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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 11, March 11, 2023

The Hijabian Choice: A Psychoanalytic Reading of the Unveiling of the Veil | Murzban Jal

Saturday 11 March 2023


by Murzban Jal

Not only in its answers, in its questions there was a mystification.
— Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology.

The Veil and Its Discontents

When very suddenly and out of the blue, young Muslim girls were asked not to wear their hijabs when entering classrooms in a Karnataka school, the entire nation was made to see and listen to this unfortunate spectacle of a young hijab wearing Muslim girl being heckled by school boys with saffron scarves. The clash of civilization thesis invented in imperialist USA was now not merely taught, but being practiced in Indian schools. Samuel Huntington’s soul would indeed be very, very happy.

For reasons of obvious titillating sensationalism, the media televangelists in India with their regular and non-stop sermonizing have been highlighting issues as the how there is a conspiracy of Muslims to destroy India by calling for a jihad or so-called “Holy War”. And who is going to be involved in this very strange religious war? Of course certain people with absolutely different dresses, people who cover their faces to hide their identity. The obvious solution to avoid being destroyed by these faceless warriors is to ask ladies of the Muslim faith not merely to unveil, but get involved in a collective castration anxiety.

This hijab question has to be seen in the larger castration anxiety created by the right-wing. The removal of Muslim names from roads and cities and renaming them is one part of this imposed castration anxiety by the right-wing appearing as what we call after Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Žižek as the “Big Other” [1]. For it is in this feeling of the castration anxiety created against citizens that the state can move from the realm of the “Big Brother” to the realm of the “Big Other”. This is the very essence of the hijab issue that came up in the state of Karnataka when young Muslim girls were asked by school authorities and goaded by saffron scarves clad young male students to remove this Muslim headgear.

The reasons from both sides of the quarreling fence is those advocating non-religious dress (at least in schools) and those advocating “choice” saying that the Indian Constitution advocates freedom in religious practices. Like Immanuel Kant’s antinomies, or opposing arguments that can never be resolved, the question of hijab sprang up from nowhere and with force that is much stronger that Kant’s antinomies. The fact that behind the quarrelling propositions of having a school uniform vs. “choice” stands the Big Brother turned Big Other armed with the psychotic castration anxiety.

Now one knows that for the ruling class to govern, it needs both ideology and a repressive mechanism. The castration anxiety would serve both purposes of the Ideological State Apparatus and the Repressive State Apparatus. It would link ideology and repression and consequently turn ideology into repression. Now we know from psychoanalysis that repression (Verdrängung) is the cornerstone for understanding the neurotic and psychotic. [2] What late imperialism in permanent crisis has done is that it has transformed neurosis and psychosis as two separate stages and realms of mental illness into one. Neurosis, as we know from psychoanalysis, is the eternal recurrence of the self-same trauma; while psychosis is the complete withdrawal from reality. [3] One has thus does not have two different illnesses (or different stages of mental illness) called “neurosis” and “psychosis”, but now these two different illnesses have synthesized into one as “neurosis-psychosis”. The eternal recurrence of the self-same trauma and the complete withdrawal from reality occur both at the same time. And it is this feature that defines the cultural and political logic of late imperialism in permanent crisis.

What repression does, in both individual and collective psychology, is that it not only creates a disciplinary mechanism for the political state to govern the masses, it suppress-represses the individual (especially the individual’s powers and potentialities) and then projects these suppressed-repressed aspects onto another terrain. We learn from Ludwig Feuerbach that religion is this “other terrain” and from Marxism that this “other terrain” is ideology and from psychoanalysis that it is the unconscious. Thus religion, ideology and the unconscious are to be understood as “projected lacks”, for what is lacked in the real world (namely the real human being with its powers and potentialities) is projected onto this other worlds of religion, ideology and the unconscious. The alienated human being appears as the superman in religion, ideology and the unconscious.

In fact the ruling classes can rule not so much via manipulating consciousness, but by repression, creating the elements of the repressed unconscious and then controlling this unconscious. What fascist politics and ideology did in Europe from 1922 to 1945 was this manipulation of the unconscious, where the dreaded figures of the Jews and communists were conjured, along with the transfiguration of the masses into fascist supermen to confront and destroy Judaism and communism. And it is in this theoretical problematic that the hijab question must be understood. The saffron scarves clad school boys had to become fascist superboys to confront and destroy the Indian Jews and communists.

