God, if thou must torture me with something, don’t torture me with the humiliation of the hijab,” said sufi saint Sari al-Saqati of Baghdad sometime around the 8th century CE. It is quoted by Ali Ibn Ahmad al-Nisaburi in an annexe written for Persian scholar Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari’s Tafsir-ul Quran. The saint had two verses of the Quran in mind when making this supplication. One, 83:15, which, while talking of the Day of Judgement, says about the disbelievers: “No indeed! On that Day they will be screened off from their Lord.” Here, “screened off” is a rendering of the word mahjoob, that is, the one on whom hijab has been cast. Second, 7:46, says that on the Day of Judgement, a hijab will separate the saved and the damned.
Fatema Mernissi, a Moroccan feminist Islamic scholar, wonders how a word like hijab, with a strongly negative connotation of exclusion from spiritual access and divine grace, became a symbol of Muslim identity.
There are two reasons for this. One, the seclusion and veiling of women have been a mark of royalty and nobility in many societies since ancient times. Aristocratic women in ancient Mesopotamia, as in the Sassanid and the Byzantine empires, wore the veil as a sign of respectability and high status. The Assyrian empire had laws detailing which class of women shall veil and which shall not. Female slaves and prostitutes were forbidden to veil and faced harsh penalties if they did so. Veiling was thus not only a marker of aristocratic rank but also served to differentiate between ‘respectable’ women and those who were ‘publicly available’.
Juxtapose this with the Quran’s verse 33:59: “O’ Prophet [Muhammad], tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers that they should draw down their shawls (jilbab) over them. That will make it easy for them to be recognised, and not molested.” The next two verses condemn and warn the ‘Hypocrite’ and “those with a disease in their hearts” that if they didn’t stop molesting and slandering these women, the Prophet would rise against them, expel them from the city of Medina or seize and kill them. The harassment of women in Medina had brought the city to the brink of civil strife. The Prophet wasn’t in the position to extend the same protection to the weak and vulnerable section of women as he could to those belonging to the tribal aristocracy.
Mernissi laments, “The veil represents the triumph of the Hypocrite. Slaves would continue to be harassed and attacked in the streets. 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.” She adds,“Imposing the hijab/curtain that hides women instead of changing attitudes and forcing ‘those in whose heart is a disease’ to act differently, was going to overshadow Islam’s dimension as a civilisation.”
The hijab also increasingly assumed importance due to the association of the woman’s body with community honour. The halo of power and privilege associated with the veil, and the woman’s body as the symbol of honour, combined to define the Muslim attitude towards the hijab thereon.
Also read: Triple talaq to hijab—How Hindutva reversed gains made by Muslim women’s movements
Understanding hijab’s popularity
The recent popularity of the hijab and the confrontationist attitude of its supporters has to be understood at two levels: The meaning of the hijab within the Muslim community, and its signal to the secular State and the majority community.
Within the Muslim community, the hijab represents the claim to respectability of the upwardly mobile masses. If social respectability comes via Islamisation, and not through modernisation, it says something about the development trajectory of the community. And, if this norm is patriarchal, so be it. Women, across religions, have always been equal participants in the perpetuation of patriarchy, and some women have always used patriarchy to oppress others. From the abolition of sati to the criminalisation of triple talaq, lots of women have always sided with the dominant view.
All the cultural associations and religious reasoning notwithstanding, the present-day hijab — the stylised headscarf — is an apology for the conventional concept, which had two components: Purdah, the seclusion of upper-class women, and the niqab, the veiling of the face. Nowhere in Islamic literature has the word hijab ever been used for headscarf.
Now, could the headscarf-hijab bestow the sense of elitism that purdah and niqab once did? Not really. It’s far too common to be a mark of social distinction. So, from where does one derive the sense of enhanced self-esteem? Well, from a new sense of religiosity and religious identity. This headscarf is actually a hijab — a ‘barrier’ between communities, between Muslims and non-Muslims. It’s a religion-inspired separation, nay, separatism. It’s political. Identity politics is all about that. So it is in India and the world over. Both the insistence on, and resistance to, the hijab are political. Its imposition and rejection are equally ideological with little space for individual choice.
