The hijab has become a symbol of defiance

Socio-religious and gender identities, across religions and cultures, are seen on the surface of bodies through the visual markers of clothing, ornaments and marks on the skin. It is through these markers that a community realizes and displays its uniqueness on a diverse spectrum. In a multi-religious country, these differences are part of a familiar range of existing patterns of social being. Familiarity with this variety should not automatically lead to its acceptance by all who inhabit the spectrum. The dissonances that break this mosaic are exploited in times of social anxiety and political consolidation. At such historical moments, some of these cultural and religious practices may seem foreign or anachronistic. One or more of these co-existing communities, through the power of demographic size or share of political representation, might begin to authorize and legitimize a particular mode of being and embodiment as the most normal and lawful and conforming to an imaginary national scheme. identity. It is at such times that a community of people, whether identified as a neighborhood, a state or a nation, that invests itself in sustaining itself and maintaining its continued existence, must, very consciously and with perseverance, translate, listen to and recognize the many languages ​​and grammars of the being of which it is made.

On March 15, the Karnataka High Court upheld the ban on the wearing of hijab in college classrooms where a school uniform prescription did not permit it. The three-judge bench noted that “the school uniform prescription is only a reasonable constitutionally authorized restriction that students cannot object to.” Apparently the choice for Muslim women is simple. They can either choose the progressive path of furthering their education or the regressive path of clinging to a patriarchal imposition that the court has found is not even part and parcel of their religion. This is a deliberately simplistic and misleading way of representing the agency choices available to Muslim women in this context. It passes over in silence what is an attempt to make obligatory and to standardize a religio-national identity constructed in a sartorial and violently uniform way.

Suppose we accept that girls were coerced into wearing the hijab and their education was permitted only because they submitted to this coercion. This is no reason to exclude them from the classroom. If the hijab is worn as a reluctant submission to the patriarchy in order to obtain certain concessions in return, then it behooves educational institutions to become more flexible and reduce the constraints under which these girls are allowed to access education. Across religions and cultures, women are brought to bear the marks of cultural and religious identity. Submitting to this coercion could be a way to access these social, institutional and personal resources that will allow them to make choices in the future. Education enables a mobility that reconfigures the social world in which one was born and stains the known ways of inhabiting the world in which one is socialized.

If girls voluntarily wear the hijab and view it as an essential part of modesty and decorum, compelling them to remove it would strip them naked and violate their sense of bodily integrity and self-image in public. . Such ingrained understandings and practices of bodily modesty are not unique to Islam or to girls wearing the hijab. An undressing experience can occur when part of an ensemble of clothing, such as a dupatta, is not worn. As long as these labels of ‘feminine modesty’ do not disrupt the functioning of the classroom, they should be allowed, as they are very often the conditions under which women are allowed access to education.

The ways in which norms are inhabited are complex and varied. Norms of embodiment emerge from different social and discursive places and are experienced through intersecting, contesting and overlapping practices of social being. The embodiment of these norms involves an agency that, in theory, spans a continuum from conscious submission to conscious contestation. However, in practice, this spectrum could consist of an overlap, a dispute or an intersection. The submission could be a means for a future challenge.

Covering the female body and hiding its beauty from the male gaze can be one of the purposes and meanings of hijab. But, as a social practice, wearing the hijab will generate multiple meanings, many of which will challenge and blur the grammar of gaze that stares at the hijab in a commonsense and authoritative order. As a visual marker of social identity in a multi-religious society, the hijab would generate a range of meanings as it travels through different social and institutional venues. These meanings, the range of intentions behind wearing the hijab, and how wearing the hijab shapes the possibilities of being embodied, must be taken into account when deciding the legality of one’s admission into the class. standardized.

The perseverance with which girls wearing the hijab fought for their right to education, their logical and informed defense of their right to be admitted to class while wearing the hijab, the courage and strength with which they did in the face of the violent reaction resulted in a renewed semiosis of the hijab. These girls defamiliarized with the common meaning attributed to the hijab in an Islamophobic society, namely as a sign of religious and patriarchal oppression. As they continue their battle to be admitted into the classroom, the hijab begins to represent a courageous and defiant agency exercised in confrontation and negotiation with the instruments of the state as well as with unruly social elements.

This column first appeared in the print edition of March 21, 2022 under the title “The scarf as a challenge”. The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Mangalore, Konaje

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