Hijab vs school rules: let’s keep a cool head
Question: Who decides if young women can cover their heads with a piece of cloth at school? Certainly not the young women themselves, so that’s excluded; we cannot allow such indiscipline in our schools, who knows what they might dare next.
After all, their fathers decide for them. If they are not fathers, they have uncles; the Indian family is a global institution with general authority. If the elders of the family are ill-equipped to decide correctly, the school is competent to do so. And then young women have a government that knows what’s best for them and can rescue them through an executive order with good intentions.
If someone disagrees with the government, there is a long-established legal structure to decide. A recalcitrant youngster who does not want to be a slave to a politically dictated educational system has the option of dropping out. A student who doesn’t want to drop out and is ready to fight for herself, with a little help from friends or even “instigators,” isn’t a problem either.
We have other problems. We have a macro nanny state because we have a micro nanny family. The same uncles form the extended families and resident welfare associations and ultimately the government, their avuncular dictate the default fate to which young people must submit.
This is what leads to disguises, such as courts suddenly having to decide questions of religious scholarship. It takes a lifetime to study law; for religion, that may not be enough. Forced to assume the intellectual duties of ecclesiastics, their lordships would indeed have to assume a heavy burden. The Karnataka High Court’s order that the hijab is not an ‘essential’ practice of Islam and can legitimately be banned in schools has been challenged in the Supreme Court and the final word has not been pronounced. Muslims have differing opinions on whether the hijab is essential. The doctrine of essentiality itself is debated in legal circles.
Yet the fact is that for those young women who insist on wearing it, the hijab is a sacred symbol, a symbol that is part of a religious identity that they are free to wear, one that they cannot deposit in a collection bin at their school door. For others it is an academic point, for them it is a lived religion. They don’t wear it as a fashion accessory, although some prints in the Arab world are positively fashionable.
Arguably, the students‘ harsh stance on the hijab is simply due to patriarchal indoctrination and cultural conditioning. But it is true of all religions; otherwise religions would not exist so many generations after their foundation. Some rituals are abandoned over time, but this process happens organically, not by government policy.
Whether the hijab is compulsory in Islam is beside the point. A large number of Muslim women wear it. Religious practice for ordinary people is primarily a matter of custom rather than a scholastic interpretation of scripture – hardly anyone is in a constant search for something of established personal value.
The hijab does not hinder learning or disturb the peace. On the contrary, it only adds to the diversity of classrooms and the normalization of “others”. The argument that “the school has a uniform, which by definition is equal for all, so why not just take that thing away” rings hollow when made from a position of sociopolitical power and majority privilege. . Well-meaning uniformed apologists in this case recall white Americans saying “All Lives Matter” during the “Black Lives Matter” movement. All lives matter, of course, but using it as a counter-movement against racial discrimination is where the problem lies. In the American context, white lives matter anyway. It is the minority blacks who must hold banners and shout slogans. Discrimination is the problem, not just execution without trial.
In Indian schools and in the public sphere in general, the religious sensibilities of the majority are privileged anyway, as is the case in almost all countries. A rule to ban the hijab unnecessarily undermines the confidence of an ethnic group. Lately, the French word laïcité has been invoked fashionably to emphasize the need for total secularism devoid of any religious insignia. It may be convenient to quote against the hijab, but it’s dishonest in our country whose secularism reflecting its cultural ethos is like an ancient banyan tree sheltering all comers.
The French word to which perhaps we should pay attention is dirigisme, direct intervention of the State in economic and current affairs, which is best avoided. On the other hand, we need a meaningful intervention, like the central government’s message “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” (save the girl, educate the girl).
Regarding the first objective, no data is available because the practice of selectively killing unborn girls in the womb is illegal. On the other hand, Muslims lag behind other communities in girls’ education, according to government data, so further dropouts due to hijab will abort more dreams. When asked to choose with a gun to the head between something religious and educational, guess what people will choose.
Somewhere outside the rarefied circles discussing the essentiality of the hijab lives a feudal guy for whom it’s all about power: “We’ll take off your women’s hijabs and you can’t do anything.” Those who rule Karnataka should not abuse this guy; he will vote for them in any case.
The Kauravas began stripping Draupadi after winning her in a royalty-sanctioned gambling match, so they felt they were within their rights to do whatever they wanted with her. The legitimacy of their actions was not in question; their humanity was, so much so that it forced the hand of God. India, the timeless civilization, may not see any of its abundant spiritual capital eroded if a few women are not allowed to wear something sacred to them. But India, the current Republic, owes each of them that their faith in it be honoured.
Opinions expressed are personal