Why feminists must oppose the hijab ban in Karnataka colleges

Image courtesy Times of India

Images of educational institutions barring their gates to women in hijab are dense with implied violence. Used as we have become to the extreme physical violence on display during the period of this regime, both by state authorities and  by street mobs launched by Hindutva outfits,  in these images is captured in one frozen instant, the ideological violence of Hindu Rashtra.  Here is the marked and stigmatized  Muslim female body, exiled from the resources of the nation, kept out by iron gates, to be admitted only on the terms set by Hindutva.

But let us note that this is not “only ideological” violence, the power of which we have witnessed in plenty since 2014.  We know what terror “mere” words can threaten  – “love jihad”,  “gau hatya”,  “kapdon se pehchane jayenge” –  the last, the murderously weighted words of the Prime Minister himself, that those who protest the CAA can be identified by their clothes.

So ideological violence yes, but implicit physical violence too, held only  temporarily in abeyance –  what if the women decided to climb the gates and insisted on attending class? Or sat quietly on dharna outside? What kind of violence by private security and police would not be unleashed? Just before the pandemic,  did we not witness the brutality of police attacks on peaceful student protests against fee hikes in Delhi?

As more and more colleges in Karnataka deny women wearing hijab entry into colleges, and therefore their right to education, the RSS/BJP government of Karnataka backed such moves, invoking the Karnataka Education Act of 1983, Section 133 (2) of which states that students will have to wear a uniform dress chosen by the college authorities.  The government directive while invoking this Section, added – “clothes which disturb equality, integrity and public law and order should not be worn.”

The first claim therefore,  is that the hijab violates “uniformity of dress” (hence equality).  This is  the first level of Hindutva ideology, familiar in India since the 1990s, presenting itself as  genuinely non-discriminatory, claiming that it alone is truly secular (hence the appellation “pseudo secular” for those who recognize and accept religious difference). This fraudulent claim was demonstrated in some colleges by students, male and female, who came wearing saffron shawls, whereupon the colleges banned both saffron shawls and hijab.

Groups of students suddenly wearing saffron shawls to college is stark evidence of political mobilization, so it was darkly funny when Mohandas Pai, Chairman of Manipal University accused Congress MP Shashi Tharoor of  “playing politics” when Tharoor criticized the ban saying “Let the girls in. Let THEM decide.”   Said Pai – “A uniform code creates unity!”

No, a uniform code creates uniformity. And the norm by which uniformity is created will always be the dominant norm.  If everyone has to do or be x, what will that x be? And who decides?

Compulsory uniforms do not create equality or justice.  It is about discipline and the power of an educational institution to control its students and properly socialize them into the dominant norms of behaviour in society.  There could be a more positive reading of compulsory  uniforms, that it reduces the embarrassment and humiliation of visible class differences at least for the duration of school hours. But this element is not compromised by students wearing hijab.

Conflict is not produced by difference, but by  the failure to acknowledge difference in the public domain.  Abstract citizenship is already marked with a particular kind of difference – it is precisely because by default the abstract citizen is assumed (in Europe) to be white, male, Christian, or in India, savarna, North Indian Hindu, that the introduction of black, female, Muslim identities into it is so threatening.

In the directive of the Karnataka government, it is the invocation of “integrity” and “public law and order” that brings us to the more explicit Hindu Rashtra argument that has emerged in the public domain more and more since the planned genocide of Muslims in  Gujarat  in 2002, and of course has become the predominant discourse since 2014.  No longer claiming to be true secularists, the explicit project now is the building of Hindu Rashtra which marginalizes, assimilates or physically eliminates minorities and all others who resist this project.

The “integrity of the nation” demands that all difference be subsumed under a North Indian, savarna masculinist version of “Hinduism”,  and anything that defies this vision is responsible for the breakdown of public law and order, because those whose sentiments are hurt will retaliate.  And the responsibility of maintaining “law and order” rests not on those who react violently to dissent and difference, but upon the dissenters to Hindu Rashtra, and those who insist that their difference from Hindu Rashtra be noted.

A state that did ban head scarves in 2010 is France, and a comparison of French secularism with Hindutva politics is instructive. I have written about this earlier, in Recovering Subversion (2004) and here in 2008.

France as we know, instituted a ban on “conspicuous religious symbols” in public institutions in 2010, which was a coded term essentially referring to the “Islamic head scarf”.  Scarves worn for other than religious purposes (fashion statement, protection of hairstyle) continue to be accepted.  For instance,  eleven years after the French ban, as the European Union now considers strict limitations on Islamic head scarves,  a “French art of living”  blog says, “A scarf is the ultimate classic statement of the French wardrobe”, in an article titled How to wear a scarf like a French woman.  That French woman evidently, can never be an observant  Muslim.

Many swimming pools and beaches in France have banned the burkini, a body-covering outfit some Muslim women wear at the beach, sparking protests.  The response to the protests and defiance of the ban was closure of pools, and in one case, four armed policemen in Nice forced a burkini clad woman to remove some of her clothing, fining her for not wearing “an outfit respecting good morals and secularism.” Meanwhile,  the “conspicuous religious symbol” of habits of nuns, is not an issue in the French public domain.  In response to the Nice incident, many people posted pictures of nuns at the beach, to point to the double standard.

