Uniform cannot be more important than education by Zakia Soman

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All girls must be in school with or without the hijab.

Students protest against the hijab ban in Karnataka (File Photo)

The Karnataka High Court’s verdict on school students wearing the hijab has hardly settled the controversy that seems to have become the latest flashpoint in our religiously-polarised nation. Girls in hijab were denied entry into classrooms on the ground that by wearing the headgear they had violated the uniform prescribed by their institution. The matter could have been easily resolved through a dialogue between the college authorities and parents. Instead, it got politicised with different religious and political outfits jumping in the fray with their radical and antagonistic positions. It was made out as though the right to education and right to religious freedom are at loggerheads. Sadly, the HC did not correct this misplaced notion. Nor did it address the vitiated atmosphere in some of the educational institutions in the state as highlighted by the shocking videos of boys in saffron scarves heckling a girl in hijab.

Educational institutions are entitled to frame their own rules but these cannot infringe the fundamental rights granted by the Constitution. Besides, uniforms cannot be more important than education itself. Courts can hardly help when citizenry fail to resolve social issues mutually in the face of institutional rigidity. When justice dies within hearts, courts and verdicts become irrelevant.

The girls in hijab pleaded for protection of their rights to religious freedom, education and freedom of choice. The Karnataka government argued that reasonable restrictions, with a view to maintaining secular perspective, are enforceable under what it called the institutional discipline doctrine.

BJP government arguing for upholding secularism is rather rich. India is not France where secularism is an avowed ideal translated into practice. Hindutva leaders publicly denounce secularism as a Western notion and openly espouse religiosity in public life. We live in an era of saffron-clad MPs and ministers. Surely Parliament is as much of a public space as a classroom. And, a chief ministerial office demands as much adherence to a secular dress code as a classroom. Singling out girls in hijab is outright discriminatory and smacks of double standards.

It is now well-known that the hijab does not form part of the essential practices of Islam. Nor is it one of its five pillars. Several Islamic scholars, notably Fatema Mernissi, have researched the origins of the veil in Islam to conclude that it is not only not mandatory but has nothing to do with women. A harmless Arabic word used in the religious text to describe a wall, a barrier, a hurdle, a partition has been distorted to impose the veil on Muslim women in male-dominated societies over centuries.

The hijab has arrived only recently in the Indian subcontinent. Our grandmothers and mothers did not wear the veil. My grandmother, a headmistress, wore the Gujarati sari to school. My mother’s generation adopted the more fashionable Bengali sari and salwar-kurta. Growing up, we always saw women in our mohallas dressed modestly in saris or salwar-kurtas. There was an occasional family or two in the mohalla whose women observed strict purdah. The entire mohalla respected their preference and made adjustments to save them from any unforeseen embarrassment. All women covered their heads whenever an occasion demanded — such as during a religious ritual or when someone passed away. Many elderly women regularly covered their heads with dupattas or sari pallus. They did not suffer from concerns like ensuring that not a strand of their hair should be visible.


The argument about hijab being a woman’s choice could lead to a slippery slope. Nevertheless, I believe that her choice must be respected. The absence of social reform in Muslim societies in South Asia has resulted in patriarchy masquerading as religion. Particularly when religion is made into a sort of rocket science where only the holy men have authority. In the orthodox worldview the burden of the so-called Islamic identity must be borne by women. Fundamental Quranic values of justice, kindness, compassion and wisdom are forgotten and the stress is on outward appearance. A pious woman must be in hijab.

A woman in hijab has as much choice as a woman with sindoor — the behavioural norms are preset for both. Such is the power of religion in our society that there are pre-defined ideals of a good woman and how she must appear and behave. Religion can be made an easy ride for misogyny and bigotry. Little girls going to KG classes in head-to-toe burqa is a sight that stirs many emotions in me and surely many others. I get questioned regularly: But why are you not in an Islamic dress?

Progressive Muslims in North Africa, the Far East and other parts of the world have to contend with political Islam that has the veiled woman as its mascot. The veil, as imported from Arabia, is making its presence felt in Muslim societies the world over even though it is alien to most of these societies. This can be because of several reasons including the reaction by different communities to Islamophobia. But it must not be forgotten that the veil is primarily a patriarchal construct, and not intrinsic to Islam.

We are a multi-faith democracy with a Constitution rooted in values of justice, equality, and pluralism. The practice of secularism has, no doubt, been deeply flawed in our politics and fissures along religious lines have always existed. But despite communalism and communal riots, we have remained a plural and peaceful society. Hate speeches and open calls for the genocide of Muslims as witnessed in Haridwar recently signify a new low for our polity. It is important that ordinary Indians —Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians — reject the divisive politics of hate. Peaceful co-existence, tolerance and mutual respect can defeat the politics of divide and rule. Religiosity must be confined to the private realm. Overt display and competing religiosities can only harm us all. Political religion in our neighbourhood, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, has wreaked havoc in the lives of ordinary people.

All girls must be in school, with or without hijab. The nation will progress when girls are educated and empowered. Governments must focus on enabling greater access to girls’ education including higher education. They must not waste public resources and precious judicial hours on fighting legal cases to deny students their choice of attire in the name of uniform.

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Disclaimer: Uniform cannot be more important than education by Zakia Soman - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Latheefarook.com point-of-view

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