The former demand their right to education and the right to observe their religious practices while the latter invoke Article 133 (2) of the Karnataka Education Act, 1983, which says that a uniform style of clothes has to be worn compulsorily. The logic of uniformity, however, is not applied to Sikh boys wearing turbans or Hindu women wearing bindis.

As the situation escalated, a video circulated of a lone woman in burqa entering a college campus and being greeted with shouts of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ by men wearing saffron scarves. Muskan Khan, the woman in the video, responds with ‘Allahu Akbar’, pumping her fists. On the face of it, the video should make feminists cheer, a lone woman bravely staring down a mob; liberals, however, quickly distanced themselves, expressing their dismay at Muskan upholding religious beliefs rather than constitutional values.

No pure human agency

While no one denies that women’s bodies have been, for far too long, the site of communitarian and ethno-nationalist forces, one must also recognise that there is no pure human agency that is not already marked and constituted by larger social forces; more so, when it comes to women. We must acknowledge that feminine agency negotiates a matrix of power — whether it is caste, class, or community.

The understanding of oppression by a garment, whether hijab or purdah, emerges from an understanding of the sameness of oppression that women face, in differing degrees, at the hands of ethno-nationalist patriarchies. It implies that women who don religious or cultural symbols are powerless or have internalised sexism to a degree that they refuse to walk the path shown by their enlightened liberal sisters. And any attempt to speak from such a location is cancelled as false consciousness.

Lazy equation

The easy, or rather lazy, equation of the veil with women’s oppression elides over the multiple ways in which women contest patriarchy. The veil is, and has always been, situational and context-driven, sometimes a resistance to colonialism/ neo-imperialism (Iran, 1970s) or an assertion of identity (France, 1989), as well as a coercive practice, institutionally mandated and carried out with the threat of severe retribution. While women have successfully organised, and continue to do so, on common agendas of oppression, whether to protest the tyranny of clothes, violence or sexist laws, these solidarities are based on a certain universalisation that tends to iron out heterogeneity even among women.

It is thus imperative that an understanding of these issues is contingent, contextual and situational and not ahistorical or unchanging. To view veiling through the prism of patriarchal oppression and nothing else is to reduce the garment to its immediate meaning, discounting the heterogeneity of reasons why women don the hijab. To view the hijabas a contest between men and women, oppression and freedom, patriarchy and liberation is to reduce hijab-wearing women to their immediate identities of victims of patriarchy, denying them their agency and, therefore, viewing the world through a narrow dichotomy.

War on women’s bodies

The recent attack on the hijabcannot be seen in isolation but as part of the larger global politics starting from 9/11 when symbolic representations of Muslim identity in public were complicated by certain countries in Europe legislating to ban the hijab in state-run institutions, including schools. The representation of Islamic norms as incompatible with modern secularism led not just to a ban of the hijabbut also the burkini. But symbols of the Christian religion continued to be worn publicly without being challenged. Similarly, In India, where the hijab is being attacked for disrupting the ‘uniform style of clothes’, no other religious symbols displayed on the body are being questioned.

While the students filed a case declaring that the hijab was an ‘essential part of Islam’, the High Court of Karnataka gave an interim order restraining students from wearing any religious symbols in classrooms. Given that there are only a few months left for their final examination, the order can be seen only in one light: the logic of right-wing majoritarianism.

Young women are asked to either fall in line with secular (read: majoritarian) norms or forego education. For feminists, both are equally non-viable. Cultural and religious heterogeneity being erased to achieve a secular public that is nothing but a radicalised Hindutva way of life or women’s right to education (a hard-fought gain) being foregone to give in to ethno-communal patriarchies.

This brings us to an equally important point: what about communitarian patriarchies and the equally distressing war on women’s bodies that right-wing Islamic organisations are waging? While powerful voices within the community are arguing that the hijabis neither a critical symbol of Islamic identity nor one of women’s choice, one cannot help but ask: why then is the hijab so contested and what is women’s agency? Can only those women who question religious and cultural norms be seen as having agency while those who don the hijab but negotiate other gender norms be perceived as ‘pawns’?

Such a position only brings a false dichotomy between Enlightenment assumptions about progressive secular rationalism and the supposedly premodern, patriarchal nature of Islam.

It is time the women’s movement moved beyond such dichotomous views to listen to heterogeneous voices that speak beyond institutionalised spaces of feminism, and ask: what do Muslim women want?

The writer teaches anthropology and gender studies at Krea University.

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