The events surrounding an Udupi school imposing sanctions on six Muslim girl students wearing hijab (headscarf) have opened up several questions, which need to be examined beyond religious identity and allegiance.
In a society where the dichotomy between 'freedom of choice' and 'religion-backed restrictions on women's freedom' has existed for centuries, one must remember that inter-group tensions being created by certain forces can neither be treated as isolated incidents, nor are they to be dismissed as region-specific responses to undercurrents of intolerance flowing in the socio-political life.
A sensitive examination of the trajectory of events that followed the Udupi school incident brings out the fact that certain basic questions which should have been raised and discussed have been sidelined.
Notwithstanding the fact that the secular fabric of our society is under threat, new and unsuspecting groups, which include school children, youth groups, and many others who don’t even know what is actually happening, are being drawn into a trap created by the hidden 'divisive' agenda of groups whose primary goal is to reinforce patriarchal power hierarchies.
In the euphoria created by forces that are using religion as a setting for polarisation, the play of factors that surround the gendered lives of girls and women are not receiving the kind of attention they merit.
The whole issue is being projected either as a clash between two religious groups or a 'cultural war' in which certain forces within each group are trying to argue that to protect one’s culture, 'dress codes' and 'spatial exclusion' are to be enforced on women and girls.
Both these points of view are not based on facts. What is true is that throughout patriarchal history, women’s bodies have been used as a site of control by men, and cutting across religious identities, notions and practices of purity and pollution have been imposed on them.
Dual standards of morality have been determining what women and girls should wear or not wear, and with whom they can or cannot interact. Male-centric values have drawn boundaries for women’s physical and social mobility, as the female body is seen as being vulnerable to sexual abuse.
In her work entitled 'Two Bodies', Mary Douglas talks of a ‘social body’ that imposes restrictions on the perceptions of the 'physical body'. One’s clothing is not always a matter of one’s choice and it is not what girls or women want and feel comfortable in, which determines what they can wear, but it is the 'social body' grounded in a patriarchal mindset that decides their clothing patterns.
School uniforms are also reflections of gender identity and are often designed to remind girls of their 'femininity'. Patriarchy explicitly and implicitly sets dress codes, which are often imposed on girls. However, the same rigidity is not seen vis-a-vis male clothing.
Preventing girls, whichever social group they may be identified with, from pursuing their educational aspirations, is tantamount to violation of their right under Article 15 of the Constitution of India, which prohibits gender-based discrimination.
Girls' education suffered a serious setback due to COVID-19 imposed school closures, leading to many girls either staying away from school or being married at an inappropriate age. There is now a growing concern that gender gaps in education would intensify and that girls are at a greater risk than boys in losing school access, and this is especially true of adolescent girls.
With many schools in online mode, an estimated 40 per cent of girls could not afford mobile phones, and there was a lapse back into an uncertain state. This is especially true of many Muslim girls, who had stepped out of their homes for the first time, and were hoping that education would bring about a change in their lives.
It is time that all right-thinking people look at the issue from a gender lens and set the situation right.
(The writer is a retired professor, Sociology, University of Mysore)