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Women

Muslim Women's Wellbeing Doesn't Hinge on a Contest Between Gender Issues and Religion

We have seen the effective weaponisation of feminist language by Islamophobes when it comes to Kashmiri women. This is repeating itself in the case of Karnataka's hijab ban row.

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Amid controversy in Karnataka, where women are denied entry into educational institutions for wearing a hijab, the Kashmiri girl who topped the Class 12 science board examinations was trolled online for not wearing one.

Aroosa Parvaiz told local media, “Wearing or not wearing hijab doesn’t define one’s belief in their religion. Maybe I love Allah more than they (the trolls) do. I’m a Muslim by heart not by hijab.”

The Indian media was quick to liberally use her remarks to claim that it is not necessary to wear a hijab to prove that one is a Muslim.

Aroosa’s statement was positioned against those of the Muslim girls and women of Karnataka to suggest that the stance of the latter was unwarranted. A right wing website even wrote, “The ‘liberals’ and Islamists have been claiming wearing a hijab is a choice, but it seems from the above comments, not wearing a hijab attracts threats.”

One can certainly debate the patriarchal imperative of wearing a hijab. But ultimately, the decision to embrace or renounce a headscarf, or to cover or reveal any part of the body, is entirely that of an individual woman’s.

Correlating the structural discrimination women face (in this case, the trolling faced by Aroosa) to the state’s systematically generated gender-cum-religious discrimination that Muslim women are confronting in Karnataka is not justifiable. Nor does it promote Muslim women’s rights by any means. 

Scholar Sara R. Farris has used the term femonationalism to describe the manipulation and co-optation of feminist themes by anti-Islamic and xenophobic campaigns.

Farris argues that by stigmatising Muslim males as dangerous and oppressors of women, these groups [in the West] use gender equality to justify racist rhetoric and policies at home and interventionist policies abroad. With the rise of femonationalism in India too, it is essential that we discuss this issue systematically and call out the hypocrisy for what it is.

Also read: Why Do Secularists See Hinduism as ‘Cultural’ and Islam as ‘Religious’?

Kashmir

In 2013, Pragash, an all-girl band from Srinagar was widely criticised on Facebook for its participation in the Battle of Bands, a local rock music competition sponsored by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF).

Abuse started pouring in, and the grand mufti of Jammu and Kashmir, Bashiruddin Ahmad, also issued a fatwa, terming singing as un-Islamic. Eventually, the girls withdrew from the competition. Several mainstream media outlets reported their story, including NDTV, India Today, and The Times of India. The mother of one of the band members blamed the media for unnecessary attention.

In 2021, a small-scale protest was seen against a local fashion show that featured Kashmiri women as models. Two organisations had organised the shows which took place at the Kashmir International Conference Centre and Tagore Hall. This protest too was widely publicised by the national media; and Kashmiris were once again portrayed as conservative and orthodox.

Many influential news channels portrayed the fashion show as a positive social move. WION (under the Zee network), featured an article titled ‘Less terrorism, more progress: Fashion shows organized in Kashmir to break stereotypes.’ Hindustan Times‘s headline read, ‘A fashion show organised in Kashmir to break stereotypes.’

Women walk past police in Srinagar, Kashmir. Photo: Reuters/Cathal McNaughton

The Indian state often uses the rhetoric of saving Kashmiri Muslim women to implement its absolutist policies.

One of the foremost justifications for reading down Article 370 was equal rights for women in Kashmir. Ironically, it was also Kashmiri women who were widely exoticised, in the process, both by Indian politicians and Hindu men. Mainstream politicians bragged to their supporters that with the reading down of Article 370, they can freely marry Kashmir’s fair-skinned brides. Several videos appeared on TikTok where men expressed excitement at the prospect of marrying Kashmiri women.

There is little doubt that the fasion show’s immediate motive, it appears, was to portray an untrue sense of normality in Kashmir since the reading down of Article 370. Sajid Yousuf Shah and Yana Mir, organisers of the fashion show, are both staunch Bharatiya Janata Party supporters.

The event aligned with the Indian government’s larger strategy, including inviting Bollywood actors to Kashmir, organising the Khelo India Winter Games at Gulmarg, opening the Tulip Garden despite soaring COVID-19 cases, and so on.

