Thursday, 30 June, 2022
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TV debated the hijab row but it’s the protest videos that took the story forward

The defining image of Muskan raising her arm in defiance and screaming ‘Allahu Akbar’ at men will remain with us long after the debate dies down.

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This is one of those instances where the image speaks louder than words.

The first image is of a young Muslim woman, Muskan, in hijab, seen driving a scooter; she parks the two-wheeler, dismounts and then walks forward with purposeful strides. As she marches along, a group of young men heckle her, follow her, shouting out ‘Jai Shree Ram’ to which she flings back, ‘Allahu Akbar’ with a toss of her head and a raised arm.

The second image is of a group of Muslim women students in hijab, huddled together when along comes a long line of male students wearing saffron scarves, waving saffron flags.

There is a third image. Of two groups of women confronting each other — one wearing hijab and the other saffron shawls/chunnis. In another image, a group of young Muslim women in hijab are seen raising slogans, their arms high up in protests outside the locked gates of an educational institution.

These are the images that have come to represent on television screens the ‘Campus Hijab face-off’, ‘the mega Hijab v/s Saffron Robe’ conflict in different parts of Karnataka (India Today). And they tell this sorry tale much more eloquently than the thousands of words that have been expended on the subject by TV news anchors, reporters, ‘experts’ – and of course the ubiquitous politicians.

In fact, the defining image of Muskan raising her arm in defiance and screaming ‘Allahu Akbar’ at men will remain with us long after the debate dies down.

Also read: The importance of being Nirmala Sitharaman — only BJP minister facing media line of fire

TV and the space it gave to Hijab

And when the female students spoke, they were in an assertive mood: we saw a woman student in hijab, standing up to a group of boys and telling them that if they wanted to argue, it should be on a one-on-one basis (Zee News).

Then, there were the two women students identified as petitioners, on CNN News18. On Wednesday afternoon, when the Karnataka High Court referred the case concerning the wearing of hijab in educational institutions to a larger bench, one of the student said she believed in the legal system and hoped they would ‘get our rights’. She, along with the other student, described what they alleged was the sequence of events at their college in Udupi when they were not allowed into class wearing hijabs. They claimed it was the local BJP MLA who introduced the communal angle to the entire episode.

What has been striking about the coverage of what Times Now called ‘Religion v/s Rights clash’, is that news channels from Zee News and Republic TV to Mirror Now and CNN News 18 have sought out the young Muslim women and girls and given time and space to their point of view — even as their anchors questioned those very viewpoints.

And these female students seem fearless — they are willing to speak up, speak to camera, speak to anyone who will listen to them – and to stand up for themselves just the way Muskan did. Does that suggest they are unwilling to take things lying down?

On Wednesday evening, Republic TV reported, ‘Pro hijab protests escalate’ to other states. So let’s wait and see.

Also read: TV news is busy finding Pakistan and Muslim angle everywhere in polls

Arnab and Ambedkar

Coverage of the issue of allowing female students to wear or not wear hijab in educational institutions has seen news channels caught in something of a bind. On the one hand, they supported the idea of women’s education, on the other, they questioned the need to wear hijab when schools and colleges disallowed them, where the authorities were reportedly striving for what many anchors called ‘uniformity’. That’s why we wear uniforms to school, right?

But Times Now was aware of a pitfall here: ‘Will banning hijab ensure uniformity in educational institutions?’ it asked Tuesday. This, when its anchor Rahul Shivshankar worried that the controversy was taking a ‘dangerous turn’, where a ‘group of reactionaries’, as he called them, were using the women students as ‘props’ to ‘weaponise’ their ‘Islamic identity’.

Zee News went one step further: it called its Wednesday evening debate, ‘Hijab… Zid ya Jihad?’

Well, that’s scary indeed and may or may not be true. According to Republic TV’s Arnab Goswami, the whole thing was ‘ridiculous’. He dismissed it as an effort ‘on all sides to create a Hindu-Muslim divide’ before state assembly elections in Karnataka next year. Like Rahul Shivshankar, he used B.R. Ambedkar, citing his criticism of the hijab. But he also attacked BJP’s spokesperson Gaurav Bhatia in a very unusual manner: what was the need, he asked, to distribute saffron shawls in Karnataka where it’s not cold? Why not distribute them in the north where it is cold, he added sarcastically.

What’s going on here?

Other channels like Time Now Navbharat, India TV, and India Today agreed that politics was hiding behind hijabs and blue or saffron scarves, to divide people. Politics ‘explodes’ in Karnataka, said India Today, adding suspiciously, ‘Spontaneous’ or ‘Orchestrated’ protests?

India TV saw a hidden hand in the whole affair: it claimed that ‘Modi ko badnam karo’ was the agenda behind the wearing of hijabs and the protests that followed. The channel thought it saw Congress’ ‘vote bank’ politics in the mix, too. And indeed, Wednesday on NDTV 24×7, BJP and Congress politicians from Karnataka accused each other of creating the controversy and then exploiting it. ‘Neta’s fuelling fire?’ asked CNN News 18.

Mirror Now and News X were both more concerned with the education angle. Was the ‘hijab row’ a ‘deterrent to girls education?’ (Mirror Now). Which was the perfect cue for AIMIM’s Asaduddin Owaisi – who appeared on all channels – to ask, if the government believes in its own slogan, ‘Beti bachao, beti padhao’, then let these girls get an education even if they wear hijabs.

In a sense, news channels reflected the dilemma many felt over the issue: can and should there be uniformity in educational institutions? What happens when individual and fundamental rights clash with the rights of institutions to manage their affairs as they choose? Did the controversy help the Muslim girls or was it endangering their future education? Or was it all just another political gambit? ‘In UP, there are elections so hijab issue has heated up’, suggested India TV on Wednesday.

But listening to the young Muslim women, across news channels, you wondered if there was more to the issue than politics.

Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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