The Hijab and I: Part 2
Second part of a two part series on secularism and gender empowerment
The trolls, and this time from both communities, took me to task for daring to suggest that the assertion of religious identities is anti-secular. Some insisted that the article was an endorsement of a piece written by Ramchandra Guha---an article that I completely disagree with; others accused me of being an Islam basher; and yet others decided to use the opportunity to indulge in their favourite pastime of Muslim bashing.
Let me state at the onset that I was an unintentional party to the debate generated when Guha tried to raise objections to a well positioned article by Harsh Mander. That he chose to write a fairly virulent piece insisting that Muslims should not attend public meetings in burkhas and skull caps places him in line with the Congress thought process that is unable to accept the minorities as part of the Indian ethos, and over the last years in particular have bought the right wing propaganda against the Muslims hook, line and sinker. In the process both Guha and the Congress have gone beyond the proverbial Englishman and his child, wherein they do not want the Muslims to be seen, let alone heard.
Having said this, it is imperative in the face of the response, to go back to the article The Hijab and I, and stress on some points that have been clearly missed by those looking for reasons to damn the basic suggestion that an assertion of religious identity is anti-secular. And anti-woman. It is.
And this is how.
Look at this photograph.
What reactions does it evoke in the environment currently in India? Of a Hindu assertion, of a distancing, of a majoritarianism that any member of the minority community will read as anti-.
And this without any context to the photograph, just a picture of young people, wearing the tilak and colour associated with Hinduism. No one in their right mind would even suggest that these men are gathered to strengthen the secular spirit of India.
Now look at this photograph:
It will be no one’s contention that this is a secular gathering. Shouting slogans for the strengthening of the Constitution and the secular laws. They could be, but that is not how this crowd will be perceived.
Why? As in both cases there is a clear assertion of the religious identity that certainly leaves others uneasy, and unable to reach out.
There is a tendency for minorities to react to aggressive majoritarianism, and for beleaguered peoples to conflict and war, by strengthening their identities. This is done at the behest of crafty politicians, and vested interests, who use the insecurity and vulnerability generated in these conditions to consolidate communities. And religiosity with symbols thus becomes the banner to encourage and ensure such consolidation. The right wing grows in conditions of war and conflict, as it is able to manipulate the people in conditions that make them fearful and terrified. So the Americans with their war machines, the Islamic State with its tanks and flags, the Hindu right wing with its trishuls and lynchings, are all modern day contributors to instability that takes a toll on the human race.
There was no burkha in Iraq but appeared in full strength after the US invasion. In Gujarat after 2002 Muslims marginalised in their little villages have little more than their identity to hang on to, and this is visible in full strength. With the women kept indoors and in full veil. No fashionable hijabs here. In the rest of the world Muslims, currently the community under global attack, have been trying to protect themselves with an assertion of religiosity and symbols that westernised young people are increasingly adopting. Why? “They want us to disappear, we will not and this (symbols) ensure our visibility”, is a standard response.
This is a response that is being mistakenly seen as a solution. When actually it is part of the problem. For symbols do not strengthen the struggle, but often weaken it by arousing responses and reactions that do not strengthen the secular foundation of a country.
Now look at this last photograph:
If this is not the shackling of women then I seriously do not know what is? The usual, “oh but the women call the shots” is a pathetic Indian response from all communities to justify the treatment of women, the property to be placed behind veils and ghungats while the menfolk traverse the world. (You can replace this with fashionable women wearing the hijab and jeans, of the village woman in ghungats -- the message is still the same).
As the flaw lies one, in the perception of others as explained above. And two, in our own thought process that makes us seek solace in religiosity in the political space as fear and insecurity spreads. This has to be fought, not by diktat but by a heady embrace that has to come not just from Harsh Mander but from the Opposition parties, the Congress, the majority in India. And this will come only from all if the minorities too create conditions for the embrace, by freeing their women from the shackles of purdah, of not romanticising the restrictive veil, of not becoming prisoners of a vision that wears religion tainted glasses in the public sphere.
Secularism cannot be fought for and got with weapons that are faulty, and hence weak. The veil weakens the woman, has never ever strengthened her to get an equal space in the sun.
If every citizen against the spread of hate and right wing generated divisiveness asserts his religious identity at a time when the need of the hour is united struggle, the fight will never be one. Religious extremists know that, and hence dress their consolidated constituencies in a garb of religiosity as the photographs above indicate. The counter cannot come from a fragmented religiosity (that cannot be united by its very nature except through right wing aggressiveness as we are currently witnessing in India) but a united secular people that hold together with an ideology of peace and democracy, and rights and equality,
But if I see you as ‘different’ I might not reach out to embrace you. We have to remember we are not here to speak to just the converted, but to all those who are in the grip of propaganda and cannot always separate the chaff from the wheat.
The veil is thus, being romanticised when actually it is a step back in our long struggle for women empowerment. As it takes the women back to the realm of male control ---as explained in the earlier article the use of symbols is patriarchal and not a woman’s free choice even if she is not always aware of it---instead of honing her ability to break free. And in the process acquire an equal voice as an equal partner, even in this struggle against communalism.
And to end as I did the first part of this article, till then will fight for the right of every citizen to dress as she pleases. And to become visible in every sphere of life.
Part one: here