In Muslim-majority countries, the hijab has been imposed to make the system Islamic, that is, identitarian in ideology. Whereas in a country like India, where Muslims are a minority, or in the West, where they are newly arrived immigrants, the hijab has been adopted by women to institutionalise separatism from the host community and fight the natural process of integration with them while benefiting from their liberal ethos.
Also read: The many shades of grey in Iran’s hijab war show it’s not just personal freedom vs theocracy
So much for choice
As for the hijab being a matter of choice — well, in the theory of liberalism, choice belongs to the individual and not the group. What is being presented as individual choice is actually a symbol of group identity.
Societal expectations, parental pressure, and ideological indoctrination could be a more forceful compulsion than anything made mandatory by the State. Proponents of the hijab, while arguing how it’s a part of Islam, never say that it’s optional for a Muslim woman. Iran and Afghanistan don’t allow even non-Muslim women to go without it. Even women heads of State had to cover themselves in the Sharia-compliant manner when touring such countries. Recently, President of Iran Ahmed Raisi refused to be interviewed by CNN journalist Christiane Amanpour since she refused to wear the hijab. So much for choice.
Since we are on Iran, let’s get this clear. The apologists for the theocratic regime are right in saying that the protesting women are not against Islam per se but the regime that made the hijab a tool of tyranny. They are right. The hijab-burning is only as political as its imposition. Likewise, in India, the insistence to wear the hijab in a school, which has a prescribed uniform, is political, not religious. Therefore, the resistance to it is political too, not religious — not against Islam.
Politics in the garb of religion has become so entrenched that indoctrinated women have been at the forefront of identity politics, putting their communal identity before gender.
Also read: India’s hijab supporters will lose even if they win SC battle. Because the real war is political
Hijab, as a banner of insurrection against the liberal State and its secular order, should be seen for what it essentially is, no matter in what liberal-secular idiom it is couched and how the official liberals defend it in the name of, well, liberalism.
What an irony that the liberals, the ‘vanguards’ of modernity, rationality, and secularism, should be defending retrograde trends in society. They have been doing this when, according to them, the community in question is classified as marginalised. They intellectualise their regressive attitude by invoking arcane theories of postmodernism and post-structuralism. But such fancy theorisations can’t hide the fact that liberals have become illiberal. Can liberalism survive this wilful subversion by the official liberal class trying to restore its relevance and regain control over institutions of narrative-making? Its unscrupulous and unprincipled support for minority communalism has already caused it irreparable discredit. Its studied silence over Iran’s hijab issue has been quite an eye-opener. After citing examples from Western countries as to how they make an exception for hijab even in institutions that have dress codes for women, the liberal class went completely silent in the face of the conflict in Iran, an Islamic theocracy. The anti-hijab uprising of Iranian women deflated its pet arguments and showed that the hijab is neither a religious requirement nor a matter of individual choice. The Iranian woman is no less religious, and with no less agency, than her Indian counterpart who has been arguing that without the hijab, her religion, personal modesty, and group identity would be compromised.
The official liberals would do better to withdraw from urging Muslims to go on a perpetual warpath with the Indian State and the majority community. If they sincerely believe that Muslims are marginalised, they should try to bring them into the mainstream by promoting an integrationist narrative and nationalist ideology among them. An ever-confrontationist minority serves the vested interests of the liberal elite at its own cost. The official liberal doesn’t want Muslims to produce their own liberals who would critique and correct the deformities in Muslim society. They want to remain the sole spokesman of Muslims who would bargain in their name. No wonder, the Hindu liberal regards the Muslim liberal as a natural enemy rather than a natural ally. Instead, the Muslim communalist is his natural ally. But only in appearance. In reality, he is just his foot soldier.
But for the liberals, Muslims would understand that identity politics is a relapse into tribalism.
Ibn Khaldun Bharati is student of Islam, and looks at Islamic history from an Indian perspective. He tweets at @IbnKhaldunIndic. Views are personal.
Editor’s Note: We know the writer well and only allow pseudonyms when we do so.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)