Two tales, seemingly unfamiliar and crossing swords with each other, unfold in different parts of the world. The first is a fiery protest against the compulsory veiling of women in a theocracy like Iran which was ignited by the death of a Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, while in the custody of the Gasht-e-Ershad (or morality police). The second continues to unravel and seeks a conclusion in the Supreme Court of India with a Constitutional Bench set to bring finality to the order of the hijab ban by the Karnataka government which has restricted school going Muslim girls from their access to education. The narrative surrounding the controversy of the practice of hijab has unfortunately boiled down to a binary – a simplistic view where the anti-hijab protests are seen as subscribing to progressive Western, liberal values and the pro-hijab protest as a reversion to a regressive practice clouded with patriarchal conditioning.
This essay analyses the two seemingly contradictory protests in light of the feminist perspective and attempts to go beyond the binary narrative which surrounds the question of the hijab as a piece of clothing. It delves into the question of women’s agency and the intrusive role of a patriarchal state which is making the personal choices for women and consequently negating their right to bodily autonomy and privacy.
The Question of Women’s Agency
The common thread between the two protests lies in the violation of women’s right to choose their clothing which is an integral form of their self-expression. This right to freedom of expression is the fountainhead for other integral rights which protect the bodily autonomy, dignity and privacy of these women. In the split verdict delivered, Hon’ble Justice Sudhanshu Dhulia cited Navtej Singh Johar vs Union of India for upholding the principle of individual liberty which had been forfeited when the Muslim girls were forced to remove their hijab, an act tantamount to disrobing them. In doing so, the school-going Muslim girls were also robbed off their right to exercise their conscience and identify themselves with a religion which is an assertion of their identity. The symbolic value of the hijab for a beleaguered minority assumes more significance in the backdrop of increasing polarisation and a hardcore militant push for Hindutva in the state of Karnataka and many other parts of India.
However, a convincing case for the pro-hijab protests cannot be argued without dealing with two questions – is a woman’s agency and choice in wearing a hijab free from patriarchal and religious conditioning? If not, is mandatory disrobing the path to reform? A progressive and liberal argument could perhaps call out the wearing of hijab as a religious practice devised to control women’s bodies by enforcing a code of modesty and sexualising them in the process by asking them to cover up. However, this argument fails to address the wide range of reasons for which a Muslim woman could wear the hijab which run from an assertion of her religious and cultural identity to using the hijab in expressing a political viewpoint and even as a symbol of defiance. The uplifting of the ban on hijab in 2013 by the Erdogan government in Turkey or the Iranian women fighting for their right to wear the hijab to practice their religion and revolt against the forced Westernisation under Reza Shah Pahlavi are examples which showcase the wide range of reasons for which a Muslim woman could wear the veil.
In answering the second question, the argument justifying a ban on the hijab as a regressive practice also falls apart. Even if the practice of wearing the hijab is deemed to be ultra-conservative and patriarchal, the solution does not lie in the forceful disrobing of women mandated by the State. Not only would it be a breach of an individual’s right to privacy and bodily autonomy but also counterproductive in so much as it prohibits these girls from attending their schools to receive education which is the key to social transformation. The solution to a regressive and conservative practice lies in social advocacy and grassroot awareness rather than the State breaching the personal boundaries and fundamental rights of individuals.
At their root, the anti-hijab protests in Iran are driven by the same rationale of respecting a woman’s right to expression and choice of clothing. The morality police breach these rights by enforcing and regulating a strict code of conduct to the extent of using violence to achieve the same. The women in Iran who wish to access and utilise public spaces like schools, parks, markets etc. without the cover of a veil are effectively robbed off their choice which could only be bartered with a compulsory donning of the hijab.
The ‘messiah complex’ of the Patriarchal State
The seemingly contradictory protests in Iran and India converge on another point – the role of the State in controlling the bodily autonomy and choices of women. In Iran, the morality police run by the State seeks to maintain the modesty of women and in doing so, reinforce the values of Islam whose interpretation lies within the powers of the religious patriarchs. Women and their choice of clothing lies at the mercy of men who take over the role of making choices for women which are supposed to be in their ‘best interest’. Naturally, the lived experiences and problems of women remain unaccounted and disregarded in a narrative driven by a patriarchal theocracy. The practice of wearing the hijab also serves the political ends of the State in fighting against Western values and cultural imperialism which are painted as a threat which could destabilise or even overthrow the Iranian regime. During the war with Iraq in the 1980s, the veil was exploited as a political tool to distinguish the Shia from the Sunni Muslims. Prior to the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the forced Westernisation under the Pahlavi dynasty which banned the hijab was also an attempt to fight against the influence of the clergy over the State rather than a genuine concern to fight for women’s rights and emancipation from ultra-conservative Islamic practices.
The story of the hijab-ban in Karnataka displays the same tendency – a State denying the right to freedom of expression and conscience among others to a religious minority under the veil of a ‘secular’ and ‘progressive’ hijab-ban which saves and emancipates Muslim girls from an oppressive practice within their religion. The approach is pseudo-secular when it invisibilises a minority community, denies them their right to expression and further marginalises them by restricting their access to education which is a tool for empowerment and social transformation.
The two protests disprove and dismantle this ‘messiah complex’ of the patriarchal state which pretends to empower and help its women but actually takes away their agency and identity in pursuit of its veiled political and religious agendas. With Articles 18 and 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights strengthening the Right to Religion and Right to Equality respectively, the feminist perspective argues to stop the infantilisation of women and recognise their right to expression and self-determination which for long has been unfairly placed in the hands of a patriarchal State designed and driven by men.