As Muslim Women Fight for Justice, Time for the Republic to Speak

What irony that those who appropriated a natural biological fact to argue for faith in denying entry to women into the Sabarimala shrine should be unable to support young Muslim women for whom wearing the head scarf is equally an article of faith.

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If the times were sane, one would simply wave a hand at those who are now targeting young Muslim women for what they wear, and say to them, “Dear busybodies, do go about your business; this republic still has a constitution which says that all Indians are citizens, and all citizens have the fundamental right to privacy and freedom of expression. That means we may wear, or eat, or read, or believe, or think what we will freely, so long as we do not infringe your right to do the same.”

But the times are only struggling to be sane, and a woman’s head scarf seems enough provocation to inflame the zealot into paroxysms of hate.

A new virus is afoot that refurbishes the lung but debilitates the brain.

What irony that those who appropriated a natural biological fact to argue for faith in denying entry to women into the Sabarimala shrine should be unable to support young Muslim women for whom wearing the head scarf is equally an article of faith.

Last we know, this is still a “secular” republic that says that whereas the state will not espouse any religion, all citizens are free to “profess, practice, and propagate” what religious faith they like.

Sarva Dharma Sambhav remains the enlightened creed of Bharat, as we are often instructed by the very people who seem to have scant regard for that principle.

So, the Hindu may don saffron, dab the tilak and bindi, the Sikh may wear the turban, the Christian the cross, the Jew the star of David, and the Muslim the hijab, unlike among theocracies where state enjoins an official religion, or the republic of France where no one may display any religious symbols whatsoever.

And what is “essential” to any religion may best be left to those who espouse any particular religion.

Speaking of which, what is the “essential” signification of saffron, for example?

Reading Sarvapelli Radhakrishnan we learn that it is a hue that denotes “renunciation and disinteredness” intimately linked to Buddhist monastic life.

And yet it has now come to be identified with a war-like Kshatriya code wherein the readiness to arms is its chief feature – a construction that seems to owe heavily to the contentions of the Mahabharata.

In none of the texts that comprise the sum and substance of Kashmiri Trika Shaivism is there any conspicuous mention of saffron as being fundamental to Hinduism.

A BJP supporter waves a saffron flag during celebration of the party’s win in Dubbaka by-poll, in Hyderabad, Tuesday, November 10, 2020. Photo: PTI

In all Kali temples, the idols of the goddess are draped in red rather than saffron cloth.

Consider also the pretty fact that the saffron which has such sanctity for a vocal section of Hindus is grown in the reviled valley of Kashmir by loving Muslim hands.

Same in Iran.

Likewise, if vegetarianism be one of the fundamental tenets of Sanatan Dharma, what is to be said of the greatly lauded Kashmiri Brahmin who must cook fish and mutton as an essential ritual oblation to Shiva during the Shivaratri devotions?

It is thus idle to collar the Muslim woman with the charge that the hijab is not an “essential” feature of Islam.

Also read: Denying Students Educational Services for Wearing Hijab Is Unconstitutional

Like it or not, most of what is thought to be “essential” or not at various points in the history of religions is bulk of the time an expressions of cultural assertions rooted in the power-politics of the day.

The Sikh faith enjoins the five Ks – kanga (comb), kadda (bracelet), kaccha (underwear), kesh (unshorn hair) and kirpan (cutlass).

It makes no mention of a turban.

Yet, it is sensibly understood that unshorn hair implies a head gear that keeps the hair in place.

The hijab (and a drape over the chest) issues from an experience in Medina when some women came to be harassed; so the prophet advised these protective measures to keep the male gaze away. 

One would have thought that the right-wing which misses no opportunity to dictate how women must dress discretely so the that the male of the species is not tempted, would, if anything, appreciate Muslim women doing so, just as Hindu households of older vintage still wish their girls to don the dupatta or the chunni or indeed, the ghunghat.

But, no. What is sauce for the Hindu patriarchal goose is not to be the same for the Muslim counterpart.

The “secular” state may frown upon students flaunting religious attire, but does that stop the chief executive of India’s largest province from wearing saffron robes to office?


And we know why: saffron is no longer just a religious hue, but is sought to be made the stamp of “national identity” itself..

Other colours now are interlopers dangerous to “national unity.”

Pity a paradise that knows but one colour.

That is the long and short of it.