While on the one hand, this issue of wearing hijab in schools seems an absolutely stupid issue—one can dress in whatever way one wants, it only has to be decent (as the mainstream secular understanding goes)—this issue has spiraled way beyond everyone’s control where only the saffron clad “nationalist” and the bearded cap wearing “theologian” would be said to provide the “rational” answers.

While philosophy since the ancient Greeks talked of unveiling or aletheia as the hermeneutical act of seeking truth, the right-wing turns aletheia or the disclosure and unveiling of truth into the repressive unconscious wherein truth is veiled and collective neurosis-psychosis is generated whereby reason can be erased for the specter of the saffron clad nationalist and the bearded jihad-loving theologian to appear on the scene of Indian politics.
Thus while writers have pondered over this issue of school uniforms and the hijab, both being tools of patriarchal control over young students, and where students are “taught” to be so and so—here education is to ideologically inculcate students in values of the ruling classes and where schools actually become parts of the state’s Ideological State Apparatus—the main issue of the de-hijabization of Muslim women as the dread created by the castration anxiety is almost never understood. The so-called “secularists”, or the liberal version of secularism that effaces the political economy of exploitation and class struggle from its discourse and refuses to see the class content of religion pushed this issue as one of legality and culture (of “free choice” and “tolerance”). They completely forgot that the rules of these games have been created by the right-wing who have since long mastered the macabre technique of manipulating both law and culture. One does not have to solve the question of the hijab, but to dissolve it, since the question itself is a pseudo-question. The more one attends to this pseudo-question, this real issue of neurosis and psychosis created by the right-wing gets evaded and the more one gets trapped into the deep unconscious of neurosis and psychosis.

While the televangelists were screaming at the top of their voices how “rational” and “secular” they are, to top it all, they suddenly turned to Iran after the murder of the Kurdish girl—Jîna (Mahsa) Amini [4],by the Iranian fascist morality police because she was not veiled “properly” in public—for their support of the banning of Muslim dresses in Indian schools.

Popular media in India while showing videos of Iranian women burning their veils and cutting their hair in protest against the fascist Iranian government have not told the real story of this popular movement in Iran, especially the Kurdish angle and the role of fighting and defeating the terrorist ISIS. Instead of staying with real facts, what popular media in India has done is that it now turns the dread and fear created by the castration anxiety and the consequent creation of the neurotic-psychotic unconscious to a spectacle where it transforms and transfigures the anti-fascist movement in Iran to support its own fascist project.

The televangelists forget that the movement in Iran is an anti-fascist and secular movement against political theology. Thus the revolutionary call for the removing the hijab enforced by the fascist Iranian state coupled with the popular overthrow of the theological regime in Iran is also distorted in this little scene of phantasmagorical history. In relation to the issue of the defiance against the hijab in Iran, our televangelists forget that the Iranian masses are against the theological fascist state, an issue that they carefully keep hidden. The Iranian masses hate fascism, while our televangelists love fascism.

These televangelists see religion everywhere, instead of seeing the problem as the conflict between civil society and the state and the complete crisis of the political state with the elites’ complete inability to rule democratically. In India too, the core issue is the issue of the relation between civil state and the state and the state turning increasingly fascistic. It is not a question of religion or the clash of religions. It is made into a conflict of civilizations and religions. And this shameless awakening of the ghosts of religion is because the Indian state, right from the time of independence, completely and absolutely failed in its project of making a New Democratic India with a fully literate and educated population, educated in the spirit of humanism, secularism and socialism. This is completely forgotten and religions come marching in, with the prophets, saints, women wearing hijabs, not to forget young Muslim warriors doing jihad. Never mind that this “jihad” which the televangelists want to desperately uncover is so phantasmagorical that they now create another nonsensical term called “love jihad”.

We once heard from the genre of “magical realism” of love in the time of cholera. [5] Now we hear of love in the time of jihad and jihad in the time of love. The neurosis-psychosis which the right-wing created has now been perfected.

The Native Elites and the Culturalization of Politics

The term “native elite” we borrow from Jean-Paul Sartre. [6] These native elites whether in Asia, Latin America or Africa were manufactured by the European colonial elite. [7] They were, as Sartre continues, “hired kinglets, overlords and a bourgeoisie, sham from beginning to end, which served as go-betweens” the natives and the colonialists. [8]

India at the time of independence had these native elites in the form of the Nehruvian overlords. They did not seem toxic. But they did nothing, though it seemed that they did everything. And from this non-toxic elite sprang the toxic elements. Like the Shah of Iran whose regime did not enforce theological dictates (but nurtured the same messianic priests for its monarchical ends), the Nehruvian elites also kept far away from religion at least in the public space. And just as from the “liberal” atmosphere of the Shah of Iran sprang the fascist Ayatollahs, so too in India from the womb and cranium of the Nehruvian elites sprang our own indigenous fascists.