All this was done while restricting access to several Muslim religious places, including Jamia Masjid, due to the pandemic.

In the two cases discussed above, issues of gender were taken out of context. Women’s rights discourse was employed by the ‘mainstream’ media to reinforce the stigmatisation of Kashmiri Muslims as zealots.

There is no denying patriarchy in Kashmir. The huge criticism over the all-girls’ band, the fashion show, and even the trolling of Aroosa, are all condemnable. Though by themselves these events appear apolitical and neutral, they are anything but that when positioned in the larger context of conflict politics.

The way gender politics plays out in Kashmir is complicated. Women’s identity here intersects with other factors, such as postcolonial politics, Third World conditions, religion and conflict. Conflict, in particular, largely determines the discourse of gender politics in Kashmir Valley, with its unanticipated tribulations affecting women as much as men, if not more.

A Kashmiri woman holds a girl as they watch a protest after a gun battle between suspected militants and Indian security forces in Srinagar September 17, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Danish Ismail/Files

Besides, the liberal assumption that men’s and women’s interests are always contradictory is disputable and does not represent the reality of everyday lives. One sees women more often on the streets of Kashmir when it comes to participation in political movement than in other regions without conflict.

How myopic liberal feminism reproduces Muslim exclusivity

Indian liberals argue that the hijab signifies patriarchy, oppression, or lack of Muslim women’s autonomy. Contrary to this assumption, both hijabi and non-hijabi Muslim women’s agencies were quite evident during the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests in Shaheen Bagh, or the recent Karnataka hijab protest. Kashmiri women continue to participate in street protests en masse (2008, 2010, 2016).

Indian media channels shamelessly played Aroosa’s interview and Karnataka’s protest side-by-side. It was made into a ‘Aroosa Parvaiz versus Musakan Khan’ – the girl who chanted ‘Allahu Akbar’ in response to Hindu activists’ “Jai Shri Ram” slogans – battle where Aroosa was portrayed as the ‘good Muslim’ and Muskaan was the ‘bad Muslim.’

A news channel linked an “anti-Indian hijabi gathbandan (alliance)” directly with Kashmir. Furthermore, the media also questioned these women if the hijab was more important than education without any reflection on why they were asked to choose in the first place. 

Several liberals also expressed their views on the hijab matter. For instance, columnist Tavleen Singh argues that wearing a hijab is not a matter of choice. However, is it possible to define free choice so plainly? Also, if forced veiling is not freedom, how can forcefully taking off the hijab constitute freedom?

To make her point clearer for her Indian readership, Singh drags Kashmir into the matter, calling political Islam a severe threat, from her experience in Kashmir.

On the other hand, Javed Anand, general secretary of Muslims for Secular Democracy, says that thanks to the changing face of Indian Islam in recent decades, indoctrination itself is being paraded as the right to freedom and the right to choose.

Muslim students talk to police personnel after the students were asked to take off their hijab before entering the college campus, at ATNCC College, in Shivamogga, February 16, 2022. Photo: PTI

Most pundits like the ones above display a common prejudice in their statements – towards increasing Muslim radicalism, of which Kashmir stands as the most worrying manifestation. Whether one calls it liberal arrogance or innocence, they completely ignore the implications of their claim and how their promotion of Muslim women as passive victims is being exploited to fulfil right-wing and xenophobic political agendas.

When a states uses legislation to systematically curtail women’s access to education on the basis of who decides to wear the hijab or burqa, they undermine these women’s bodily autonomy. Therefore, it is critical to be vigilant of the concrete consequences of our actions and discourses and not merely the moral values we claim we uphold. 

There is indeed an immediate need to incorporate the everyday politics of gender oppression in our analysis of these developments.

However, to disrupt femonationalism, feminists, notably from Kashmir, need to question the spatial structure of power and other forms of inequality more robustly. They must do this without permitting the instrumentalisation of women’s suffering to portray Kashmir’s political crisis simply as Islamic fundamentalism, and patriarchy as an exclusively Muslim problem.

Zohra Batul is a Ph.D. researcher at the Department of Political Science Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. She would like to thank Nas Rather for his valuable comments.