And if you are not convinced, listen to what a minister in the Karnataka cabinet has said – that just as nobody believed a Ram Mandir would ever come up where stood the Babri mosque, so one day the saffron flag may come to replace the tricolour. 

Thus, a persistent old agenda marches on, and Golwalkar’s dream nation nears fruition.

Minority expressions of identity

Women in Algeria were known for their liberal attire. But, they chose to don the veil to confront the brute assertions of French colonialism.

India has a large population of citizens born Sikhs who remain clean-shaven and do not wear a turban either.

One such was Professor J.P.S. Oberoi of the Department of Sociology at the university of Delhi.

But when the pogrom against Sikhs happened in 1984, he chose to grow a beard and wear a turban. That should tell us how majoritarian pressure invariably results in religious minorities assuming identities which in normal democratic times they are rarely self-conscious about.

Also read: ‘We Have Lost Our Peace, Can’t Study’: Muslim Students Feel ‘Betrayed’ Over Hijab Ban

Faith and individual right

No religious faith worldwide offers quite the spectrum of choice in the matter of forms of belief and worship as obtain in what used to be the catholic Hindu order.

The history of Sanatan Dharma tells us that even atheists were regarded as believers of sorts, and engaged in stirring debates.

Often within the same Hindu household, different members of a family declare allegiance to different deities and different axes of devotional practice.

At a lesser scale, this is true of other faiths as well.

Among Christians, there are denominations who deny the divinity of Christ, regarding Jesus not as god made man but man made god (Methodism).

Some accept no intermediaries between them and the Bible (Puritans).

Consequently, as among Hindus, they espouse discrete centres of worship, attribute differing definitions to the Sacrament of the Mass even as they are all Christians by faith.

Indeed, through the history of Christianity, many who were denominated “heretics” considered themselves more dedicated Christians than their persecutors.

And, similarly among Muslims, there are the Aiteqadis and the Gaer-Aietiqadis – the former espouse Sufi Islam, do pilgrimages to Ziyarats, Khankas, Durgahs, Mazars where holy men going back centuries are interred, patronise music as the most elevated form of devotion; the latter frown on such practices, and advocate submission only to god. 

Some Muslim women wear the burqa, some the abaya, others just the hijab to cover their hair, and some none of these.

The authenticity of religious practice thus is left to individual choice, however other individuals or institutions may be askance at this diversity of assertion.

Indeed, Persian and Urdu poetry is replete with the most trenchant commentaries, even diatribes, on what is ordained by the priesthood and what ought to constitute real faith

If a young Muslim woman is wise enough to know who to vote for, what profession to follow, how to run a household, surely they are wise enough to know what religious practice best meets their individual conviction and comfort of being.

Students wearing hijab were denied entry in a college in Kundapur, Karanataka. Photo: Twitter/@dpkBopanna

And, uniquely, democratic constitutions, be it in the United States of America, or Britain, or large parts of Europe, recognise this inalienable right of individuals to define their own routes to faith and to ritual practices, so long as no damage is done to the body politic or to the secular state.

Who then is to say that a young Muslim woman may or may not wear this or that attire, just as different denominational formations within the Hindu order sport their own distinct logos and icons.

Religion and patriarchy

This writer is no supporter of any sort of encumbrances forced upon women in matters that strictly constitute personal choice. And if wearing a hijab happens to be the personal choice of a Muslim woman, so be it.

And if a time comes when such women feel religious dos and don’t say, in fact are calculated to keep them in thrall, it is for them to change course, build social movements, argue the point with those who remain incharge of religious institutions and so on.

The Republic

The hijab controversy is thus a purely coercive political move with motives that have little to do with either equality, or alleged oppressions.

It is just yet another putsch to corner and subjugate the will of a minority community that is now asked everyday to subsume itself into a “mainstream” paradigm which requires that they do not set themselves apart in any manner whatsoever from the “nationalist mainstream”.

A “mainstream” which – as the RSS has always said – considers them as Hindus who have lost their way to the detriment of a desired Hindu Rashtra.

The judicial system

At such beleaguered moments in any nation’s life, the cornered minorities place their faith in the secular dispensations of a republican constitution as adjudicated by the courts of law.

If and when they fail to uphold that order, minorities fester in their strangulated existence and sometimes revolt with consequences too frightening to contemplate.

Badri Raina taught at Delhi University.