October 02, 2022

Contextualisation of the Symbol of the Hijab

Brinda Karat

THE images of women in Iran burning their hijabs has prompted the social media trolls of the BJP in India to taunt women activists who have opposed the Karnataka government’s ban on wearing the hijab to educational institutions. One of them said “show these (the photographs)  to shameless Indian women who want to cover girls in hijab”. As usual the trolls have got it wrong. 

In Iran the custodial death of Mahsa Amini, the 22 year old Kurdish woman in Teheran has led to a series of protests in Teheran and elsewhere. She was arrested because of her “improper hijab” by Iran’s notorious moral police. Witnesses have said she was beaten on the head with sticks several times and died in police custody. Hundreds of women protested and in defiant and brave solidarity actions, made bonfires and threw their hijabs – headscarves – into the fire. There was further police action including firing in which it is reported that scores of protesters have been killed. At the funeral of one such martyr, his grieving sister, tore off her hijab, cut her hair and put fistfuls of it on the coffin of her brother, in a powerful symbol of protest. Subsequently social media has been flooded with videos of other young women cutting their hair and throwing away their hijabs. Across Iran the police are cracking down on protesters. We stand in full solidarity with the protests by women in Iran. We share their anger and outrage.

Here in Karnataka young women have defied government orders banning their entry into colleges unless they removed their hijabs, and in defiance, wearing the hijab, have stood outside the gates of their institutions demanding to be allowed in. They have been heckled, abused, threatened, taunted by government supported hoodlums, but have not been cowed down, taking their struggle to the Supreme Court. We stand in solidarity with their protests. We share their anger at being made to choose between education and belief. 

We support the women in Iran who are burning the hijab as a symbol of oppression. We equally support the young women in Karnataka who demand the right to wear the hijab. Is this self contradictory? Here are a few reasons why support to both is just and fair to women.

Protests and issues have a political context. What are the circumstances and the politics which triggered these protests? Although it is seemingly reflected in the approach to the “hijab” the common denominator for both cases is the question: does a woman have the right to decide what clothes she wears, what company she keeps, who she chooses as her partner, and so on. The question of women’s autonomy and her right over her own body and sexuality is critical in understanding the context of both protests. Sometimes it can also happen that fundamentally opposed and opposing forces happen to take the same position on any given issue. It should be judged by the one yardstick – does it support the women’s right to autonomy and choice. 

It is true that in capitalist and feudal societies in general the very concept of “choice” is relative. Culture reflects class realities in a capitalist world, so a working class woman or an unemployed youth rarely have the right to real choice because of socio-economic inequalities and related realities. But this does not prevent building struggles to push the concept of freedom and autonomy through legislations, institutional frameworks and social infrastructures to support concepts and rights like autonomy and choice. In societies like India which are beset with evils such as the caste system and also in the last decade or so, with state helped promotion of virulent majoritarian communal ideologies “autonomy and choice” are mediated by the kind of politics generated by casteism and communalism. Fundamentalisms of various hues add a further blanket of conditioning on choice, on rights and liberties. The history of the restrictive codes in Iran and India are necessarily linked to the conditions prevailing in those societies.

In Iran, the “hijab” has become a symbol of the struggle of women for their rights. Another dimension is the social diversity of communities in Iran from the Iranis, the Kurdish peoples, tribals, and so on, each with their distinct cultures. The assertion of Kurdish people for autonomy has also influenced the struggles of women in Iran. Till the 1930s, there was no strict dress code. With the advent of the rule of the King Reza Shah, there was a wave of pro-western cultural changes initiated by him in the adoption of western dress, language, and in other spheres. In the decade of the thirties, wearing the hijab was banned. Any woman wearing the hijab was liable to punishment. Security police at that time were given orders to forcibly remove the hijab. Men also were ordered to wear a bowler hat! This bizarre imposition was in a society where in any case the vast majority of rural women working in the fields or in manual work, hardly wore the “proper hijab.” It was mainly worn by upper class urban women. However this changed with the brutality against women wearing the hijab. When women were forcibly stripped off the hijab there was a strong counter reaction and protests were held. More women starting wearing the hijab as a sign of protest against the ruling regime. In 1941, the ruler abdicated and was replaced with the regime of Md. Reza Shah who lifted the ban on wearing the hijab so it was more or less left to the choice of the woman. The struggle came full circle when the regime of the Shah was overthrown. Although the struggle against the Shah was for more democracy, for civil liberties and citizens rights, it included all sections of people in Iran but the end result was that power was taken over by the clergy and a most authoritarian rule in the name of Islam was established. The compulsory wearing of the hijab was announced. It led to huge protests by women and the law was put in abeyance. However in 1983 the law was enacted which made it compulsory with strict punishment including imprisonment, fines and 74 lashes against unveiled women. Through these years, the struggle of Iranian women for choice and freedom in dressing as they wish has been a constant issue, with protests breaking out every now and then.  Many women have lost their lives, hundreds have been imprisoned, hundreds are in exile. It is a struggle led by women of immense courage. The burning of the hijab is their symbol.

