Hijab: A Symbol of Choice or Social Oppression?

Hijab has been one of the most tweeted and searched keywords on the internet in the past few months. After the students’ protest in Karnataka in early 2022, the question of the Hijab regained public consciousness after the death of Mahsa Amini in the state of Iran. Late Ms Amini was a 22-year-old Kurdish woman who was visiting Tehran and living her life peacefully without hurting or violating anyone’s rights and freedoms. Yet, she was arrested by the ‘Morality Police’ of Iran, detained and tortured until she died due to grave injuries to her head. Her death became the catalyst for hundreds and thousands of women facing strict restrictions and oppression from the Iranian clergy. With the slogan ‘Women, Life, Liberty,’ demonstrators have gone to the streets, removing their veils or cutting their hair off in the act of civil disobedience against the male-dominated government of Iran. However, Hijab is only a trope and what the women are really fighting for themselves is the right to choose.

The History of the Hijab

Hijab refers to a scarf which Muslim women wear on their heads. In the Quran, the head covering is called Khimar, which is just one form of the Hijab. It is only logical to look for answers to whether the Hijab is a religious practice or not under Islam by seeing what the Quran says. It commands men not to stare at women and not to be promiscuous. The Quran (Chapter 24, verse 31) instructs men to observe modesty: “Say to the believing men that they restrain their eyes and guard their private parts. That is purer for them. Surely, Allah is well aware of what they do.” It’s more or less like a dichotomy where instead of focusing on what our daughters wear, we should teach our sons not to gaze at or question what the opposite sex wears. 

The following two reasons explain how and why the Hijab still became a symbol of Muslim identity. First, aristocratic women in ancient times wore the veil as a sign of royalty and nobility. Secondly, there were laws detailing which class of women should wear a veil and which should not. For instance, bondwomen and prostitutes were forbidden to veil and faced cruel punishments if they did so. Therefore, veiling was not only a marker of seclusion but also differentiated between women deemed ‘respectable’ and those who were ‘dishonourable’. Fatema Mernissi, a Moroccan feminist Islamic scholar, laments, “The veil represents the triumph of the Hypocrite. The female Muslim population would henceforth be divided by a hijab into two categories: free women, against whom violence is forbidden, and women slaves, toward whom transgression is permitted.” This separatism of upper-class women penetrated society deeply in the form of cultural identity within the community. Whether in India or the world over, the identity debate is all political. Both the resistance to and the insistence on the Hijab are political.  

Surprisingly, only Hijab has attained this much importance, even though the Surahs Nur and Ahzaab of the Quran offered a basic prescription for acceptable social behaviour and attire for people of both sexes. The proponents of the Hijab, while debating how it is a fundamental part of Islam, never reveal that it is optional for Muslim women. Even non-Muslim women are not allowed to go out without it in countries like Iran and Afghanistan. On the other hand, the literature mentions no sanctions or punishment for breaking the dress code, leaving it up to the Almighty’s judgement. Furthermore, in a few verses from Surah Yasin and Surah Kafirun, the Quran expressly opposes coercion in matters of faith. One must argue that if social respectability comes from Islamisation rather than through Modernisation, is the community really on a developmental trajectory?

The Contrasting Stands of the Debate

Iran is once again on fire due to widespread anger over the death of Masha Amini, who was arrested by the country’s Gasht-e-Ershad (Guidance Patrol) on the charges of “improper” Hijab. Severely injured, she was taken to hospital in a coma and died on 16th September. Ever since the death of Miss Amini, Iran has seen widespread protests, and over 244 civilians, including 32 children, have been killed. “Police say they are here to advise. But, in reality, every single day, in all of Iran’s cities, they are controlling women’s bodies, their dress, everything,” said Iranian poet and journalist Asieh Amini. Therefore, the veil (in all its forms and manifestations) acts as a validation of a system of governance primarily regulated by men who control women’s bodies as an extension of their power. 

Surprisingly, only Hijab has attained this much importance, even though the Surahs Nur and Ahzaab of the Quran offered a basic prescription for acceptable social behaviour and attire for people of both sexes.