Image courtesy Global News

However, this double standard is built into “secularism” understood as uniformity, because such a uniformity will always be based on the dominant norm.  What is called secularism in France and in Europe generally was achieved in the 17th century only after defeating rival Christian denominations and diverse cultural practices. The religio-cultural formation that was victorious then attained the status of the “secular universal.”

It has been pointed out by scholars that the apparent secularism of Western states is built on Christian assumptions; for example, the practice of observing the weekly holiday on  Sunday rather than any other day, is biblical in origin. But it appears as neutral even in non-Christian states, whereas when Islamic states declare Friday as their weekly off, or Israel Saturday, it appears as an assertion of  difference. Further, Western secularism involves the continuous regulation of what constitutes religious as opposed to nonreligious practices and institutions. In the United States, the legal apparatus of the state periodically defines what religion is by deciding whether particular forms of public behavior come under the principle of freedom of religion. In France, the antireligious state owns and administers all property belonging to institutions of religions that existed in France in 1905, when the law was passed.

Interestingly therefore, French secularism (and secularism in the European context generally)  is closer to majoritarian Hindu nationalist politics than to the way secularism has been understood in India. I think there are many ways in which the loaded term secularism acts as a misdirect, preventing a more productive frame that makes other processes more visible.

Indian secularism emerged under very different circumstances in a very different society some 2 centuries later.  In India the term is meant to gesture towards a way in which many different communities can live together, while the state also intervenes to eliminate discriminatory practices internal to a religious community, like untouchability. Thus sarva dharma sama bhava is a common rendering of the secular ideal in India; that is, the state should view all religions equally; it  recognizes and respects religious differences unlike French secularism which does not. Under this understanding of secularism, the ban on hijab is a violation of religious freedom. (After all, as Upal Chakraborty said in a Facebook post, a BJP Chief Minister holding public office wears the saffron of the Hindu ascetic.)

Setting aside for now all the critiques of the practice of secularism in India to which I too have contributed, let us recognize the Karnataka government’s move to ban hijab for what it is – an intimate part of the project of Hindu Rashtra. This project uses “elimination of difference”  to mean “equality”,  and  weaponizes “women’s rights” against the Muslim community.

Feminist scholars point out that such controversies centre on women’s bodies precisely because the patriarchal, patrilineal family is at the heart of modern statecraft. As feminists we are aware that women’s bodies are the site for the performance of both nationalism and community identity, but we also need to recognize that within this complex matrix, women do exercise agency.  Whether the pressure to disrobe or the  pressure to cover up, women’s decision to do either will be produced at the juncture of multiple historical processes – imperialism, majoritarian politics, patriarchal family, misogyny,  racism, casteism – and of course, in the case of religious covering up,  the woman’s own faith. The Supreme Court judgement outlawing triple talaq, we must remember, came out of a massive  campaign by a grassroots Muslim women’s organization, Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, it was not a gift of the Modi Government to Muslim women as the media chose to portray it. It was the additional unnecessary legislation  to criminalize Muslim men who give triple talaq, which  was the Hindu Rashtra decision.

What we need to defend as feminists is women’s rights to an education as well as to their religious beliefs and convictions. Many feminists are uncomfortable with religious practices that they see as patriarchal and discriminatory, but this assumption cannot be made on anybody else’s behalf. Whether a campaign for temple entry or acceptance of the disbarment, whether to wear hijab or not, these decisions cannot be assumed on behalf of anybody else or on behalf of women in general.  And as we know, Hindutva politics is very far from endorsing women’s rights to dress as they wish, or to love whom they want, so “women’s agency” can only be a weapon in their arsenal.

Those young women stopped by barred gates and security guards at the gates of colleges are observant Muslims,  being excluded from education by the state, precisely because of their religious observance.  It is yet another move in the overall project of Hindu Rashtra to establish a Hindu supremacist state. As feminists we can only oppose and condemn it unequivocally.

4 thoughts on “Why feminists must oppose the hijab ban in Karnataka colleges”

  1. It’s an amazing article presented as a critique against “downfall of- secularism and women’s rights”.
    Not as a Hindu but as a responsible citizen of INDIA, I support these arguments!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. One could see France as particularly engaged with *multiculturalism* and its left critiques, political compulsions of containing a far right. But the cultural episteme deployed in bans/legislation seems to have parallels in similar reactions to assertions of Islamic identity in its geographical derivations _ illustrative would be Dutch cartoons, Mediterranean/US politics etc. Culture follows (with great facility) the (neo-liberal) world economy and its imperatives of social engineering


  3. I agree. This country is doing cultural genocide(and also real too, 2002 incident or bluestar). This is solely to remove minorities of their identities and impose Hindutva ideals. And also while increasingly targeting women, mainly minority women. This type of reactionary fuel stokes more younger men into accepting these ideas. Also some people are infantalizing the muslim women saying “they don’t understand women oppression in islam” or “that this good for wider muslim as this will stop islamic patriarchy”. Saying things like that undermines the agency of muslim women and silently sides with the depriving religious freedom.


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