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Hijab Challenges Artificially Created National Identity, says Professor Menon in CSGS talk

by Sana Chowdhury (UG '24)


The Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality (CSGS) hosted a panel discussion to shed light on the Hijab Ban Issue on 19th October 2022.


The panel was moderated by Professor Madhavi Menon, director of CSGS, while the panelists included Sagnik Dutta, Associate Professor at Jindal Global Law School, Zehra Naqvi, an MLS student of English at Ashoka, and Ranjini Ghosh, a student of the ASP ‘23 batch. The session saw a large student turnout..


Before beginning the discussion, Professor Menon gave a brief background about the controversy surrounding the issue of the hijab ban. In early January 2022, six girl students were denied entry at a Pre-University College in Udupi, because they had allegedly violated the uniform policy by wearing a hijab. The girls protested that the hijab was a part of their faith, and since then the case has gotten widespread media recognition. The Karnataka High Court of 15th March 2022 upheld the ban by stating that hijab was not an “essential” religious practice thus it would not be accommodated in the uniform code. The High Court took the liberty to decide what is and what is not an essential religious practice, and since according to the court, the wearing of the hijab was not an essential practice, banning it did not violate the fundamental right of religious expression. On October 13th, 2022, the two-judge bench of the Supreme Court–which had been moved by the students in January–delivered a split verdict. Justice Hemant Gupta upheld the ban while Justice Sudhanshu Dhulia opposed it.


Professor Menon quoted both Supreme Court Judges when explaining the issue–while Justice Gupta stated, “students should wear clothes which are in the interest of unity and accordance with public order,” Justice Dhuliya stated, “It is necessary to have discipline in school, but discipline not at the cost of freedom, not at the cost of dignity. Asking a pre-university school girl to take off her hijab at the school gate is an invasion of her privacy and dignity. All the petitioners want is to wear a hijab, how is it against public order or morality or decency or any other provision in our Constitution?” The Panel discussion surrounded the intricacies around these two contrasting opinions.


Professor Menon picked upon the point of uniformity and how it has become an obsession of society to standardize everything. She questioned, “What is more significant in an academic institution, intellectual rigor or a particular uniformity required in terms of clothes?” She argued that it was evident that education has taken a back seat in educational institutions, and what has become increasingly significant is to further the agenda of what she deems a dangerous notion of “uniformity”. On that note, Ranjini Ghosh mentions that while uniforms are maintained as a code in schools, it is pertinent to make necessary accommodations for necessary circumstances.


Professor Sagnik Dutta raised a few key questions encompassing uniformity and the state’s role in controlling it. He questions if uniformity is a desirable end of democracy. He stresses on the fact that while the democracy of India is increasingly ignoring fundamental human rights, it remains obsessed with furthering the agenda of uniformity particularly when it comes to religion.


This leads to Professor Dutta’s second observation regarding the “discomfort” that the state faces whenever someone from a minority group, especially women within these groups, have dared to express themselves. Discomfort arises when there is a lack of acceptance and lack of acceptance only arises when unity among the people of the nation does not exist. Dutta points out that the colonial objective of standardization is being upheld, and the State goes to violent extremes to be able to force it down on people.


On that note, Professor Menon raised the point of the ruling government’s attempts to dictate the narrative of what a national identity should entail. Justice Dhuliya’s questioning, therefore, on how the Hijab threatens public order becomes particularly poignant because it is evident that the hijab does not, in fact, infringe upon public order, but it infringes as well as challenges the national identity constructed by the State.


Zehra Naqvi introduced the concept of secularity which India as a country promises to uphold. Naqvi stated “secularity means not removing the expression of religion from public space and not having a state religion.” She further elaborated on Ranjini Ghosh's point about reasonable accommodations that can be made to the uniform code. She supported her argument with examples such as the Sikh turban being accepted into the school code without the state ever questioning if wearing a turban is an “essential” practice of the Sikh religion. She also pointed out that brands like NIKE make hijabs so that women can comfortably play sports, while the game of fencing which requires tight body suits also incorporates the hijab.


From the concept of uniformity and secularity, she shifts the focus to women and their identities. Elaborating on professor Duttta’s point about minority groups not being able to express themselves, Naqvi states that the burden often falls upon women to choose between identities. In the case of these pre-university girls, they were forced to choose their identity as Muslims and their identity as students.


A brief discussion of the Shaheen Bagh Protest was undertaken by Ranjini Ghosh and Professor Menon to portray how yet another measure was taken by the state to violently stop the “non-violent” movement. It was a threat to the state to see Muslim women protest and stand up for a cause. Professor Dutta adds that gendered agency challenges the idea of Hindutva. Zehra Naqvi brought in the matter of the agency of women, and the power they have to make choices. She supported her claim of the choice of women by bringing up the situation of Iran. While in India women are fighting for their right to wear the hijab, Iranian women are protesting that the state cannot force them to wear the hijab. She says that there is “an element of force both in India and Iran. The question is not about covering or revealing, it is about choice, which is being snatched.”


Professor Menon raised the point that even education demands a woman to look a certain way, dictated by state control. She adds that “educational institutions have been converted by the state into a well-oiled machine that fuels uniformity and the victimization of women and makes them helpless.”


Zehra Naqvi provided food for thought by concluding that when a woman is denied education for the way she dresses up, she is denied agency and her right to knowledge. This very education will help her to make her own choices. Naqvi stated that an educated, financially independent woman has the awareness to make the “choice” between wearing or not wearing the hijab.


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