A Liberal View of the Hijab Controversy
Exclusion of costumes associated with religious identity in public spaces in the French style is impossible in India
We can only sympathise with the honourable Judges of the Supreme Court, who have accomplished a thankless task this week, while giving their verdict on the hijab issue. There are already serious clashes on the matter across the world and within the country, sometimes even among those who claim to share the same principles, ideology and religion.
Liberals are being mocked for supporting the women protesting against the hijab in Iran, while defending those claiming the right to wear it in India. The clamour of the debate is also silencing many voices, within and outside the Muslim community.
Countries which have good credentials as functional democracies cannot give us any pointers on proper secular behaviour. This is something that every nation must decide for itself within its own historical and socio-political context.
The French approach to the hijab issue is widely misunderstood. Secularism is enshrined in the French principle of Laïcité. This is a freedom that the country has won after more than a century of battle against religious forces.
The French Revolution of 1789 and subsequent outbursts were a fight not only against autocratic monarchs, but also against the powers and privileges of churches, particularly of the Catholic church. Which is why the different republics and constitutions of France have ruthlessly enforced the separation of the Church from the State.
A major plank of this division is the refusal to permit citizens to wear clothing identified with religion in any public space. The French ban on the hijab and the identifying marks of religions arises not from a dislike of Islam, but from a determination to never again return the control of secular spaces to religious organisations.
But, even the French are conflicted, when nuns, devout Catholics sporting crosses, turbaned Sikhs and members of certain Jewish communities who insist on wearing religious insignia move around in their roads, parks and schools. The UK, which still cannot have a Catholic head of State because the King is also the head of the Anglican Church, is certainly in no position to teach us lessons in secularism.
We must, therefore, forge our own unique Indian approach to this thorny issue in accordance with the country's religious and social diversity and our desire to create a modern, cosmopolitan environment. Most Indians do not realise that we are the country with the largest number of religions in the world: Hinduism, Christianity (one of Jesus's apostles, Thomas, came to India and we have almost every variant 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. Every part of India has forged its own way 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, who is revered by most Hindus.
Exclusion of costumes associated with religious identity in public spaces in the French style is, therefore, impossible in India. Hindus must sport bindis and caste marks, Sikhs must wear turbans and kirpans, Christians must put on scapulas and crosses and Jews their skull caps. Muslims, too, must put on fezes, if they wish to.
When I was growing up in Kerala as a child, I saw different kinds of mundu worn differently by Hindus, Muslims and Christians. These distinctions have now disappeared, since use of the mundu has become rarer. Apparently, therefore, there should be no controversy about the use of the hijab.
But, this is not a straightforward matter. Both supporters and opponents of the hijab have communal agendas for which the costume is only a symbol. They are determined to drive the discussion to the brink to provoke violence and conflict.
We are not even told exactly what the issue 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 simply ask if the demand is for covering the head. This is a common practice among many religious communities. Catholic women in Kerala and in countries like Spain and Portugal do so while going to church. Hindu women of north India cover their heads too as a mark of respect, while greeting older members of the family.
Orthodox Rajasthani women of some communities even draw their dupattas across their faces. Head coverings are also mandatory for men in many religions. There is nothing controversial in this request.
If the demand is for women alone to put on a black robe and a mask to conceal the body and the face, whatever be the name of the costume (hijab or purdah), we must look at the reasons for this injunction. This is when the misogyny underlying the garb becomes apparent.
Women's bodies and faces evoke impure thoughts and lust in men; hence, they must be concealed to keep women safe. The dress is not linked to religion, for men do not have to follow the practice. No civilised country which gives women equal rights should accept this sort of thinking.
Liberals are conflicted because women themselves wish to conceal their bodies with such robes to protect themselves from the gaze of men in public spaces. This is the "choice" argument that is used to counter the charges of misogyny.
But, the word "choice" can be particularly misleading, when applied to women. This is a group that must pick its words and moderate its behaviour to suit the expectations of the family and of society.
How do we discover 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 alternatives.
Most of the women who choose to conceal their bodies and faces are neither aware of the misogyny behind the demand nor the other possibilities open to them. They do not debate the matter 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 has been an independent choice, but they should at least take it with a pinch of salt. At one time, many Muslim women who moved around without black robes and masks were available in India as role models to girls from more conservative families.
Such women are the norm in Muslim countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and Turkey. When many Indians found employment in the oil driven economies of the Middle East (and especially in Saudi Arabia), these modern influences were replaced by a more conservative and retrograde mentality, that associated the misogyny of the face-and-mask covering with faith in Islam. This has 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 are making it impossible to transition easily to a liberated environment in India, to an ambience more in line with the Indonesian and Turkish example, rather than the Saudi Arabian.
I also wonder if the controversy has isolated Muslim women coming from families who do not mask themselves by implicitly requiring them too to proclaim their adherence to the practice as proof of their faith in Islam. What I would like to see, therefore, is free use of head coverings and religious marks of all religions in public and private spaces. To encourage families to educate daughters,
I would prefer the State to allow the use of masks and black robes in public spaces; that is, up to the gates of educational institutions. To fight misogyny, however, I would insist on these being removed within classrooms, since security concerns in these areas should be addressed by the authorities.
This was exactly the situation I had known in Kerala, when I was growing up. This was also where we stood in Karnataka before the controversy was ignited. Polarising citizens by creating confrontations will increase the political clout of all fundamentalist groups. It will not, however, do any favour to Indian women.
Renuka Viswanathan is a former civil servant.