Ahead of the Supreme Court’s final ruling on the Karnataka Hijab controversy, many opinions were expressed on both sides of the argument.
Muslim scholars tell you that the hijab is a symbol of Muslim identity, or it represents a woman’s modesty or represents her piety as a believer. Around the world today, intellectuals and liberals see hijabism in their community as healthy evidence of their own inclusiveness, diversity and tolerance. The right to wear the hijab is considered a fundamental freedom, especially in societies that claim to be free or secular. On the walls of Western schools, you will now always find a banner depicting toddlers of different races holding hands in a circle with a little girl wearing the hijab – a proud proclamation of diversity.
An argument for allowing schoolgirls in Karnataka to choose to wear the hijab asks a fair question: why not allow the hijab in school if it does not negatively affect followers of other faiths? Here is a possible inconvenient answer: the hijab hurts other communities as it has done throughout our history of conquests and freedoms.
Islam as a religion is unique in that it defines itself in the context of other religions. A binomial exists for every Muslim through the first pillar of Islam – “There is no God but Allah”, which clearly differentiates the brotherhood of Muslims who swear allegiance to Allah and non-believers who don’t. Superiority over non-believers is attributed to religious texts and in the living domain through rituals. Examples of rituals are purity in Muslim foods through Halaal, religiosity in a frontal callus (“Zabiba”) resulting from repeated prostration in prayer, personal sacrifice through rigorous fasting in Ramadan, devotion and virtuosity through the wearing of a distinctive long beard, the predominant use of Arabic script in which the words of Allah were revealed to mankind. With the Hijab, add Modesty and Piety to this list.
To conservative Muslim eyes, a woman covering herself head-to-toe in black Niqab or Burqa might be seen as superior – more pious than one covering her arms and torso in a Hijab or simply covering her head in a handy headscarf. . Naturally, in the binary, any non-Muslim woman who has let her hair down and does not cover herself in the same way is considered an inferior being – impious, immodest, lustful and ignorant. The higher-lower binary in faith is reinforced by a binary in dress.
Muslim secularists and intellectuals will defiantly deny that such a binary exists or matters, especially towards the female sex. They may attribute these conservative attitudes to poverty or misinterpretation of religious texts or bewilderment.
The rest of us are divided. For one camp, Love Jihad, the abduction of Hindu women from the streets of Pakistan or the enslavement of Yazidi women by ISIS is proof that Muslim men have a predatory attitude stemming from this superior-inferior skin-cover equation. What matters is what the abuser believes and acts, not what we believe.
For liberal intellectual types, Love Jihad is a phrase concocted by Hindutva forces to slander and marginalize the minority community. Indian Muslims are different, they argue, and the hijab is a matter of choice.
This claim is also debatable. If the Hijab is a symbol of modesty, would a girl dare to look immodest among her peers? Modesty is naturally linked to family honor. There is family pressure and peer pressure to conform. Then there are the hard choices when a Muslim girl chooses to rebel, as seen in some princesses who have dared in the Arab world or the occasional loss of someone’s life if she falls in love with a hindu boy.
Whether or not there is a connection between the hijab and the attitude of Muslims towards others, the impact of hijabism on the homogeneity of a free society is undeniable. Society-wide physical separation reinforces attitudes and hardens stereotypes on both sides. This then leads to the greater evil – self-segregation, where each side creates physical and artificial boundaries, further limiting choices. You feel safer among your own people and in the attire your community will allow you to wear. Isolated communities breed radicalism and dissonant youth from the mainstream. The hijab makes a woman “feel safe” or “protected”, they say – from what exactly?
In America, the “separate but equal” doctrine for white and African-descended communities has not worked in life or in education as the American civil rights movement proves. In 1954, US courts ruled that “Separate but equal is not equal” ending legal segregation. Skin color is not a matter of choice. White, black, pale or brown skin – you were born with it. The hijab in this sense is a self-imposed racial identity, which allows Muslims to collectively see themselves and act as a superior race. Do we have the courage to denounce a medieval practice for its supremacist behavior and belief?
The educational institutions of Dakshina Kannada were equal to all students regardless of identity up to the Hijab line. Indian courts should therefore reject this attempt to introduce racial identity based on dress and overturn this equality. Just as “Separate but equal” is not equal, “Equal but separate” is also not equal. The Supreme Court must now decide whether the right to education for the few is more important than the right to coexist as equals for all.