A Feminist Perspective on Karnataka’s Hijab Row


In an order that legitimizes the decision of state education institutions to prohibit Muslim girl students from wearing the hijab (headscarf), the Karnataka government said on February 5, 2021, that “clothes which disturb equality, integrity and public law and order should not be worn”. This seemingly innocuous directive comes hard on the heels of several disturbing incidents. Whereas Muslim girl students wearing hijab were refused entry into classes, no action was taken against the Hindu students who donned saffron scarves to oppose the former’s refusal to remove hijab, raising slogans of “Jai Shri Ram (praise Lord Ram)” while going to college.

Writing about “the French controversy over the foulard [headscarf]”, Nancy Fraser had said: “the issue is whether policies forbidding Muslim girls to wear headscarves in state schools constitute unjust treatment of a religious minority. In this case, those claiming recognition of the foulard must establish two points: they must show, first, that the ban on the scarf constitutes an unjust majority communitarianism, which denies educational parity to Muslim girls; and second, that an alternative policy permitting the foulard would not exacerbate female subordination— in Muslim communities or in society-at-large.”

The first point can be established clearly since the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – espousing the project of cultural nationalism – has instituted no definitive prohibitions that explicitly bar the wearing of Hindu symbols in state schools. In fact, the present-day Hijab row has been characterized by a discourse that normalizes Hinduism as the primary basis of Indian identity. The second point can also be established. On the one hand, the hijab is associated with patriarchal aspects of Muslim womanhood, such as control on women’s sexuality, the inferior right of a woman to bear witness, her right to inherit only half of what comes to her brother, and forced marriages.

On the other hand, the meaning of hijab is subject to semantic contestations from women who are struggling to refashion it for their own purposes. In the words of Nancy Fraser: “instead of construing it [headscarf] as univocally patriarchal, which effectively accords male supremacists sole authority to interpret Islam, the state should treat the foulard as a symbol of Muslim identity in transition, one whose meaning is contested”. When we consider both the points together, it becomes clear that Muslim women’s struggle for the right to wear hijab carries progressive-feminist potentials.

In response to exclusionary narratives, Muslim women have insisted that their religious identity be accepted as a legitimate basis for accessing fundamental civic rights. In this way, religion has been creatively conjoined with democratic ethos, activating many radical openings for the subalternity of India’s female Muslims. Antonio Gramsci noted that the subaltern represents the tension between the internalization of the relations of oppression and the potential for rebellion that indicates “characteristics of autonomous initiative”.

This tension derives from the character of the subaltern’s common sense. Common sense, while being tethered to the ideology of the ruling class, is also a spontaneous attempt to give a modicum of coherence to the complex ideas that one faces during the course of historical experience. As Fabio Frosini writes, it is “the place where the popular layers of society try to ‘give order’ to the general directing principles of their own form of life, in a way that is different – if not alternative – from that proposed and imposed by ruling classes”. This points to the fact the religion of the subaltern is affected by their specific socio-historical and economic milieu, and it expresses an experience of a lived reality that is ultimately beyond religion itself. Rosario Forlenza remarks:

“In the Gramscian elaboration, the religion of the people does not simply mechanically articulate and reproduce the religion of intellectuals at a lower level. People on the ground are not simply passive recipients but also active appropriators and re-creators of elite culture and religion, which they combine freely with an eclectic range of sources that are rooted in their mentalities, world-views, and lived experiences – thus with bits and pieces of common sense and folklore.”

From the aforementioned, it should be evident that the experience of the subaltern carries great importance. For EP Thompson, experience is “the dialogue between the being and social conscience”, “the print that is left by the social being in the social conscience”. “With this expression men and women return as subjects: not as autonomous subjects or ‘free individuals’, but as persons who experiment the productive situations and the given relations in which they find themselves as needs and interests and as antagonisms, elaborating their experience within the coordinates of their conscience and their culture…by the most complex avenues…and later acting on their own situation”.

