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Home > 2022 > Hijab in Iran or India? | Faraz Ahmad

Mainstream, VOL 60 No 39-42 September 17 - October 8, 2022 - Bumper issue

Hijab in Iran or India? | Faraz Ahmad

Friday 16 September 2022, by Faraz Ahmad


A leading English daily from the Capital carried on October 3, a remarkable photo of a young Iranian woman abandoning her ‘chador’ dancing in a state of trance before a crowd including men clicking her act on their mobile cameras as a form of protest against the repression unleashed by the Iranian clerical state forcing women to dress in a particular manner which they consider Islamic to ensure modesty of women.

A crucial judgement of the apex court is eagerly awaited on whether the state of Karnataka by denying hijab/scarf wearing girls entry to class rooms in schools and colleges was stepping on fundamental rights of Muslims girls seeking education in state institutions. The controversy arose in January/February this year over some Muslims girls choosing to cover their heads with scarves in class rooms or examination halls, provoked by the rising assertive Hindutva elements in colleges bullying Muslim girls wearing the veil/burqa or simply scarves over their heads, in campuses by shouting Jai Shri Ram slogans and following the girls menacingly as depicted in a number of videos posted online.

When the Karnataka government imposed a ban on entering class rooms even with the scarves over their heads, leave alone a burqa (which anyway girls remove before entering class rooms), after two years of disruption of class room studies due to pandemic, the girls feared jeopardising their attempt of returning to colleges and schools and some of these girls approached the Karnataka High Court seeking a relief from the Karnataka government order which they interpreted and pleaded amounted to interference in their right to religious freedom guaranteed by the Indian Constitution.

The Karnataka High Court upheld the government order arguing that wearing of hijab was not an essential ingredient of Islam. The girls then went to the Supreme Court challenging the Karnataka High Court order. The apex court refused to grant them immediate relief and handed over the matter to a three-judge bench, which may shortly pass a verdict on it.

I had a very liberal friend in AMU Nadeem Habibullah, who had settled in London as a chartered accountant. Soon after 9/11 he told me over phone from London that he had started sporting a long flowing white beard to protest the Islamophobia 9/11 generated in the western world. I studied in Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) 1970-75 for five years. One hardly spotted any girl or teacher wearing a burqa or even covering their heads with their dupattas or scarves, except on hearing the call of Azan. Perhaps that was because in those days there was no Islamophobia. Girls and boys stood together to sing Aligarh ka tarana composed by noted rebel poet Majaz Lakhnawi. Today, I am told this trend of girls wearing scarves and some even a burqa is noticeable even in AMU.A black sherwani/achkan has always been the prescribed uniform for AMU boys. But we never got it stitched. Sometimes for group photos we borrowed from a few who actually got it made. Today a whole lot of boys, I am told wear it all over Aligarh symbolising their assertion of AMU identity.

These trends among the Muslim youth started growing slowly unobtrusively post the demolition of Babri Masjid and the more the momentum of Hindutva picked up the more we notice a kind of protest assertion of their Muslim identity. In an atmosphere where what they wear, a hijab or a skull cap and beard; their choice of non-vegetarian food, their practice of offering prayers five times a day in mosques, eidgahs, or if not available in the immediate vicinity, even in an open space like a park. In the modern upwardly mobile city of Gurgaon for instance all this has now become controversial thanks to the covert or overt support to the saffron mushrooming brigade by the BJP governments. In Gurgaon, Muslims have been prevented from offering their Friday prayers in open spaces allotted by the administration temporarily till their waqf land and masjids under hostile occupation were vacated by the Haryana government.

In the same Haryana, the administration first closed down meat shops and non-veg food in restaurants for the long duration of Kawadiya Yatra, then came the Jain festival and another nine days of forced fasting and closure of business for poor Muslim butchers and non veg restaurants, next came nine day long navratas again forcing Muslims to refrain from selling meat products and restaurants from serving non veg dishes.

In Karnataka, the latest laboratory of Hindutva and the first to be captured and being converted in South India, this year the state administration and the High Court together usurped the Eidgah maidan to instal Ganesh idol and hold 11day long Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations on Eidgah land in Hubbali under orders of the Dharwad Municipal administrator, which was challenged by the mutawalli of the Eidgah waqf in Karnataka High Court. But it upheld the Dharwad administrator decision on the plea that the Supreme Court in a similar plea against holding Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations in Bangaluru Eidgah only forbade the hostile occupation of Bangaluru Eidgah and not any other Eidgah. Some argument this! But the High Court upheld the occupation of Hubbali Eidgah amid huge victory celebrations by the saffron brigade accompanied with fireworks and crackers in the dead of night.

However contrary to such naked aggression by the Hindutva elements and blatant discrimination by BJP-ruled states, a 46-year-old Sikh lady Charanjit Kaur from Haryana, working as an Asha worker, since 2007, spoke in support of the Muslim girls of Karnataka. She argued that if she has the right to cover her head which she has been doing throughout, why should the government ban Muslim girls from covering their heads also referred to as Hijab. She said in a video recorded interview with the Quint that when she saw saffron clad Hindutva men chase one young girl and she fighting valiantly all alone that aggressive and violent mob, she felt so strongly for the right of this girl that she decided to join this fight and became a co-petitioner in the case currently before the Supreme Court.

But then where does the Iranian protest come in? That is the moot point of discussion here. Why do we support the defiance of those hijab burning girls, cutting off their beautiful tresses in public in a highly conservative Iran governed by a set of repressive clerics who won’t allow the women and men both the choice of how to lead their lives, what to dress and what in their perception constitutes immodesty and therefore forbidden in that country. Mahsa Amini,22, a Kurdish woman was arrested by the “morality police of Iran for not covering her head with a ‘chador’ and died in police custody. Women and men in Iran felt so outraged by the interference of Iranian administration through their supposed morality police that they have been out on the streets in all the 31 districts of the country since September 17, nearing a month now. Official figures of those killed, the majority of them being women, touching a hundred soon and many, many more injured, including policemen who faced retaliatory violence.

The point is very simple, the women in Iran or Iraq or Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan have all the right to lead their lives the way they choose to. So do women in India. Yes if the state of Karnataka had argued that these girls were under pressure from even their parents or the religious leaders of their community, the state was perfectly entitled and justified in proceeding against anyone who would coerce the girls to cover their heads against their wishes, then such a person or persons surely deserved to be tried under the law and legal propriety. But the situation is exactly the opposite here. It was the state coercing the girls to dress up in a particular fashion—not to cover their heads in the class rooms and if and when they did, they were forbidden to enter the class rooms or appear for their examinations. Wonder how come even the court missed that fundamental point of coercion of the state upon hijab wearing Muslim girls. The state might also have been justified and the court entitled to uphold the right of the state if the girls entered class rooms in a veil (burqa) covering their faces as well. Because in that situation the teacher would have had difficulty in identifying such a student and would hamper his/her communication with his/her pupil. If the court were trying this issue surely we would have all stood by the Karnataka government and hailed the Court judgement.

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