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The right answer to the wrong hijab question is still a wrong answer

The controversy was conjured up to reignite Hindu-Muslim divide, so that while the hoodlums do their job on the street, intellectuals debate the merits of hijab.

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The right answer to a wrong question is still a wrong answer.

That is the problem with the response of some of the liberal intellectuals and secular activists who have raised their voice against hijab wearing in the schools. Fortunately, this issue has driven a wedge not just between the Secular and the anti-secular camp, but also opened a divide within the liberal-secular camp. While most secularists have defended the demand that the girl students be allowed to wear hijab, some have distanced themselves from this position. These include secular activist Shabnam Hashmi and the editorial at ThePrint. I say “fortunately”, since I welcome any public expression of difference of opinion within the secular-liberal camp. It is a disease of our public life that those who share a world-view don’t disagree with one another, at least not in public. Open expression of honest disagreements makes for a robust public culture.

It is in this spirit that I wish to engage with them. I disagree with their answer. But more than that, I think they are asking the wrong question.

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

Asking the wrong question

Take ThePrint’s 50-word editorial, worth quoting in full: “It is distressing that the hijab-saffron scarf row in Karnataka is forcing even the well-meaning voices of modernity and liberalism to defend the regressive practice of covering up young women. Beyond whataboutery of ghoonghats and turbans, Indians shouldn’t allow this to become another political bruising Shah Bano moment that haunts our future.”

The central issue that must concern the “well-meaning voices of modernity and liberalism”, as per this editorial is “regressive practice of covering up young women”. The assumption here is that young women do not wear hijab on their own volition. They are being coerced or pressurized. Hence, all Indians must step in to prevent this violation of freedom.

If this is how the question is framed, the answer is understandable, if not correct. In this understanding, hijab is a sign of women’s enslavement, of male desire to keep women under wraps. Now, it is true that various practices of covering women’s bodies, and not men’s, have their origins in patriarchy. So, if young, educated women start wearing hijab, as per this understanding, there is reason for concern. Are they being coerced? Or indoctrinated? Is this a good practice anyway?

This initial concern, however, is no basis for reaching a conclusion. In the last instance, the meaning of any form of self-expression must take into account the intention of the actor(s). We cannot assume what a dress means, unless we know what it means to the person who chooses to wear it. What is enslavement for one person can be rebellion for another, or for the same person at another time. For me, wearing Kurta-payjama, and not shirt-trousers or even Kurta-jeans began as an act of defiance. Today, it looks like a fashionable ethnic costume. I do not quite know what hijab means to these young Muslim women. But I cannot turn my ignorance into a virtue and assume that it must mean to them what I think it must. Their self-understanding may be partial or even deceptive. So, I can criticize and argue with them. But there is no way I can just bypass their self-understanding. That would be brute cultural arrogance of the “voices of modernity”. There is nothing liberal about it.

Let us face it. There is nothing natural about a uniform. A dress code is about uniform application of what is considered culturally “normal” at any given point. The dominant cultural group gets to define this normalcy. As Nivedita Menon reminds us in her sharp intervention on this issue: “Compulsory uniforms do not create equality or justice.” This normalcy must be constantly revised. Indeed, it is revised every now and then. Till a few years ago, skirt was the uniform for nurses, till they protested and got it changed to salvar-kameez. Every society negotiates with the varying prevalent cultural practices to define a new normal.

That is what the current debate on school and college uniform in Karnataka is all about. The debate cannot be settled by a fiat, by declaring that a certain dress is regressive. Nor can it be settled by invoking an unlimited freedom to religious expression. Unless we give up the idea of a dress code altogether — not a bad idea, to my mind – we must settle for a fair deal on every community’s right to cultural and religious self-expression. Such issues can be settled. Indeed they have routinely been settled in our country. We need to agree on the right forum and a fair procedure acceptable to both sides.

That is why the question posed by these dissenting liberals is a wrong question. The present debate is not about the positives and negatives of hijab. Whether young Muslim girls should wish to wear hijab or not is a debate that will and must go on within families, friends, community, hostel rooms and college canteens. Since my childhood I have heard such a debate among my Sikh male friends on whether they should or should not cut their hair and wear a turban. I have witnessed intense debates, emotional trauma, parent-child break-ups on this issue. I have noticed longer beards after 1984 and their disappearance after a decade or so. Such debates can and must go on in any society, within any community. Those who feel hijab is regressive must enter these conversations and reshape the consensus.

But this is not the real question today. The question is not about the merits of hijab, but who decides about who can wear hijab and where? Can a majority community demand that its normal must be uniformly imposed on the rest of the society? Can educational institutions unilaterally alter pre-existing norms without listening to the concerned students and parents? Can a political majority override the rights of religious minorities? Worse, can a bunch of street lumpens and their political masters decide on what someone can wear or not?

This is the only relevant question that we as Indians are called upon to respond to. Conflating this question with other (possibly good) questions at this point in time is to fall into the trap that the street goons have set up for us. Just notice the timing and the place. This is happening in coastal Karnataka, one of the spots worst affected by communal politics. The dispute has been festering for long, but it heats up only a week before UP elections, just as the BJP was failing to push Hindu-Muslim divide in western UP. Not to put too fine a point on it: the controversy was conjured up to reignite Hindu-Muslim divide, so that while the hoodlums do their job on the street, some of the intellectuals can be drawn into a debate on the merits of hijab.

The right answer to a wrong question is still a wrong answer. When we offer an ostensibly right answer to a plainly wrong question that has been thrust upon us, we are not just giving a wrong answer. We run the risk of abdicating our sense of right and wrong.

Note from the author: An earlier version of the article contained reference to Ramachandra Guha. It has been removed.

Yogendra Yadav is among the founders of Jai Kisan Andolan and Swaraj India. He tweets @_YogendraYadav. Views are personal. 

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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