In India, until the recent events in Karnataka, there has never been any official dress code for any community in India. The Sikh community has certain symbols which have been recognised in the constitution such as the carrying of the kirpan. Most believing Sikhs also wear the turban and it is common to see young Sikh boys wearing the turban along with their school uniform. It has never been considered a divisive symbol. However with the development of majoritarian communal politics, more so in the recent decade under BJP rule backed by government and State power, religious symbols and festivals have been used to push the agenda of communal politics. In response, fundamentalists in the Muslim community have also put pressure on Muslim women to adhere to tradition and custom of wearing the burkha or the hijab. Many more women of the Muslim community are wearing the hijab. There is undoubtedly pressure on Muslim women to wear the burkha. In some places even small girls are dressed in close fitting headwear which was never the case earlier. Undoubtedly this is a reflection of growing fundamentalist influences among the community. But in India, Muslim women in spite of being caught in the pincer of pressure from the fundamentalists within their own community who are dead against reform and the toxic and aggressive assaults of Hindutva on the other, have fought for reform within the framework of their belief in Islam. It is this courageous struggle that all democrats must support and be a part of. But it is becoming increasingly difficult. In such a situation, the Karnataka government creates an issue of forcing girls to remove the hijab when entering educational institutions. It is not necessary here to go into the details of those developments which are well known and reported in these columns. However a clarification is required since there is deliberate confusion created that those supporting the Karnataka girl students are for them wearing the burkha against the code of uniform. This is entirely untrue. No one was going into classrooms wearing the burkha or any face covering. The issue was regarding the wearing of the head scarf, the khimir popularly referred to as hijab. The motive of the Karnataka government to ban this headcovering is outright political. It is to further its communal agenda of polarisation in view of the forthcoming elections. In neighbouring Kerala, girls are attending school and colleges in uniform wearing the hijab. In some places they match the colour of the uniform. There is no issue in Kerala because of the wearing of the hijab – no division in the name of religious symbol, no defiance of the uniform code, all girls and boys sat for their exams and did well.  In such a situation what would be a democratic stance? It would be to support the right of the girls in Karnataka to wear the hijab if they so wanted and believed to be part of their faith in Islam. Interpretations differ – shown by the fact  that in many Islamic countries, including Saudi Arabia it is not compulsory for girls and women to wear the hijab. However, if in some parts of the world it is believed to be so, why should it become the issue to deny young women the right to education and force them into a choice of either dropping out of college or going against their conscience? This is against the constitution, it is against the law. Whether I believe it is a symbol of oppression or not is really immaterial, the point is that by forcing girls to take off the hijab, the State, the courts and the governments are bulldozing a fundamental right linked to freedom of conscience, linked to the right to education and linked to individual choice. 

Women in both cases have become the medium through which fundamentalist and majoritarian ideologies are promoted by those in power. Historically women have not just been considered the repositories of the “honour” of communities through obedience to a strictly regimented code of conduct of dress, behaviour and a control on their sexuality but such “honour” invariably relates to the strictest of punishments for any transgression of the set code. In Iran, the power of the ruling clergy has put what it considers an indelible stamp in the name of religion on such a code. In India we have seen dominant ideologies in the general framework of majoritarian religious texts such as the Manu Smriti being put into practice. We have seen it in the case of honour crimes when young couples choose each other as partners across caste and community. In a different way this was being played out in Karnataka.

Those who push a majoritarian point of view want to use their position of power, to humiliate her as the symbol through which the community can be humiliated.  In any society where such restrictions are enforced on women in the name of “honour”, it is incumbent on any democratic minded person, to support protest against turning women into symbols of fake “honour.” The woman as a symbol of the community sets her up as a target and is deeply authoritarian and must be opposed. This is true both in Iran and in the case of Karnataka.

And therefore we reiterate: our support to the courageous women of Iran. And in solidarity with the young women in Karnataka who want to wear the hijab, we say, it is their choice and theirs alone.