Ultimately these elites worked under the domination of the global capitalist system controlled from Washington and London. The task for the Nehruvian elites was to systematically decolonize India and thus bring in the socialist programme in economics, education, culture, ideology and politics. To decolonize, after all, meant to break free from international capitalism. But their socialism was only the feudal version of socialism that Marx and Engels had chastised in the Manifesto of the Communist Party. But, so one may ask: “What is this feudal version of socialism and can there be anything called “feudal socialism”?” The answer is that feudal socialism is feudalism hiding under the veil of socialismwhich damns the bourgeoisie, not for colonizing the world, looting it and pauperizing nation after nation and then creating a monopoly cartel system of profiteering coupled with extreme wealth at one end and extreme poverty at the other end, not to forget wars and the ecological crisis; but for creating a revolutionary proletariat These feudal socialists (socialists in name and feudalism in deed) complained of industrialization when at the same time not hesitating to “stoop to pick up the golden apples dropped from the tree of industry, and (then) to barter truth, love, and honour for traffic in wool, beetroot-sugar, and potato spirits.” [9] 

The same happened in South Asia, both in India and Pakistan as it once happened in Europe. The same also happened in West Asia and the Muslim world. One recalls Maxime Rodinson here:

As I write these lines, in the summer of 1978, there are fewer grounds for hope in the Muslim world than six years ago: fewer regimes are committed to the struggle against the domination effect exercised, under American hegemony, by the world capitalist system. Conservative state bourgeoisies have developed. Oil money has enabled the most reactionary systems to take the lead. Ideologically, the masses’ lack of any realistic programme geared towards improvement of their lot has left them preoccupied merely with individual survival or restricted by the most narrow, backward and brutally repressive variants of religious ideology. The authorities have, to say the least, strongly encouraged this evolution. Political leaders seem set on building their countries up into world powers and forming blocs linked to the world capitalist system; the idea is no longer to break this system’s hold, but merely to make it pay dearly for their collaboration with it. At home, this financial power is mainly used to consolidate conservative—and often retrograde—structures of exploitation and oppression. [10]

While the above observation is on Muslim nations that emerged from European colonialism, in India the same rot was seen thrust on its population. “In order to triumph”, so Sartre said, “the national revolution must be socialist; if the career is cut short, if the native bourgeoisie takes power, the new state, in spite of its formal sovereignty, remains in the hands of the imperialists.” [11] And this is precisely what happened in India. The Nehruvian elites worked in the name of liberal democracy with sprinkles of social democracy thrown on the rotten cake of liberalism. They seemed benign. This was a mistake. Just as from small capital emerged monopoly capitalism, so too from liberal democracy emerged fascism. Fascism needed liberal democracy from where it could grow. Liberal democracy was the parent and fascism its illegitimate child which it would soon disown. And for this de-recognition by the parent, fascism became more and more furious and violent.

And this type of fascism is being institutionalized as some sort of fashion. In fact, at least in India, there is not one single fascist and one single fascist party. We are goaded such that everyone in India becomes a fascist. Fascism is a fashion and style and everyone is told to emulate this fashion and style. We are now taught that it is fashionable and stylish to become fascist.
From capitalism, fascism learnt the fine art of competition, where the fascists now compete with one another, and quite often in the name of the clash of civilizations and religions. While one fascist group wants pagan fascism, the other (in the spirit of capitalist competition), wants messianic fascism. The “end of the world” which religious fundamentalists have long since dreamt of, may simply be round the corner with the pagans and messiahs battling it out. And if it is not the end of the world, it is most certainly the end of reason and humanity. 

While the collapse of the Soviet Union and the theme of the “end of communism” and the beginning of unfettered liberal democracy of the Yankee variety was said to be the new national anthem of capitalist states, what is not recognized is that this apparent “death of communism” would not usher in the world of free markets and an even more freer political states, but global economic crisis and the managerial totalitarian state governed by the furious and violent fascist. The pagans and messiahs, after all, do not crop up from thin air. They emerge only and only from severe economic, social, political and cultural crisis.