Contrary to Iran, students in a few states of India (mainly Karnataka and Hyderabad) are protesting for their right to wear the Hijab in educational institutes. In the recent split verdict, Justice Hemant Gupta and Justice Sudhanshu Dhulia gave opposing arguments. The former argued the right to wear the Hijab as an expression of her identity stops at the school gates. He further stated that Article 19(1)(a) does not extend to the wearing of religious artefacts in educational institutes. Justice Dhulia, on the contrary, argued that the Hijab might be the only way through which students from conservative families can access education, and hence, it acts not only as a symbol of choice but a student’s ticket to education. Besides, he stated asking or forcing students to take off their Hijab is a violation of their privacy, an attack on their dignity and a denial of secular education. Where Justice Gupta emphasises school rules and uniformity in institutes, Justice Dhulia asks, “Are we making the life of a girl child any better by denying her education, merely because she wears a hijab! All the petitioners want is to wear a hijab! Is it too much to ask in a democracy?” Both judges, however, agreed that the believers and worshipers of the religion are the best persons to interrupt whether a practice is truly essential to their religion or not. Therefore, the veil in India’s context acts as a ticket to education and independence for these girls and snatching away this chance from them may not be ethical.

The “Maybe” Flawed Arguments 

The arguments in support of the Hijab (whether in Iran or India) lie in the flawed assumption that girls have an “option” to wear or not wear it. The pressure from the families, especially male members, a deeply conservative society, and the burden of religious dogmas make it almost impossible for any hijab-clad girls to truly exercise free choice. Recently, Iranian President Ahmed Raisi refused to be interviewed by Christiane Amanpour, a CNN journalist, when she refused to wear the Hijab. So much for choice. Furthermore, the fact that orthodox families in Karnataka chose that the students lose an academic year over giving up wearing the Hijab on school premises clearly indicates the lack of choice these girls have. 

The plight of women is real and valid and does require carefully designed policy interventions to help them make their own choices. But can banning the Hijab (even in educational spaces) be this intervention? If the Hijab represents the social impositions Muslim women face, banning it would only reduce their chances of gaining an education.

If the Hijab represents the social impositions Muslim women face, banning it would only reduce their chances of gaining an education.

It is essential to understand that when more women started wearing the Hijab in the late 20th century, they did not do it to assert their religious identity but rather to practice their right to wear an outfit they are more comfortable in. Therefore, to project this idea that women are making an explicitly religious statement through Hijab is the first fallacy of the supporters of the Hijab ban. Even if some women use the Hijab to assert their identity in the public sphere, the Indian Consitution gives them the right to do so. Thus, equating Indian Secularism with the concept of Negative Secularism, which connotes a complete separation between religion and the state, is the second fallacy of the argument. Moreover, the reasoning that the Hijab may not represent a conscious choice of Muslim women completely disregards the fact that the right to a Hijab is simply an extension of the right to bodily autonomy. Therefore, to assume that a woman’s choice to cover her body is somehow less independent than her choice to expose it is the third fallacy of the enforcers of the ban.

Hence, whether the Hijab ban is an act of hostility against Muslims, marginalising an already vulnerable community or not, is the question for politicians and policymakers to ponder upon. However, what is certain is that through this discourse, the “Muslim woman” has been forced into the definition of an unthinking, unfeeling public commodity whose private decisions might not be independent choices and thus requires discussion by all. 

Conclusion

Hijab is benign, deliberately pictured as an essential practice, and imposed on women in different forms in different countries. Before jumping into the question of whether the Hijab is a crucial practice, we should consider whether wearing a piece of cloth constitutes a basic right or not. However, a Muslim hijab is not comparable to a Sikh turban, a Jewish yarmulke, a Hindu sari, or any other type of ethnic clothing. These clothing items, unlike the Hijab, are not the topic of fiercely divisive disputes among their communities; hence, no one is threatened with beatings or death for the failure to wear them. Symbolising the Hijab as freedom of expression or pluralism often ignores the bigger picture. 

The Hijab is no longer a lifestyle or a religious issue; it has transcended deep into politics. Throughout the world, what women should wear and should not is interpreted in multiple ways. Governments, democratic or not, have varied stands in this regard, with some countries banning the Hijab and others allowing it with few amends as per their state laws. These varied interpretations of the Hijab have led to different protests, demonstrations, riots and even deaths. The dilemma, however, persists- should the governments ban (or impose) the Hijab as an element of free choice (or essential practice) or work on the repercussions that women face when they choose to wear (or not to wear) the Hijab?

(Azhar Shaik is a Post Graduate Student at the Department of Politics and International Studies, Pondicherry University, India. Rahul Ajnoti is a Post Graduate Student at the Department of Politics and International Studies, Pondicherry University, India. His areas of interest include India’s Foreign Policy, South East Asia, Feminism and Environmental Studies. Views expressed are authors’ own)

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1 Comment

  • S.Vikram

    Rising a good question in a proper time at the very important moment is always appreciateble……..Learned something new about Quran and its choice then imposition.
    We should think about the answer for this question in varied dimensions from security,freedom, The viel but essential to convince conservative father to send his daughter to education path and then to identity.

    Let the education, awareness and liberty of thoughts decide what they want………..

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