View from India
In February 2022, a hijab row erupted in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. A group of young Muslim women, who wanted to wear the head covering inside their college classrooms, was denied entry on the grounds of breaching the institute’s uniform policy. Following protests and counter-protests, the Karnataka government – which is led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party – issued an order ruling against the wearing of hijab in educational institutions. Aggrieved students filed a petition in the state high court, which ruled against them.
The matter went up to the Indian Supreme Court, which in October 2022 only managed a split verdict in the case – which means that the debate continues to rage in the country.
Meanwhile, a month earlier, almost 3,000 kilometres away in Iran, a very different hijab controversy erupted, following the death of a 22-year-old woman, after the country’s morality police apprehended her for not wearing a hijab.
Eyewitnesses reported that Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish woman, was beaten after she was picked up in a police van. The police denied the allegations, saying Amini’s death was due to a ‘sudden heart problem’; her family insisted she had been in excellent health. Anger erupted across Iran as women – and supportive men – took to the streets. Amini’s death came to symbolize the state oppression of women across the world.
What a woman chooses to wear or not wear is her choice. For some women the hijab is a religious-patriarchal imposition and they have the right to reject it. For others, the choice to be able to don it should also be a right. This is a woman’s personal space – and by dictating what she should or should not wear, and where, the state is wandering into the grey areas of the privacy and freedoms of its citizens.
I stand with the women in Iran because the hijab is an imposition on their lives. When they burn the hijab and loosen their hair in public, I applaud them for resisting the suppression of their choice and agency. They risk penalties and worse.
In India, the ban on the hijab can rightly be viewed as yet another attack on the minority Muslim community and their freedom to practice their religion as guaranteed by India’s secular constitution.
What do women the world over want? To breathe easy – irrespective of what country they come from, their society or culture. They want the world to let them be, not define their worth in terms of their wombs or the honour of the clan that they supposedly carry in their vaginas. They do not want policing of their thoughts and actions, their choice and agency, what they choose to wear or not wear.
The hijab – as women in India and Iran have shown – can be a symbol of freedom as well as oppression.