The problem is that the liberals and so-called “secularists” have nothing to say about capitalism, imperialism and fascism in supporting the wearing of the hijab in schools. They instead argue for “choice” in dealing with this hijab question. What they have not understood is that this apparent “choice-making” that they borrow from the capitalist consumerist paradigm—the freedom to choose what commodity one wants to buy even when we are desperately poor and have no money—is quite similar to the one that Žižek talked of “your money or you life!” [12] Consequently:

Why are today so many problems perceived as problems of intolerance, not as problems of inequality, exploitation, injustice? Why is the proposed remedy tolerance, not emancipation, political struggle, even armed struggle? The immediate answer is the liberal multiculturalist’s basic ideological operation: the “culturalization of politics”—political differences, differences conditioned by political inequality, economic exploitation, etc., are naturalized/neutralized into “cultural” differences, different “ways of life”, which are something given, something that cannot be overcome, but merely “tolerated”. To this, of course, one should answer in Benjaminian terms: from culturalization of politics to politicization of culture. The cause of this culturalization is the retreat, failure, of direct political solutions (Welfare State, socialist projects, etc.). Tolerance is their post-political ersatz. [13]
What liberal democracy in the name of “choice” and “tolerance” hide is “politics proper”, i.e. the understanding of the class nature of the political state imposing its totalitarian ideology on the masses. Class exploitation and class struggle, along with capitalism, imperialism and fascism are completely obliterated by the liberals and the so-called “secularists”. Thus:

The retreat from more substantive visions of justice heralded by the promulgation of tolerance today is part of a more general depoliticization of citizenship and power and retreat from political life itself. The cultivation of tolerance as a political end implicitly constitutes a rejection of politics as a domain in which conflict can be productively articulated and addressed, a domain in which citizens can be transformed by their participation.  [14]
And so, one may ask: “How can one make any type of choice, forget a rational choice when a gun is put on our heads?” Further: “How does this realm of “culture” come in when the question of the veil comes in? Why does one say it is their culture, i.e. the culture of Muslims to veil and they have every right to protect and practice their culture?”

What the liberals and so-called “secularists” have not understood is the issue fascistization of the state and the creation of the fascist will to suppress the population, to create the “us” vs. “them” divide and then to create the fascist mob who create mayhem on the masses. What the Indian right-wing is doing is taking Donald Trump’s slogan “make America great again” and transposing this white supremacist slogan onto India. The fascists are creating a spectacle and a phantasmagoria. The liberals and so-called “secularists” see this as a question of “culture” and “law”.

And this phantasmagoria is simply terrible and terrifying, where a phantasmagorical form is created wherein people find themselves in the “mist-enveloped regions of the religious world” where people are made to see ghostly “independent beings endowed with life” moving around, controlling all of us and haunting us in a terrible and terrifying manner. [15]

While there should be active revolutionary politics where the political state must be exposed as the engine of class despotism, what the liberals and so-called “secularists” have done is turn this on its head and turned to the “culturalization of politics”. And since we are told that the veil is “their” culture, i.e. “theirs” vs. “ours”—we are liberal and thus unveiled—we must respect this strange creature called “their culture”, i.e. “their culture” that is not the same as “our culture”. And with this we got the complete baggage of what Žižek calls “the post-political liberal project” [16] of “tolerance”, “multiculturalism”, “dialogue”, “respect”, “freedom of choice”, etc., etc. Inequality, exploitation and injustice are completely left from this post-political liberal project. [17] And it is “culture” made surplus—thus “surplus culture” like “surplus value”, value that devours humanity—that rules the roost, rules in such a manner that one recalls the Nazi Minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels’ statement “when I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun.” [18]

“Culture” thus has then nothing to do with the great Enlightenment project, it is not about dieBildung or the cultivation of the mind, where philosophy (especially the pursuit of truth, ethics, logic and aesthetics) or the sciences is put centre stage. The post-political liberal project has obliterated this idea of the Enlightenment.

Instead culture in this post-political project is not only related to barbarism, but “itself is the source of barbarism.” [19] Thus, so the argument goes: “It is my culture to marry children to do cliterodectomy, infanticide, polygamy, rape, burn widows, stone to death for blasphemy, riot and create wars, holy and unholy.” And this argument continues: “You have to respect my culture.”
Liberalism wanted to create a universal paradigm modeled after the US and British model of liberal democracy. The liberals would tell the whole world that they have free choice to join NATO and then make military deals with Third World dictators selling arms to them, all in the name of democracy and free choice.

