The hijab has become a symbol of defiance by Parinitha Shetty

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Karnataka High Court judgment frames the headscarf in binaries of progressive education and regressive religion. It denies women agency, and rules out possibility of hijab having multiple meanings

On March 15, the Karnataka High Court upheld the ban on wearing the hijab in the classrooms of colleges where the prescription of a school uniform did not permit it. File

Socio-religious and gender identities, across religions and cultures, are seen on the surface of bodies through the visual markers of dress, ornaments and markings on the skin. It is through these markers that a community realises and displays its uniqueness along a diverse spectrum. In a multi-religious country, these differences become part of a familiar range of existing templates of social being. Familiarity with this variety need not automatically lead to its acceptance by all those who inhabit the spectrum. The dissonances that rupture this mosaic are exploited at moments of social anxiety and political consolidation. At such historical moments, some among this range of cultural and religious practices may be made to seem foreign or anachronistic. One or more of these co-existing communities, through the power of demographic size or share of political representation, might begin to authorise and legitimise a particular mode of being and display of embodiment as the most normal and licit and as conforming to an imagined national identity. It is at such moments that a community of people, whether identified as a neighbourhood, state or nation, which is invested in maintaining itself and sustaining its continued existence, has to, very consciously and persistently, translate, listen and recognise the many languages and grammars of being of which it is made.

On March 15, the Karnataka High Court upheld the ban on wearing the hijab in the classrooms of colleges where the prescription of a school uniform did not permit it. The three-judge bench noted that “the prescription of school uniform is only a reasonable restriction constitutionally permissible which the students cannot object to.” Seemingly, the choice before the Muslim women is straightforward. They can either choose the progressive path of pursuing their education or the regressive path of clinging to a patriarchal imposition which, according to the court, is not even an essential part of their religion. This is a deliberately simplistic and erroneous way of representing the agential choices available to Muslim women in this context. It glosses over what is an attempt to mandate and normalise a sartorially-constructed and violently-uniformised religio-national identity.

Suppose we accept that the girls have been coerced to wear the hijab and their education has been permitted only because they have submitted to this coercion. This is no reason to bar them from the classroom. If the hijab is worn as a reluctant submission to patriarchy in order to gain certain concessions in return, then it is incumbent on educational institutions to become more flexible and reduce the constraints under which these girls are permitted to access education. Across religions and cultures, women are made to bear the markers of cultural and religious identity. Submitting to this coercion could be a means to access those social, institutional and personal resources that will enable them to make choices in the future. Education allows for mobility that remaps the social world into which one is born and smudges known ways of inhabiting the world into which one is socialised.

If the girls are willingly wearing the hijab and consider it an essential part of modesty and decorum, coercing them to remove it would be tantamount to unclothing them and violating their sense of bodily integrity and public self-presentation. Such ingrained understandings and practices of bodily modesty are not peculiar to Islam or the hijab-wearing girls. An experience of being disrobed can occur when one part of a sartorial ensemble, such as a dupatta, is not worn. As long as these etiquettes of “feminine modesty” do not disrupt the functioning of the classroom, they should be allowed, as very often they are the conditions under which women are allowed to access education.

The ways in which norms are inhabited are complex and varied. Norms of embodiment emerge from different social and discursive locations and are lived through intersecting, contesting and overlapping practices of social being. The embodiment of these norms involves an agency that, in theory, ranges across a continuum from conscious submission to conscious contestation. However, in practice, this spectrum could consist of overlap, contestation or intersection. Submission could be a means to a future contestation.

Covering the female body and veiling its beauty from the male gaze may be one intended purpose and meaning of the hijab. But, as a social practice, the wearing of the hijab will generate multiple meanings, many of which will defy and scramble the grammar of the gaze that pins the hijab into a commonsensical and authoritative order of meaning. As a visual cue of social identity in a multi-religious society, the hijab would generate a range of meanings as it travels across different social and institutional locations. These meanings, the range of intentions that inform the wearing of the hijab, and the ways in which the wearing of the hijab shape the possibilities of embodied being, should be taken into account while deciding the legality of its admission into the uniformised classroom.

The persistence with which the hijab-wearing girls have fought for their right to education, their logical and informed defence of their right to be admitted into the classroom while wearing the hijab, the courage and strength with which they have faced the violent backlash has resulted in a renewed semiosis of the hijab. These girls have defamiliarised the commonsensical meaning ascribed to the hijab within an Islamophobic society, namely, as a sign of religious and patriarchal oppression. As they continue their battle to be let into the classroom, the hijab is beginning to stand for a courageous and defiant agency exercised in confronting and negotiating with the instruments of the state as well as with unruly social elements.


This column first appeared in the print edition on March 21, 2022 under the title ‘Headscarf as defiance’. The writer is professor, Department of English, Mangalore University, Konaje

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