A hijab cannot be worn to school or college. Just as a religious symbol of any faith, ideally, has no place in any temple of learning. Education has no religion. In school, the hijab is neither an individual right nor a fashion statement. It is a singular symbol of being Muslim, which is irrelevant in a secular classroom where education essentially is an exploration of history from languages, maths and science.
The most controversial costume of the times is the burqa and its versions like the hijab, niqab and chador. The veil has been at the centre of current Islamic identity politics since the Iranian revolution. Non-Muslim societies perceive it as a dark symbol of misogyny that traps women in a prison of black cloth, their spatial sense and movement curtailed as if their bodies are objects owned by men.
But Islamic female couture has also evolved with Western nuances into super pricey designer versions and the burkini—the burqa’s swimsuit variant which covers only the head. The mullahs would be horrified! Some European countries have banned the burqa, including the burkini. Muslim women do not seem to have it easy anywhere. In countries like Iran, they are punished for not wearing burqas while in some Western countries they are persecuted for wearing them.
But in today’s age of Islamophobia, a large number of Muslim women voluntarily wear headscarves and burqas as symbols of personal defiance against cultural and religious prejudice. While liberals rage against “othering”, the headscarf is a powerful token of othering—a rebellion that both lashes out and protects. As the Quran says, “O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters and the believing women to draw their outer garments around them (when they go out or are among men). That is better in order that they may be known (to be Muslims) and not annoyed/molested. (Sura 33:59).”
The mob that molested Muskan has crossed the line. Their harassment is punishable by law for which sections in the IPC can be applied to eve-teasing thugs. Why Karnataka can’t set up a Romeo squad, one wonders. Wait for Valentine’s Day would be my advice.
In the colour code of black burqas, saffron Hindutva shawls and Dalit blue scarves, the victimisation of Muslim women is on display again. For centuries, she has been a pawn in the conflict of cultural and sexual domination, as she is again today. There is nothing personal about Muslim Personal Law; the rabble is making it personal now. Narendra Modi’s cardinal reform was abolishing triple talaq, which cut the power of clerics over women’s lives. It would be unwise to throw away the fruits of a hard-won battle that started with Shah Bano in post-1947 India.
When Aruna Asaf Ali, the Grand Old Lady of the Independence movement, was a 14-year-old student in All Saints’ College, a British-run school in Nainital, she was inspired by the fervour of the freedom movement. She decided to dump frocks for saris. She told the principal, “I’ve just given up frocks. At this age, Indian parents don’t like their children wearing frocks.” The principal refused to waive the frock rule. Aruna protested, pleaded and wrote letters until she got her way. Then other Indian girls also gave up their frocks and wore saris.
Saris are Indian. The Udupi girls are Muslim. There are Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Parsi students in schools. But they are all Indian. A sari would be the happy medium to settle the nationalist fashion debate once and for all.