Unveiling the Solution

 And it is in this larger space that one understands the hijab question. The questions that one ask is :”Instead of arguing for a better system of education where all children of all social classes, ethnic groups, languages and religions can study, eat and play together, why is one bringing the issue of the veil and that Muslims girls need to unveil before entering classes? Why is the case of uniforms in the name of formal equality being brought out, when in reality Indian society is deeply unequal? Why is there no common schooling system in India, schools without fees where all other schools should be shut, especially commercial profit-making schools run on the model of factories and malls for shopping and shoplifting? Why is one not talking of education, namely real education where education of the mind would allow the creation of humanity as humanity? Why does not one talk of citizenship, democracy, socialism, authentic secularism, Constitutional Democracy and the Directive Principles of the Indian Constitution? Why does one thus not talk of free and compulsory education? Are all these because of the old semi-feudal prohibition of education to the subaltern castes and women is yet the badge of honour for the Indian political elites?”

After all, India was and yet is ruled by what J.P. Naik called the “feudal overlords” who came with “their dependents and supporters, the higher castes, cultivators of large tracts of land, traders, merchants and moneylenders.” [20] The feudal overlords may have changed their dresses, the higher castes would have erased their tilaks, the merchants and traders may have sworn that they pay their taxes and the moneylenders would also promise that they would not lend money to the BBC, but they would yet remain feudal overlords.

It is in this sense that we recall Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:

The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language. Thus Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793-95. [21]

In the same way as Luther put the mask of Saint Paul, our Luthers search for the dresses of saints to mask themselves. The hijab that the right-wing saw in Karnataka schools has not to be seen as a real dress worn by Muslim girls, but has to be seen as the “conjuring of the dead of world history”.

The veil thus that the right-wing made us see is an illusion. One needs to tear down this veil of illusion to see the real face of our Indian Luthers. And once the veil is removed one will see the face of the same feudal overlord with his landlord friends turned into capitalists, traders, merchants and moneylenders. It is in this sense that we understand the old Marxist percept: the economic base determines the political, ideological and religious superstructure and that behind the veil is not the face of a Muslim girl, but the political economy of decadent capitalism and the ugly face of rising fascism.

[1In both Lacan and Žižek the “Big Other” is with a small “b”. We have kept it with a capital “B”.

[2See Sigmund Freud, ‘Repression’, in The Pelican Freud Library. Vol. 11. On Metapsychology. The Theory of Psychoanalysis (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1984), pp. 141-58.

[3See Sigmund Freud, ‘Neurosis and Psychosis’ in The Penguin Freud Reader. Vol. 10. On Psychopathology (London: Penguin Books, 1993), pp. 214-5 and ‘The Loss of Reality in Neurosis and Psychosis’ in The Penguin Freud Reader. Vol. 10. On Psychopathology (London: Penguin Books, 1993), p. 221.

[4Jîna is her name in Kurdish language, while Mahsa is Persian. The fascist Islamic Republic of Iran bans Kurdish names and this fascist state controls also the naming of children. Jîn means “life” which unfortunately this 22 year old girl had to lose. The song in Persian Zan, Zendegi, Azadi and Jîn-Jiyan, Azadi in Kurdish (“Woman, Life, Freedom”) which has become the national anthem of the Iranian secular movement is said to have been penned by the jailed Kurdish communist leader and founder member of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) Abdullah Öcalan. Öcalan is jailed by the Turkish fascist government and the PKK declared a terrorist organization by fascist Turkey, and liberal USA and the EU, besides other semi-fascist and semi-liberal states.

[5We here mention Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, trans. Ruth Grossman (Gurgaon: Penguin Books, 1988).

[6Jean-Paul Sartre, ‘Preface’ in Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrnington (London: Penguin Books, 2001), p. 7.



[9Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’, in Marx. Engels. Selected Works (Moscow; Progress Publishers, 1975), p. 54.

[10Maxime Rodinson, Marxism and the Muslim World (London: Zed Books, 2015), p. 3.

[11Jean-Paul Sartre, op. cit., p. 19.

[12Slavoj Žižek, ‘Tolerance as Ideological Category’, in Critical Inquiry, Autumn, 2007.


[14Ibid. Žižek is quoting Wendy Brown’s Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press 2006), p. 89.

[15See Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I, trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1983), p. 77.

[16See his ‘Tolerance as Ideological Category’.




[20J.P. Naik, Equality, Quality and Quantity. The Elusive Triangle in Indian Education Triangle (Pune: Indian Institute of Education, 1975), p. 1.

[21Karl Marx, ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’, in Marx. Engels. Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975), p. 96.

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