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As polling for the first phase of elections in Uttar Pradesh got underway on February 10, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed his first physical rally in the state. Taking the stage in Saharanpur, Modi said, “We freed our Muslim sisters from the tyranny of triple talaq. When Muslim sisters started supporting the BJP openly, these vote-mongers became uneasy. They are trying to stop Muslim daughters from progressing. Our government stands with Muslim women.”
The very moment that Modi was claiming to be a messiah for Muslim women, Bajrang Dal activists were staging protests in Karnataka, demanding that Muslim girls choose between wearing a hijab and attending school. Young Hindu boys and girls, with saffron shawls around their necks and saffron pagdis (turbans) on their heads, have been heckling their classmates for wearing a headscarf. Some reports say that a right-wing group called the Hindu Jagran Vedike had distributed saffron shawls to Hindu students. A video showed three men telling a group of school/college boys that they had the support of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal. So, when the prime minister spoke about his government standing with Muslim women, I guess he meant that his government would stand by and watch as Muslim women are heckled, harassed, humiliated, and denied entry into educational institutions.
The controversy started after six teenage girls at a government-run pre-university college in Udupi were barred from entering their classroom, for several weeks, because of their hijab. The girls refused to take off their headscarves and sat outside their classrooms in protest. To match them, a group of Hindu boys turned up at school wearing saffron shawls. Within days, similar protests were reported from different districts of Karnataka. Large groups of Hindu boys were caught on camera, parading with saffron shawls around their necks, outside their schools.
Before getting into whether wearing a hijab is an essential religious practice in Islam or if Muslim girls should be defended because they have the right to dress as they like, let us examine the prime minister’s claim of supporting Muslim women.
Hindutva and Muslim Women
Muslim women were made to feel extremely safe and secure when Narendra Modi, reacting to anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests in 2019, said that those “spreading arson can be identified by the clothes they are wearing”. They pulled their hijabs, chaadars and burqas more tightly around themselves and soaked in the warmth of the prime minister’s words. The BJP’s commitment towards Muslim women’s progress was further amplified by Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath when he said that Muslim men were sitting on their razai while the women had been sent out to protest against the CAA. The assumption that Muslim women lack agency is exactly the kind of boost that they needed as they kickstarted one of independent India’s most memorable civil rights movements.
Yogi Adityanath, in fact, is a champion of Muslim women’s rights and has gone to great lengths to ensure that they feel protected. In 2007-08, while addressing the Virat Hindu Chetna Rally, he had expressed disapproval towards Hindus and Muslims living together. While he was still on the stage, a member of Hindu Yuva Vahini joined him and said, “Now is the time to get their mothers and daughters out of graves and rape their children. This is the need of the hour, friends. And only the Hindu Yuva Vahini can do it.” Incidentally, the Hindu Yuva Vahini is a militant group founded by Yogi himself. What could be more comforting for Muslim women than knowing that even after they are dead and buried, the threat of sexual violence will continue to loom over their corpses?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s claim that his government ‘freed Muslim women from the tyranny of triple talaq’ is also quite true. After the Supreme Court declared the practice of triple talaq as unconstitutional, Modi’s government rushed in to add penal provisions. Muslim women love how their demonic, hypersexual husbands quiver in fear, every time they threaten to go to the police. The new law has now become the bedrock of all Muslim marriages in India. The ten-year jail term, incidentally, does not apply to Hindu men who abandon their wives.
Emboldened by statements and decisions of their heroes, soldiers of the Hindutva army recently decided to honour prominent Muslim women by “auctioning” them online on apps such as ‘Bulli Bai’ and ‘Sulli Deals’. Though police cases were registered and arrests made after some of the women targeted complained, the silence of the ruling party and its spokespersons told its own story. There is nothing like silent approval from the country’s leadership when social media is buzzing with conversations of sexually assaulting Muslim women to increase the ‘virtue’ and ‘good deeds’ of Hindu men.
Hindutva and Hindu Women
It may come as a surprise to fans of Prime Minister Modi and supporters of the right-wing Bhartiya Janata Party, but the saffron brigade’s misogyny is not restricted to Muslim women. BJP leaders across the board have spoken about an alleged conspiracy of ‘love jihad’ where Muslim men lure Hindu women, ask them to convert to Islam and marry them to increase their demography. The very concept of ‘love jihad’ assumes that Hindu women are weak, vulnerable, gullible, half-witted morons who do not have the ability to decide who they can or should marry.
Despite a complete lack of evidence to prove the existence of such an organised conspiracy and the Supreme Court’s rejection of the theory, BJP governments in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Gujarat have either introduced new legislation or amended existing laws to include a penal provision for religious conversion for purposes of marriage. The BJP government in Haryana is in the process of enacting a ‘love jihad law’.
