A liberal take on the hijab controversy

We can only sympathize with the honorable justices of the Supreme Court, who performed a thankless task this week, delivering their verdict on the hijab issue. There are already serious clashes on the issue across the world and within the country, sometimes even between those who claim to share the same principles, ideology and religion.

Liberals are being mocked for supporting women protesting the hijab in Iran, while defending those demanding the right to wear it in India. The clamor of the debate is also silencing many voices, inside and outside the Muslim community.

Countries that have good credentials as functioning democracies can give us no indication of appropriate secular behavior. This is something each nation must decide for itself in its own historical and socio-political context.

The French approach to the question of the hijab is largely unknown. Secularism is enshrined in the French principle of secularism. It is a freedom that the country won after more than a century of battle against religious forces.

The French Revolution of 1789 and the explosions that followed were a struggle not only against autocratic monarchs, but also against the powers and privileges of the churches, especially the Catholic Church. This is why the various republics and constitutions of France have ruthlessly imposed the separation of Church and State.

A major element of this division is the refusal to allow citizens to wear clothing identified with religion in any public space. The French ban on the hijab and religious identity signs does not stem from an aversion to Islam, but from a desire never again to return control of secular spaces to religious organizations.

But even the French are in conflict, when nuns, devout Catholics sporting crosses, turbaned Sikhs and members of some Jewish communities who insist on wearing religious regalia move through their roads, parks and schools. The United Kingdom, which still cannot have a Catholic head of state because the king is also the head of the Anglican Church, is certainly not in a position to give us lessons in secularism.

We must therefore forge our own unique Indian approach to this thorny issue in keeping with the religious and social diversity of the country and our desire to create a modern and cosmopolitan environment. Most Indians don’t realize that we are the country with the most religions in the world: Hinduism, Christianity (one of the apostles of Jesus, Thomas, came to India and we have almost all variations of Christianity in our country), Islam in many forms, Buddhism (which spread across the world out of India), Jainism and Sikhism.

Secularism is not a modern concept imported from the Western world. Each part of India has forged its own mode of peaceful coexistence, using methods by which shrines of different faiths huddle together in harmony and pilgrimages are made to common temples. This symbiosis is reflected in sages like Shirdi Sai Baba, the Muslim seer, revered by most Hindus.

The exclusion of costumes associated with religious identity in the French-style public space is therefore impossible in India. Hindus must wear bindis and caste marks, Sikhs must wear turbans and kirpans, Christians must wear shoulder blades and crosses, and Jews their skull caps. Muslims too must wear fez if they wish.

When I was growing up in Kerala as a child, I saw different types of mundu worn differently by Hindus, Muslims and Christians. These distinctions have now disappeared, since the use of mundu has become rarer. Apparently, therefore, there should be no controversy over the use of hijab.

But it is not a simple question. Proponents and opponents of the hijab have common agendas for which the suit is only a symbol. They are determined to drive the discussion to the edge of the abyss to provoke violence and conflict.

We are not even told exactly what the problem is. I would like to drop the use of terms like hijab and purdah (the elephant in the room that is not talked about) and just ask if the request is about covering the head. This is a common practice in many religious communities. Catholic women in Kerala and countries like Spain and Portugal do this by going to church. North Indian Hindu women also cover their heads as a sign of respect, while greeting older family members.

Rajasthani Orthodox women of some communities even draw their dupattas on their faces. Headgear is also obligatory for men in many religions. There is nothing controversial in this request.

If single women are asked to wear a black dress and a mask concealing the body and the face, whatever the name of the costume (hijab or purdah), one must wonder about the reasons for this injunction. This is when the misogyny underlying the costume becomes apparent.

Women’s bodies and faces evoke impure thoughts and lust in men; therefore, they must be concealed to ensure the safety of women. The habit is not related to religion, because men do not have to follow the practice. No civilized country that gives women equal rights should accept this kind of thinking.

Liberals are in conflict because women themselves wish to conceal their bodies in such dresses to protect themselves from the gaze of men in public spaces. It is the “choice” argument that is used to counter accusations of misogyny.

But, the word “choice” can be particularly misleading when applied to women. It is a group that must choose its words and moderate its behavior according to the expectations of the family and society.

How do you know if there has been a free and open choice, without pressure or influence? The first ingredient in making a choice is full knowledge of the implications and the alternatives.

Most women who choose to conceal their bodies and faces are unaware of the misogyny behind the request or the other options available to them. They don’t debate the issue with women who live and dress differently. Their families and communities shape their ideas and preferences and influence them covertly and overtly.

Those outside the group have no way of knowing if there was an independent pick, but they should at least take it with a grain of salt. At one time, many Muslim women who moved around without black dresses or masks were available in India as models for girls from more conservative families.

These women are the norm in Muslim countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and Turkey. When many Indians found employment in the oil economies of the Middle East (and particularly in Saudi Arabia), these modern influences were replaced by a more conservative and retrograde mentality, which associated the misogyny of the mask and the face with the faith in Islam. This led to a backlash in the demands made on Indian Muslim women.

Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists have much to gain from the controversy, but not their women. By bringing the issue to a boil, they make it impossible to easily transition to a liberated environment in India, to an atmosphere more in line with the Indonesian and Turkish example, rather than Saudi Arabia.

I also wonder if the controversy has isolated Muslim women from families who do not mask themselves by implicitly asking them to also proclaim their adherence to the practice as proof of their faith in Islam. So what I would like to see is the free use of head coverings and religious marks of all religions in public and private spaces. Encourage families to send girls to school,

I would rather the state allow the use of masks and black robes in public spaces; that is, right up to the doors of educational establishments. To combat misogyny, however, I would insist that they be removed from classrooms, as security issues in these areas should be taken care of by the authorities.

This was exactly the situation I had experienced in Kerala when I was growing up. It was also where we were in Karnataka before the controversy broke out. Polarizing citizens by creating confrontations will increase the political weight of all fundamentalist groups. However, this will do Indian women no favors.

Renuka Viswanathan is a former civil servant.