The theoretical debate on secularism has neither easy answers nor much relevance here; the actions of a certain government and of a certain organisation are at the root of this row
When I was in school and college, the only thing we students used to worry about was what we’d get for lunch or how much we will score on a test. Or which teacher’s class do we have next? Nowadays, things have deteriorated so much that in some areas of the country students are fighting in the name of religion. These students are worried about who’s wearing a Hijab and who’s wearing orange scarf. These students are worried who’s chanting ‘Jai Shari Ram’ and who’s proclaiming ‘Allahu Akbar’. The division in the country has spread so deep.
The controversy over wearing Hijab in Karnataka educational institutions is far from over even as the state government declared a three-day holiday for all educational institutions. At the centre of the violent protests across the state is the Muslim tradition of wearing Hijab. To understand it better, we need to go to the roots of the problem.
Let’s start with clearly differentiating between a Hijab and a Burqa. A Burqa covers the entire female body from head to toe. A Burqa covers the face entirely while leaving a mesh screen in front of the eyes. While as the word Hijab itself describes the act of covering up. It is a head scarf that covers the head and the neck but leaves the face uncovered.
The Burqa has been banned in many countries across the world for security reasons, including in some Muslim countries. But this piece of writing is specifically focused on the Hijab only.
The entire issue here that is being discussed in media and social media can be divided into two questions. First, is the Hijab right or wrong? And the second, the girls that wear a Hijab, should they be stopped from going to schools and colleges? It’s very important see the two questions distinctly. Because people often mix them up leading to confusion and we can’t reach a solution. So let’s focus on the first question first: Is Hijab right or wrong?
People who argue in the favour of the Hijab say that the Hijab is an undeniable part of their tradition, culture, and religion. And that the Indian Constitution gives every citizen the right to practice and promote their religion peacefully. But with every right in the Indian Constitution, there are some reasonable restrictions. Generally speaking, there can be reasons for the restriction of any freedom, such as a threat to the sovereignty of India, a threat to India’s security or to public order, or it may be a contempt of court, or it may be violating decency or morality. But wearing a Hijab, is it a threat to the security of the country? Is it terrible for morality? Is it a slight to decency? Is it adversely affecting public order? Nothing of the sort. No one is getting hurt simply because a woman chooses to wear a Hijab. It doesn’t affect anyone’s life. That’s why it’s not a threat.
On the other hand, what are the arguments against it? People that are against the Hijab say that it is a symbol of patriarchy. Most women don’t wear a Hijab because they choose to do so, rather, they wear it because their family or their community force them to wear it. If they don’t wear the Hijab, they wouldn’t be accepted or included in their community. And that they would be harassed. They’d be either forced to comply or would be treated as second-class citizens. This is similar to what people say about Ghoonghat (veil; traditionally Hindu). The argument here is about women empowerment and freedom of choice.
Should religious symbols be completed banned? Everyone then should be made to wear the same kind of clothes, without representing their religion in their clothes. Would people be happier then? It has no straightforward answer. That’s why different countries have different approaches to this. It’s the same with Hijab. Should women be given the freedom to wear the Hijab? But how would we know that the women are wearing it of their own free will? That they aren’t being forced to wear the Hijab by their family and community? It is very difficult to know this.
For this reason, different countries have different approaches and different types of secularism. The fundamental meaning of secularism is to be neutral to all religions. This philosophy began in Europe at a time when church and the monarchy governed the people together. The church was heavily involved in state affairs. To get rid of this, secularism was conceptualised to separate the church and state. The church wouldn’t interfere in the day-to-day governing affairs, and the state wouldn’t interfere in religious matters. Secularists thus want neither women empowerment, nor want to give them the freedom of choice; they are against the Hijab merely because of their blind hatred for religion. That’s why they want to assert their dominance, and want to impose their will. You can see a live example of it in the recent incident in Karnataka where a group of boys harassed a Muslim girl, who was alone. Had these boys truly wanted women empowerment, they wouldn’t have been shouting at or threatening the girl. But anyway, if we return to our two sides of the argument, both have their merit. So who is in the right here?
Let’s look at this from the perspective of the government. What should be the ultimate purpose of a government? The government should strive to socially integrate people as much as possible that they live together in unity and harmony. And at the same time, they get as much freedom as possible. That the people be free to do what they want, that they have freedom of choice as much as possible. What should be done to achieve this? People should be allowed to wear their religious clothes; people should be able to wear their religious symbols and their traditional clothes. The concept of secularism in India is much different from Europe’s. In India, the church wasn’t interfering in state affairs. Rather, the ideologies of tolerance and coexistence had been prevalent in India. In India, Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Islam, Christianity were all present. More or less, they lived together. There were Sufi and Bhakti movements that helped foster a feeling of brotherhood among people. They taught people to live in harmony. Because of these reasons, the Indian version of secularism was on the basis that all religions are equal. Equality among them was a must, so that we may have unity in diversity. Mahatma Gandhi believed that India is a highly religious society. People follow religion earnestly. It wouldn’t be possible to implement the French version of secularism here. We see that in countries like India and America, the kind of secularism that’s practised is known as soft secularism: the government is not averse to religion but supports all religions equally. It supports religious activities, but equally. This is the reason why the Indian government sends people to Hajj pilgrimage, forms the Amarnath Shire Board, and the Delhi government is now sponsoring Teerth Yatra Yojana where people of all religions can go on pilgrimage to their sacred sites. The government is basically promoting religion in a way but it is promoting all religions equally.
