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India's Hindu Nationalists Go After the Hijab of Muslim School Girls
Their campaign of religious harassment is forcing these girls to choose between their faith and their education
Members from the Muslim Women Association hold placards as they stand along a roadside during a silent protest after few Karnataka's educational institutes denied entry to students wearing hijabs, in Hyderabad on February 15, 2022. (Photo by NOAH SEELAM / AFP) (Photo by NOAH SEELAM/AFP via Getty Images)
You could hear the collective heartbreak of Muslim girls across India who wanted an education while committing to their religious practice when a state court ruled they could not attend school wearing hijab.
The High Court in Karnataka, a state in the southwest of India whose capitol is Bangalore, ruled last month that wearing hijab doesn’t form an essential religious practice under the Islamic faith. It held that the state government had the power to prescribe guidelines for school uniforms, and it dismissed all the petitions filed by schoolgirls who wanted the hijab to be included as an elective but permissible part of the uniform.
Forcing girls, some of whom are first generation students, to choose between getting educated and wearing the hijab puts them in an untenable position. The Karnataka order is being challenged in India's Supreme Court which will take a final decision. The Supreme Court seems to be in no hurry to put the matter on its roster.
But that will be too late for some. I spoke to many girls who said they had missed important final exams as they did not want to go to a public place without wearing a head covering. Some broke down in tears, saying they were facing an unfair choice.
This whole saga, which has revealed the fragility of India's inclusivity and the vulnerability of its Muslim population to discriminatory regulations, all started with a tiny school girl, her hair lovingly braided in two plaits, tears pouring down her face, nervously fiddling with her hijab, taking it off and replacing it in the full gaze of more than a dozen television cameras.
She ran to hug her father for reassurance and then handed him her hijab before rushing into her school. Then a [Muslim] school teacher drove up to her school on a scooter, and slowly and painfully pulled off her hijab to be allowed entry to do her job.
On 14 February the hijab ban went viral and all of India’s news channels descended with lights and cameras blazing. Women have been heckled outside school gates by swarms of men wearing saffron shawls, once a Hindu priest's adornment, now often a sign of assertive Hindu exceptionalism, showcasing both their bigotry and total immunity from any consequences such as police action.
Girls and teachers had to run the gauntlet of the cameras and the saffron-clad male mobs jeering at them while screaming Hindu religious slogans.
Make no mistake: this was a ritual public humiliation. It was a theater of prejudice against girls and women which has little to do with the hijab and more to do with showing India’s 200 million Muslims their place as second-class citizens in Modi’s Hindutva project.
Muslim girls are being denied education in Karnataka – a BJP-ruled state – for wearing a hijab to class. Both the official whitewashing and the exclusions are fast becoming contagious.
Modi claims that he is in fact championing Muslims: He wants to emancipate Muslim women with a scheme called "Beti baccaho, Beti padhao" (Protect girls, educate them). But this project is based on compulsion: the eradication of religious choice. And what started as a single school incident involving four girls has spread like wildfire across the state and has now engulfed all Muslim women, including teachers who were not part of the original diktat.
To ensure that the message and the humiliation is loud and clear, Muslim women are made to disrobe in public. Besides the hecklers, the women’s ordeal is televized live across mainstream channels, a mass exercise in punitive voyeurism. While the hijab ban played out in full public gaze, India was voting in five critically important state elections, particularly Uttar Pradesh, and the BJP wants to ensure that the visuals ram home the humiliation of Muslims on its watch.
India’s tame TV channels are obedient to the Modi government’s dictates. It appears that, across the channels, the running order, framing which stories will be prioritized and how they will be played up, is these days decided by a senior advisor to the prime minister in contact with a WhatsApp group of editors.
The hypocrisy of the public square is explicit. Not only Muslim women wear some sort of head covering: Hindu women don what is called a ghoongat (veil). You could be a feminist liberal and be against both: but the important point here is that only one of them has been banned. The BJP has baited the ban as a trap for liberals who don’t want to support regressive religious practices.
This isn't the first time that Muslim religious practice has been deliberately singled out. Following a 2017 Supreme Court directive, which ruled a form of "instant" Muslim divorce unconstitutional, Modi criminalized the act with a three-year jail term. No other religion’s divorce proceedings have become a criminal offense.