Despite being staunch feminists, Hindutva leaders were caught off guard during the Sabrimala matter. After celebrating the Supreme Court’s ruling on triple talaq, they were left stumped when the apex court ruled that women, between the ages of 10 and 50, cannot be barred from entering the temple. In his first public statement after the verdict, Amit Shah – then BJP national president – said, “I want to tell the (state) government and those who pronounce orders in court that you should issue orders that can be implemented, not the ones that break the faith of people… Article 14 (right to equality) is always being cited and appreciated. But there are Articles 25 and 26 which give every citizen the right to follow his faith. How can one fundamental right subsume the other?” His reading of the constitution reeked of misogyny because clearly, Article 25 and 26, which talks of freedom to practice religion, can also be used to defend the rights of women devotees.
Not to forget the attack on women inside a pub in Mangalore in 2009, where members of a Hindu group called Shri Ram Sene chased, slapped and dragged women by their hair and accused them of violating traditional Indian values. Clearly, the burden of protecting ‘traditional Indian values’ needs to be shouldered by women alone. Despite the assault being caught on camera, the 26 accused were acquitted, citing lack of evidence in 2018.
Hijab: Constitutional right and essential religious practice
Now that we have established the Hindutva brigade’s commitment to feminism and their special love for Muslim women, let us examine their latest attempt to rescue Muslim girls from the barbaric, age-old practice of wearing headscarves. As teenage girls in Karnataka are fighting for their fundamental rights, some of the so-called modern liberal voices are mulling over joining hands with Hindutva goons. It seems that rescuing Muslim women is a proposition too attractive to resist, even for our urban educated elite.
For me the answer is simple: A ban on hijabs is contrary to almost every fundamental right that the constitution of India guarantees to all its citizens. It flies in the face of the right to freedom and equality. Refusing permission to hijab-wearing girls to enter school premises is also a direct violation of cultural and educational rights. Article 29 of the constitution grants citizens, who have a different language, script and culture, the right to conserve and develop the same. It safeguards the rights of minorities by preventing the state from imposing any external culture on them.
The right to practice any religion becomes the most relevant in this case because the violent protests we are witnessing in Karnataka are nothing but an attempt to deny Muslim girls the freedom to practice their faith. Hijab wearing girls are being chased and heckled by Hindu boys wearing saffron shawls, who in turn are being egged on by right-wing militant groups like the Bajrang Dal. The argument being presented by Hindu groups and the BJP government that the hijab is not an essential religious practise under Islam is thoroughly flawed.
Essential religious practice
References from the Holy Quran
Various translations of the Holy Quran refer to a veil or headcover as essential for Muslim women. A translation of Surah 24, Ayat 31 of the Holy Quran by Saheeh International, one of the most popular English translations of the Islamic holy book worldwide, reads as follows:
‘And tell the believing women to reduce [some] of their vision and guard their private parts and not expose their adornment except that which [necessarily] appears thereof and to wrap [a portion of] their headcovers over their chests…’
Another translation of the same verse by Dr Mustafa Khattab, a renowned Muslim scholar, reads as follows:
‘And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and guard their chastity, and not to reveal their adornments except what normally appears. Let them draw their veils over their chests…’
Another verse from the Holy Quran points at the need for Muslim women to be ‘known’ or ‘recognised’ as Muslims. Saheeh International’s translation of Surah 33, Ayat 59 of the Holy Quran reads as follows:
‘O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves [part] of their outer garments. That is more suitable that they will be known and not be abused. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful’.
Dr Mustafa Khattab’s translation of the same verse reads as follows:
‘O Prophet! Ask your wives, daughters, and believing women to draw their cloaks over their bodies. In this way it is more likely that they will be recognized ‘as virtuous’ and not be harassed. And Allah is All-Forgiving, Most Merciful’.
References from Hadith
There are examples in several Hadees of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) speaking about a veil. Book 22 of Mishkat al Masabih, Hadees 58 says:
Umm Salma says the Prophet came to visit her when she was veiled and said, ‘use one-fold, not two’. Abu Dawood transmitted it.
Book 65, Hadees 312 of Sahi al Bukhari, quotes Hazrat Umar as saying,
‘I said, O Allah’s Apostle! Good and bad persons enter upon you, so I suggest that you order the mother of Believers (i.e. your wives) to observe veils. Then Allah revealed the verses of Al-hijab.
- Veil or hijab is an essential religious practice under Islam and since Articles 14 and 25 of the Indian constitution guarantee all citizens the freedom to practice any religion, Muslim girls cannot be barred from wearing their headscarf.
- As much as we respect the whole world’s desire to rescue us from our hypersexual men and our dogmatic religion, we would love it if we could simply be left alone.
- If you really want to celebrate Muslim Women Rights Day, stop telling us what to wear, who to marry and how to practice our religion.