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Hijab: Right to Education or the Right to Coexist?

The education institutions in Dakshina Kannada were equal to all students with no distinction of identity until the Hijab row. Indian courts should therefore deny this attempt to introduce clothing-based racial identity and reverse this equality. 

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Leading up to the Supreme Court’s final ruling on the Karnataka Hijab controversy, there were many opinions being expressed on both sides of the argument. 

Muslim intellectuals tell you that Hijab is a symbol of Muslim Identity, or that it stands for a woman’s Modesty or represents her Piety as a Believer. Across the world today, intellectuals and liberals see Hijabism in their community as a healthy proof of their own Inclusivity, Diversity and Tolerance. The right to wear a Hijab is seen as a fundamental freedom, particularly in societies that claim to be free or secular. On school walls in the West, you will now always find a banner of little tots of different races holding hands in a circle with one little girl in a hijab – a proud proclamation of diversity.

An argument in support of allowing Karnataka school girls the choice to wear the Hijab asks a fair question – Why not allow the Hijab in school if it does not adversely affect followers of other faiths? Here is an inconvenient possible answer – Hijab hurts the other communities as it has throughout our history of conquests and freedoms.

Islam as a religion is unique in that it defines itself in the context of other faiths. A binary exists for every Muslim through the first pillar of Islam – “There is no God but Allah”, which clearly differentiates between the brotherhood of Muslims who swear allegiance to Allah and the 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 forehead callus (“Zabiba”) resulting from repeated prostration in prayer, personal sacrifice through rigorous fasting during Ramadan,  Devoutness and Virtuosity through sporting a distinguishing long beard, the predominant use of the Arabic script in which Allah’s words were revealed to mankind. With the Hijab, add Modesty and Piety to that list.

For the conservative Muslim eyes, a woman covering herself in black from head-to-toe Niqab or Burqa could be seen as superior – more pious than one covering her arms and torso in a Hijab or one just covering her head in a convenient scarf. Naturally, in the binary, any non-Muslim woman who has let her hair loose and is not similarly covering herself is seen as an inferior – impious, immodest, lust-seeking, ignorant being. The superior-inferior binary in faith is reinforced with a binary in attire. 

Secularists and Muslim intellectuals will defiantly deny such a binary exists or that it matters, especially towards the female gender. They may attribute such conservative attitudes to poverty or incorrect interpretation of religious texts or being misguided. 

The rest of us are divided. For one camp, Love Jihad, the abduction of Hindu women from streets in Pakistan, or the enslavement of Yezidi women by ISIS is evidence that Muslim men have a predatory attitude stemming from this superior-inferior equation of skin coverage. What matters is what the aggressor believes and acts on, not what we believe. 

For the liberal-intellectual types, Love Jihad is a phrase concocted by Hindutva forces to malign and marginalize the minority community. Indian Muslims are different, they claim and Hijab is a matter of choice. 

That claim is also debatable. If Hijab is a symbol of modesty, would any girl dare to look immodest among her peers? Modesty is naturally tied to the honour of the family. There is family pressure and peer pressure to conform. Then there are difficult choices when a Muslim girl chooses to rebel, as seen among 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 a link exists or not between the Hijab and the attitude of Muslims towards others, the impact of Hijabism on the homogeneity of a  free society is undeniable. Separateness through physical attire on a societal scale reinforces attitudes and hardens stereotyping on both sides. This then leads to the greater evil – self-segregation, where each side creates physical and artificial boundaries, which then further limits choices. You feel safer among your own and in the attire, your community will allow you to wear. Isolated communities breed radicalism and a youth dissonant from the mainstream. Hijab makes a woman “feel safe” or “protected” they say – from what exactly? 

In America, the “Separate but Equal” doctrine for White and African-origin communities did not work in life or in education as the American Civil Rights movement proves. In 1954, the American courts decided that “Separate but Equal is not equal” ending legal segregation. The colour of the skin is not a matter of choice. White skin, black, pale or brown – you are born with it. The hijab in that sense is a self-imposed racial identity, which enables Muslims to collectively see themselves and act like a superior race.  Do we have the courage to call out a medieval practice for its supremacist behaviour and belief?

The education institutions in Dakshina Kannada were equal to all students with no distinction of identity until the Hijab row. Indian courts should therefore deny this attempt to introduce clothing-based racial identity and reverse this equality. Just like “Separate but Equal” is not equal, “Equal but Separate” is also not Equal. Supreme Court must now decide whether the Right to Education for a few is more important than a Right to Coexist as equals for all.

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