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The Hijab controversy in India: What do we need to know?

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Prasad Binoy
Prasad Binoy
Binoy Shanker Prasad holds a PhD from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Originally from Darbhanga, Bihar (India), Binoy lives with his family in Dundas, Ontario (Canada). He is a former UGC teacher fellow at JNU in India and a Fulbright Scholar in the USA. Author of scholarly works including a book, Violence Against Minorities, Gandhi in the Age of Globalization (a monograph) and a collection of poems, Dr Prasad has taught International Politics and Political Sociology at Ryerson University, Centennial College and McMaster University. He has guest-lectured at such institutions as the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), George Mason Univ., Univ of Madison-Wisconsin, and Redeemer Univ. Socially active, Binoy has also been a two-term president of Hamilton based India-Canada Society (2006-08 and 2018-20).

In this digital instant-information age, you must have noticed how a controversy around Hijab at a college in Udupi, Karnataka (India) did capture national and international attention.

On the footage of a Muslim girl, Muskan, yelling “Alla hu Akbar” to a mob shouting “Jai Shri Ram,” we received conflicting accounts. The voice against the BJP, the ruling party – both in the province of Karnataka and at the center – characterized this event as a “shameful-despicable act of the vigilantes” wearing saffron turban and shawls obstructing the lone girl, aggressively shouting ‘Jai Shri Ram’.

Contesting this description, however, others claimed the whole episode was stage-managed. They say the videographer spotted the girl coming in burqa and neatly shot her movement right from where she parked her scooty to the point she passed by the students’ crowd. 

Yes, before Muskan arrived, they argue, there were students present on the scene and they did raise slogans “Jai Shriram” from a distance at the sight of Muscan (in burqa) alighting from her scooty. The students in saffron scarf were there in response to the news in circulation that a handful of girls were insisting on attending classes in hijab against the college dress rules. 

Footage of the girls in burqa/hijab squatting at the gate of the college and arguing with the college authorities were being flashed for a number of days by the national and international media. The students in saffron scarf did assemble on the premise to make a simple point that if one section of the students was allowed to violate the dress code, they would do it too.

In the next stage, the lawyers on behalf of the Muslim girls have moved the court to secure the right to wear hijab in the classrooms. As the nation waited for the verdict of the court, the issue played out in the socio-political arena and on the streets. 

For us – the overseas Indians – the entire controversy surrounding the hijab needed to be understood in the right perspective.

As a vast majority of the 20 million Muslims in India are busy – in harmony with others – earning their every day requirements of food, shelter, clothing and health, there are a handful of Islamist organizations and their foreign-funded diehard leaders always on the look out of fanning the fire of communal animosity. 

Their stories are picked up by the mainstream/social media and a select media or political elites. Collectively, they keep on feeding the 24-hour news cycle making every issue divisive and emotive. The one who yells the loudest gets most of the attention. 

The Islamists’ constant barrage of the ‘clarion-call’ that their religion was in danger tends to get traction in certain Muslim pockets. It doesn’t take time for an incident to become international news. 

This doesn’t mean there are no issues of socio-political or religious significance in the Hindu or the Muslim communities separately or between them: The Islamists’ ultimate dream is Ghazwa-e-Hind, whereas the Hindus are fearful that India shouldn’t slip back to the Muslims’ rule. 

In the latest controversy, the Islamists are asserting that it’s the “fundamental” right of the Muslim girls to wear hijab in the classrooms on the ground of their faith. 

The distinguished scholars of Islam like Asghar Ali Engineer, Zeenat Shaukat Ali or Arif Muhammad Khan educate us that there’s no reference to Burqa or Niqab in Quran, the holy book of the Islamic faith; only ‘Khimar’ is mentioned for men and women to cover their bosom. Hijab is mentioned for seven times in the Quran but its use is for partition; it doesn’t mean a piece of cloth covering the head or neck. 

Elham Manea, a professor of  Swiss-Yemeni background and the author of Women and Sharia Law, argues that it’s not only naive, but “racist” to regard the wearing of a burqa as a sincere act of faith. 

Also, take a look at how other Islamic/Muslim majority countries have dealt with the issue of hijab/burqa. Whereas in Iran, Afghanistan and Aceh province of Indonesia wearing a hijab/burqa is compulsory by law, it is banned in public in countries like Kosovo (since 2008), Azerbaijan (2010), Tunisia (since 1981, partially lifted in 2011). In Indonesia, Malaysia, Bruni, Maldives and Somalia, it is not mandatory. In Europe, France banned it in public places during the Sarkozy period. 

Here in the Canadian province of Quebec, hijab is not permitted in public institutions – the Islamists have applied their full force behind fighting this legislation. They will eventually take guidance from the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, also the custodian of Mecca and Medina. He has declared recently that head cover or Abaya covering full body were not a must for Muslim women. 

In Udupi, Karnataka, like in many parts of south India, the affluence generated among the Muslims by the Gulf money has given birth to several Islamist organizations. The calculated but impotent agitation by a dozen hijabi students – that could have easily been handled by a strong and alert administration – was staged by the Campus Front of India, the student wing of the Popular Front of India (PFI). 

The Islamist PFI has been involved in a number of violent attacks including the one on a college teacher in Kerala for “blaspheming Prophet Muhammad.” 

Another organization of students and youth is the Fraternity Movement that has close ties with the Welfare Party of India, a political platform floated by the Indian Jamaat-e-Islami. 

There’s a glimmer of hope. 

For quite some time, the Leftists in India have openly thrown their weight behind the Islamists. However, on the question of hijab, what I find pleasantly surprising is that both Left and Right in India seem to agree that unnecessary emphasis on this ‘right’ or ‘choice’ issue would weaken attempts to provide good education to Muslim girls. Their empowerment through education would receive a push back, if the Islamists had their own way. 

Thus, the regressive slogan, ‘Pehle hijab, phir kitab’ (hijab first, book later) thrust upon the immature, unsuspecting Muslim girls by the Islamists must be condemned by all of us.

The bottom line: Muslims have to be saved from Islamists.

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Prasad Binoy
Prasad Binoy
Binoy Shanker Prasad holds a PhD from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Originally from Darbhanga, Bihar (India), Binoy lives with his family in Dundas, Ontario (Canada). He is a former UGC teacher fellow at JNU in India and a Fulbright Scholar in the USA. Author of scholarly works including a book, Violence Against Minorities, Gandhi in the Age of Globalization (a monograph) and a collection of poems, Dr Prasad has taught International Politics and Political Sociology at Ryerson University, Centennial College and McMaster University. He has guest-lectured at such institutions as the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), George Mason Univ., Univ of Madison-Wisconsin, and Redeemer Univ. Socially active, Binoy has also been a two-term president of Hamilton based India-Canada Society (2006-08 and 2018-20).
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