Since subaltern common sense always has an experiential aspect, Muslim women in India can’t be simply considered as docile victims of patriarchal relationships. On the contrary, their daily existence under oppressive regimes is characterized by a re-contextualized processing of dominant religious norms. Though this accumulation of re-interpretative practices does not possess the form of a conscious struggle, it does encapsulate what John Holloway calls “the scream of insubordination, the mumble of non-subordination.” In this process, Islam – the structurally entrenched symbolic inheritance that Muslim women receive from the time of birth – is inarticulately remolded to effect a type of moral subjectivation built upon what Andrew Sayers labels the “internal conversations” of “mundane reflexivity”. This results in a hazy questioning of the social relations symbolized by the hijab.

Under the BJP government, the everyday resistance to and relative non-acceptance of patriarchal norms has exploded into open rebellion. While earlier Muslim women used the morals of Islam to silently imagine an ethics of religiously inspired equality, attacks on Muslim identity have forced them to enter the public sphere and interact with the constitutional vision of citizenship. This, in turn, has entailed an integral questioning of the traditional Islam that has been practiced by the Muslim gentry. During the 2019 protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the subsoil of subalternity was thoroughly politicized to produce an antagonistic vision of womanhood, one that is generated in and through struggle.

At the time of the anti-CAA movement, Ishmeet Nagpal, a social activist, poet, and writer, declared: “When you threaten our rights, we will fight, and we will not back down. Our Burqas, Bindis, and Bangles will be the symbols of our protests. These are our lives, our families, our communities, our bodies.” Now, the question of hijab was not posed in terms of individual choice or privatized difference. Rather, it was framed as a collective-secular phenomenon insofar as female Muslim identity was validated as one among the many particular ways through which patriarchy could be dismantled. Religiosity became a mode of expression of feminism. Moreover, since Muslim women were motivated by the desire to become equal participants in national politics, care was taken to maintain a process of dialogue within the Muslim community so as to not reject the democratic self-realization of others. Thus, the hijab was not absolutized; it remained a justifiable but entirely voluntary method to become a citizen-subject.

The present-day hijab controversy in Karnataka needs to be understood from a political perspective rooted in the current conjuncture. These are times when the flow of Muslims’ daily life has been suspended through constant attacks on their identity. This has resulted in the disruption of the regular rhythm of domination within Muslim communities, allowing Muslim women to publicly articulate the contradictory oscillations of female subalternity. In these dynamics, as the hijab becomes a tool of counter-hegemony, it places into question the particular identity it once represented, in the process transforming its wearer’s consciousness by opening up a space between herself and the hijab. The development of this space is necessary for the destruction of patriarchy because – in the words of Massimo Modonesi – “the webs of hegemony cannot be dismantled by a simple and sudden voluntary act but rather must be recognized and unwoven gradually in the same manner they were woven, in the same subjective ground they covered.”

As the hijab gets embedded in the struggle for women emancipation, it is transformed from an Abrahamic practice of modesty into a praxis of female visibility. This re-inscription of a patriarchal symbol invites others to deconstruct cultural stereotypes about Muslim women. Ouissal Harize writes: “Through this oxymoronic amalgam of tensions between freedom and oppression, obedience and disobedience, conformity and rebellion, the veil becomes a way of re-writing identity.” To push forward these internal movements of female subalternity in India, we need to understand that the hijab denotes no truth in and of itself, but is a means by which other conflictual relations are expressed, and takes its meaning in any given context from those conflicts. Frantz Fanon once wrote: “Removed and reassumed again and again, the veil has been manipulated, transformed into a technique of camouflage, into a means of struggle.” In Karnataka, the hijab is functioning as a mode of protest against the attempted blockage of Muslim presence. And this context gives the hijab a democratic-feminist character, containing the potential to create consciousness of alternative futures.

Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at [email protected].

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