Muslims have faced the brunt of communal attacks in the past eight years. Vigilantes publicly lynch Muslims for producing beef: A Modi government minister garlanded released vigilantes. Traditional Muslim occupations like the leather industry and abattoirs have been shutdown in the name of protecting cows, sacred to Hinduism, so much so that herds of feral cattle denuding crops have become an issue in regional elections.
Imaginary crimes like "love jihad" (Muslim men pretending to be Hindu to lure and convert Hindu women) now carry jail terms and the police have the widest latitude to prosecute what is an intangible, unprovable "crime." India’s mainstream media demonizes Muslims on a daily basis with shows on "thook jihad" ("spit jihad") where they claim Muslims spit in to Hindus' food.
Incidentally, the channel running this despicable bigotry – including a video purporting to prove a concerted spitting campaign, using one video whose Hindu nationalist uploader warns in the audio, "This is for those Hindus who come and eat with these pigs [Muslims]" – is owned by India’s richest man.
I have argued before in Haaretz that the Hindutva project – a Hindu Rashtra, or imperium – has already reached fruition in the past eight years and India’s proud claim of being the world’s largest democracy is now just that, a claim.
The ideology that animates Hindutva is a simple one line prescription: Hatred for the other. And the prime other, the Muslim, must be forced to erase those markers that identify him as a Muslim. Ever since Modi became prime minister and loftily proclaimed a "New India," but accessorized with distinctly old prejudices and bigotry, what Muslims wear, eat, work at and whom they love have all been criminalized. At the same time, the Modi government constantly platforms and amplifies the public exhibition of Hindu symbolism and religious practice.
Modi has given the State (and its delegated bureaucratic and vigilante enforcers) the right to crudely barge in to the Indian Muslim home and bedroom and judge for itself what offends it. The definition is vast and all that the hapless Muslim can do not to offend is efface the symbols of her identity. Muslims have been erased and disappeared from the public square of a 'democracy' that once celebrated its noisily disputatious and multicultural nature.
Consider this: The BJP frames the hijab as an attack on the secularism anchored in India’s Constitution and as an affront to a woman’s agency – yet only the hijab offends both. Yogi Adityanath, the saffron-wearing monk who rules India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, has never been asked about the propriety of his wearing Hindu religious markers in the public square, or whether this offends the Constitution.
A BJP member of Parliament and terror suspect, Sadhvi Pragaya Thakur Singh, is always swathed in saffron. Incidentally the right honorable MP is a staunch devotee and advocate of Nathuram Godse, the man who murdered Mahatma Gandhi.
Unlike French secularism, which frowns upon all religious markers in the public square, India is moving towards a highly selective and politically charged form of quasi-secularism. Hindu religious practices dominate the public square and are considered unexceptionable. Coconuts, considered auspicious, are broken at government ceremonies, school children across India sing Hindu religious hymns, some in Sanskrit, and Modi presides over religious ceremonies in temples in his capacity as premier-priest. The 'secular' republic of India's majoritarian Hindu heart has no room for its minorities.
India still abounds in the beautiful diversity of centuries of traditions relating to dress codes. Women wear markers indicating their marital status – bangles and mangalsutra (necklaces). India has a tradition of Jain monks known as digambara, or "clothed by the sky." They neither possess nor wear any clothes; their adherents have addressed state assemblies with respectful legislators seeking blessings. India also has naga sadhus (naked monks) who live in communes and worship the god Shiva.
The greatest Indian, Mahatma Gandhi, wore a simple dhoti till his dying day. Perhaps that, too, would offend the bigot whose own taste for luxury clothing is so extreme he once wore a bespoke suit whose pinstripes actually spelled out his own name – and heads the country that the ascetic, inclusive Gandhi led to independence.
This piece has been reprinted from Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, where it was originally published.
Swati Chaturvedi is an award-winning print and broadcast journalist. She regularly contributes investigative stories and analysis to NDTV.com and Gulf News, and is a frequent political commentator on television. She is the author of "I am a Troll: Inside the BJP’s Secret Digital Army" (2016). Twitter: @bainjal