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Is hijab a choice? India can’t defend secularism on knife’s edge, like France

The biggest difference between the French and Karnataka versions of 'laicite' is that in France, the public display of all religious symbols is not allowed.

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Is the Karnataka government practising “laicite”, just like France, which banned the veils and other religious symbols in public institutions back in 2004? Should the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Basavaraj Bommai government in Bengaluru be condemned for taking a leaf out of the European Union’s top court, which last year permitted companies from banning headscarves at work? As for the Islamic Republic of Morocco, in 2017 it banned vendors and manufacturers from selling the burqa — a ban on wearing the hijab dates back to 2004.

This column is not about Saudi Arabia, where recent reforms introduced by Mohammed bin Salman means that women no longer need wear the full black covering or ‘abaya’ in public, can drive, go to the movies, travel abroad and live independently — arguably, Saudi Arabia still remains one of the most conservative countries in the world.

In Gulf nations like UAE, it’s anathema to criticise the ruling sheikhs — but it is their fatwas that have turned Dubai into a glittering Manhattan of the East, where women can wear what they want, including to the beach. In fact, since the 2020 Abraham Accords signed with the former enemy, Israel — and overseen by the US — the UAE has become a favoured Israeli tourist destination.

Nor is this column about Pakistan, which in theory seeks to follow Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s 1947 dictum about freedom of religion (“you can go back to your temples and mosques…”), but in practice has banned Valentine’s Day celebration by insisting that women wear not just the black abaya but also black gloves, while men must don white prayer caps.

Or about Afghanistan, where the Taliban has brought back the full, blue-coloured burqa back with a vengeance — girls and women cannot step out in public without a burqa or at the bare minimum, a hijab.

One of the most interesting examples of the State overturning its own diktat on the hijab is Turkey. When the Ottoman empire fell after World War I, Kemal ‘Pasha’ Ataturk sought to extricate Turkey out of the darkness of the past and force-feed it into the future — amongst his experiments was the 1925 decree on clothing reform, including a ban on the hijab. More recent Turkish leaders, like the current president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have leaned towards the Islamists; when he was PM in 2013, Erdogan made sure to overturn Ataturk’s 1925 decree on clothing regulations.

As the Karnataka High Court hears the argument about whether or not girl students should be allowed to wear the headscarf or hijab to their schools and colleges, it is interesting to see how countries elsewhere in the world have dealt with similar issues. What happens when religious tradition collides with the secular State? 

Also read: The real issue in Karnataka hijab row is how secularism is defined wrongly – Nehru to Modi

‘Laicite’ at the front

France has been at the forefront of this international debate for some years now. It invokes a concept called “laicite,” which translates as a hard brand of “secularism” that brooks no argument on the equality front.

Across ideological lines, the State has invoked harsh measures in France to ban the full burqa in 2004, also called the “law of the veil” — it bans wearing any “ostentatious” religious articles, including the Islamic veil, the Jewish kippah and large Christian crosses — by the left-of-centre Jacques Chirac; the face veil, or niqab in 2011 by the right-wing Nicolas Sarkozy.

In 2021, the French Senate pushed for an amendment to ban the headscarf for anyone aged under 18, as part of an “anti-separatism Bill” pushed by President Emmanuel Macron’s government. The amendment also included a ban on headscarves during school trips as well as a ban on the “burkini”, the full-body swimsuit.

The French amendment, which led to the Twitter hashtag #HandsOffMyHijab trending for several weeks, came in the wake of the beheading of Samuel Paty, a teacher in the Paris suburbs in October 2020, by a Chechen immigrant.

Macron responded by, unabashedly, describing the knife attacks as a wave of “Islamic separatism” and proceeded to announce a set of public debates in defence of “laicite” — or the strict separation between the Church and the State, which has been a hallmark of French politics and society since 1905.

Now “laicite” doesn’t mean that the State doesn’t get involved in the lives of France’s Catholic population — in fact, it funds both historical churches like Notre Dame and Catholic schools. But the concept returned to the forefront during the freedom struggles in North Africa against the French colonial empire in the 1960s, when Muslims from those countries — including women and children wearing headscarves — arrived in France in large numbers.

Fast forward to the 2005 publication of a cartoon of Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper, which created an uproar across Europe; in 2011, the Sarkozy-inspired law against the niqab gave way to rioting across France; in 2015, the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ satirical magazine in Paris was attacked because it caricatured the Prophet and 12 people were killed; in 2020, Charlie Hebdo republished the cartoons to mark the trial of the attackers, leading to enormous anger across the Muslim world.

Soon after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Austria, Netherlands, and Belgium passed laws prohibiting the niqab, while in 2016, then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that wearing full face veils should be prohibited wherever “legally possible.”

Significantly, both France and Germany have about five million Muslim citizens in their countries — in 2020, in the wake of Samuel Paty’s killing, 79 per cent of respondents said “Islamism had declared war” on France.

Macron, fully aware that he is fighting an election this year, had said at the time, “Samuel Paty was killed because Islamists want our future and because they know that with quiet heroes like him, they will never have it.” 

Also read: In Karnataka, it’s not about Hijab, but bigotry and apartheid

Indian secularism has limits

Perhaps the biggest difference between the French and Karnataka versions of “laicite” is that in France, the public display of all religious symbols, whether hijab or turban or Christian cross, are not allowed; which is why the State believes it is right in enforcing such a ban in the public sphere.

In India, on the other hand, the more elastic version of “secularism” has not meant an end to religion in the public sphere, but to both of them co-existing. It is the limits of this co-existence that is on the table of the Karnataka High Court these days.

Back in 2014, a poll on Europe’s disenchanted Muslim populations by Russian news agency Rossiya Segodnya found that 15 per cent of France, 7 per cent of Britain and 2 per cent of Germany’s population had a positive image of the Islamic State terror group. According to The Washington Post, even if the figures weren’t really so high, they were high enough — it cited scores of fighters from these nations as well as other European nations (notably Belgium) pouring into Syria and Iraq to support the ISIS.

In contrast, despite India’s 14 per cent Muslim population, only a handful of people have been driven to fight the so-called holy wars in Afghanistan and in the Levant.

So, is wearing the hijab a question of choice or not? Can you defend the concept of secularism on the edge of the knife, as the French have done, or is that counter-productive? As the Karnataka High Court hears the issue, the experiences of nations abroad on whether, how and how much to cover up women may be instructive.

Jyoti Malhotra is a senior consulting editor at ThePrint. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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