The secularism practiced in France and some other European countries is known as hard secularism or negative secularism. The government tries to distance every public institution from all religions. That why any sort of religious dress, or any kind of a religious symbol, is often banned. Countries like France have banned Hijab from schools and the highest court of the European Union has stated that in the European countries it is up to the employers, if they want, to ban the Hijab in their workplace. In France, this is so widespread that these was a case seven years ago in which pork was served at a French school to students, and obviously, Muslims don’t eat pork, but that day, students had only pork to eat for lunch. So the parents of the students called up the school to say that they don’t consume pork as they’re Muslims, to which the school replied that the students have no other choice than to eat pork. If they’ve been served pork, every student needs to eat it. That no religious restrictions would entertain in the school. Whether you are vegetarian because of your religion, or anything else, the students would have to eat what they were served.
In china, churches were literally demolished, and crosses removed from churches. They’ve jailed thousands of pastors. It is being said that more than one million Muslims in China are being sent to “Reeducation camps” to politically brainwash them. This is the extent to which the Chinese government hates religion. If we look at the original definition of secularism, that the government shouldn’t interfere in religion at all; China has gone in the other direction, so much so that perhaps China can’t be called a secular country anymore.
The question here is which model is better for India? The Indian-US version of secularism or the French-European version of secularism? It has no straightforward, easy answer. If the French model is implemented in India, it would mean that not only the Hijab would be banned, even the turbans for Sikhs would be banned, Bindi and Tika would be banned. Apart from this, any sort of religious prayers wouldn’t be held at schools, whether Hindu prayers or Christian prayers. And obviously, this would be valid for every public institution in addition to schools. Even people in the government wouldn’t be able to wear any religious dress or symbol. It wouldn’t be possible in media and bureaucracy either. Can you imagine this? Honestly, there are pros and cons to both models. What are the cons of the French model of secularism? We see its disadvantage in terms of social integration. There have been several reports that since France has banned the Hijab in schools and colleges, the social integration of Muslims in society has taken a plunge.
Imagine if the Hijab is banned in India, what would happen then? Oftentimes, the girls that wear Hijab are from families to whom religion is very important. Often, religion trumps education. In such cases, if Hijab is banned from schools, what would happen? The girl might be withdrawn from the school. She wouldn’t be allowed to go to school anymore or she will be sent to some other religious school. If there is no religious school nearby, the parents may not allow the girl to go to school at all.
It is basically robbing the girls of the opportunity of getting an education. Some of you may say, what’s so difficult about simply taking off their Hijab before coming to school. But in reality, when a young girl is going to school or college, she isn’t taking her decisions on her own. It is often the parents that decide for her.
On the other hand, if the Hijab isn’t banned, and Hijab- wearing girls are allowed to go to schools and colleges, these girls can then complete their education. They’ll get educated and perhaps then, after they get an education, they’ll teach their next generation, their children, about the freedom of choice and wouldn’t let Hijab be forcefully imposed on them.
The point about patriarchy, that the girls are forced to wear a Hijab, the solution to this is through women empowerment, for which there is dire need of education. But if Hijb is allowed today, tomorrow someone can wear a Burqa to school. It will be their freedom of religion, and tomorrow if I say that I am starting a new religion, and in my religion it is allowed to go to school in a Bikini as well, how can we stop this from happening? What would be the reasoning for this? The second disadvantage of the Indian model of secularism is that because it is very difficult to draw a line, it becomes much easier to politically exploit people, to incite people and get them to fight among themselves over religion. We are seeing it happen increasingly nowadays.
What is the solution to this? Both sides should come together and calmly discuss it to peacefully arrive at a solution. And if that fails, the high court or the Supreme Court should be given the task to draw the lines and make the rules about what is allowed and what isn’t. But a Hindu-Muslim issue is useful to politicians, because if people aren’t distracted with these issues, people would start thinking about things like inflation and unemployment. That would be disastrous for the politicians. They want people to keep fighting amongst themselves over petty things so that the people are busy with it.
One needs to think which organisation it was that was distributing orange scarves to the boys. Who was telling the boys to band together and start harassing the girls and to chant the slogans of ‘Jai Shari Ram’. I remember when I was in school, when students were told to wear a white shirt, there used to be so many shades of white shirts. To see more than three boys wearing the exact same shirt would’ve been very rare. And here, more than 100 boys are wearing saffron scarves that look the same. This is the job of an organisation. These students haven’t done this on their own. Someone has tried to provoke them. The Karnataka government gave a very disappointing response because they didn’t try hard enough to stop this.
Since December 2021, there have been constant efforts to provoke people and start a fight in the name of religion. We saw some cases in Karnataka itself, where people from certain organisation entered a school or college and started stopping Christmas celebrations. This wasn’t a one-off incident. There were seven separate incidents. What was the action taken by the government? Does that government want such incidents to continue? It is a very important question that needs to be pondered on. If the government truly wants to increase social integration in the country, so that everyone can live together peacefully, so that there is unity in the country and that there is freedom of choice and women empowerment, the government should take the right action first.
—Dr Suresh Kumar Jat is Assistant Professor and Firdous Ahmad Malik is a PhD scholar at MGU, Bhopal. [email protected]