Hijab ban: How the claim of ensuring uniformity is actually being used to divide Indians

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On march 15, the Karnataka High Court ruled that the hijab is not a part of the “essential religious practices” of Islam. Soon after, Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai urged students to accept the verdict and focus on their education. This is yet another extension of India’s majoritarian politics, an aggressive strategy to claim the Hindu way of life is superior and impose it on others. The homogenisation of religious pluralities is an essential element of the Hindutva project.

In schools, uniforms and uniformity play a vital role in undermining class, caste, and racial differences. In the case of sports teams and the armed forces, uniforms enhance similarity and solidarity. But the civilian choice of religious symbols and accessories are matters of private choice. State interference or imposition in attire, food or film is nothing but an unnecessary intervention.

Whether one is told what to wear (or what not to), there is a thick line of difference between illegality and inappropriateness. The legal system is universally applicable to all in a modern society, whereas inappropriateness is culture and context specific. A denim-clad priest or a bikini-clad ghazal singer may not be social outcasts, but many will believe that they are contextually and socially inappropriate.

However, even though there might not be social sanctions against such deviance and defiance, these individuals are likely to face ridicule.

Attire could be a matter of personal taste and choice, but it is undeniable that societal approval plays a role in determining that choice. To what extent someone reveals their body, or when or how could again be a personal matter, but that conviction is often governed by cultural norms. It is also true that clothing is highly gendered. Across cultures, clothing is a carrier and marker of caste, class, power, province, taste and social hierarchy.

There is something intrinsically social about the customs of dressing, and the politics and practices of covering the body. It is open to social scrutiny, social judgment, social acceptance (or rejection). This is why, if dress codes are violated in public, a person or a community could be blacklisted, condemned or taunted.

Thresholds of tolerance

By the same logic, the state and society should be least concerned with what one wears in private. But when it comes to dressing in public, to what extent can the state and society intervene? And to what extent should citizens tolerate such interference? Isn’t the right to deny or defy the imposed order integral to liberal democracy and freedom of expression?

The answers vary depending on societal thresholds of tolerance.

The problem lies in the fact that it is often the weaker sections of society that are subjected to dress codes – along with a host of other impositions. Members of minority and marginalised communities face the heat of subjugation. Harsh disciplinary norms are mostly reserved for the oppressed.

The severity of these biased norms draws socio-moral sanction from several barrels of power. It could be the powerful state, the dominating gender, the upper castes, the domineering class, a fairer race or other categories.

A combination of these forces decides who is going to wear what: the colour, shapeand the length of the bindi, mangalsutra, gunghat, hijab, sacred thread, skull cap, turban or any other visible sacred symbols. They also decide the depth of the neckline, length of the sleeveless top and the acceptable limits of body visibility. To what extent can the body or the face can be revealed or concealed, for which occasion and under what social circumstances?

Behind every physical revelation and concealment, several forces act together, such as the power to govern, the desire to command, the intent to establish and exercise authority and the ability to punish the deviant.

Driving intolerance

Such authoritative injunctions have definitely gathered momentum and intensified substantially under the current regime. Founded on the premise of garnering hatred, fostering division and creating conflict between Hindus and others, its driving force has been the infliction of violence and intolerance towards minority religious communities.

Manufacturing antipathy for members of other communities and generating blind faith in Hindusim is the the premise of this divisive politics. Minorities are an identified and established enemy – tactically discriminated against and perennially criminalised.

The cultural diversity that was central to India’s imagination of itself has been squashed in favour of blatant majoritarianism and communalism. The expansion of majoritarian influence necessitates the annihilation of diversity, in order to impose cultural standardisation under the pretext of uniforms and uniformity.

In this project to align other faiths and practices according to the Hindu majoritarian principles, it is imperative to stoke Islamophobia and malign beef-eating, the aazaan, the skull-cap, the beard and the hijab. During the protests against the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that at it is easy to identify the protesters by their attire.

During the recent Uttar Pradesh election campaign, one Bharatiya Janata Party leader declared that if he was re-elected, Muslims would give up wearing skull caps and instead wear Hindu tilaks on their foreheads.

The hijab is among the additions to this strategy of victimising Muslims.

Given the nature of the controversy and the purpose of the Hindutva objections to the head scarf, whether the hijab signifies regressive tendencies is irrelevant. It is also meaningless whether the patriarchal imposition that veils women’s faces should be supported. Wearing or displaying any religious symbol is a matter of personal choice and faith.

In modern India, faith and its diversity are both constitutional and humanitarian. Under the guise of ensuring uniformity, any forceful cultural imposition on any community̦ is an act of brutality. To compel anyone to wear a garment or not to wear it is to interfere with their personal freedom, faith, choice and taste.

Those who are doing so, have wilfully chosen to forget that surface-level uniformity has no role to play in societal development. For holistic and egalitarian development, equal educational and equal employment opportunities are fundamental – irrespective of caste, class, religion and gender.

Undermining merit

If the hijab or turbans or any other visible symbol hampers access to education or employment, this undermines merit and rationality. The right to education and right to employment cannot be premised on religious faith or its expressions.

The mandate of modern nation-building in India was premised on the strict separation of religion and state. Communal forces are ensuring the erasure of the much-needed distance between these two. That is why they are less concerned with what is inside the head of the students and a lot more obsessed with what is covering their heads.

The pretext of uniformity is being deployed to unleash a socio-political strategy to divide India and Indians.

Sreedeep is a sociologist and the author of Consumerist Encounters: Flirting with Things and Images published by Oxford University Press.

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