Hijab Row: Identity Politics in a Digital World

By Neera Kuckreja Sohoni

Colleges in Karnataka can reopen but students cannot be allowed to wear any piece of clothing that is religious till the matter is pending, Chief Justice of the Karnataka High Court said on February 10. A three-judge bench of the Karnataka HC was hearing petitions challenging the state government’s ban on the wearing of ‘hijabs’ by students in college.

Digital media has an unprecedented effect – both good and bad – on our lives in that it serves as a ready conveyor belt on which we can deposit our baggage of noble as well as evil thoughts, and rather than retrieve the launched baggage, route it instead to millions of others.

Illustrative of such manipulation is the controversy over the use of hijabs or headscarves following a government order in Karnataka state to use uniform clothing in schools and colleges to maintain “unity and equality”. The order was or should have been expected to cause some heartburn.

The spark was lit at the Government Girls College in Udupi district with six students alleging they had been barred from classes for wearing hijab, in turn prompting other Muslim girls to wear hijab as a symbol of protest.

The internet stepped in with its usual vigor and venom causing other parts of the state to join the outcry against the hijab ban order. Twitter lit up with a video of a hijab-wearing college woman being heckled by saffron-colored scarf-wearing men reportedly shouting slogans. The religious divide was easily conveyed and hyped through faith-based sloganeering.

Response to the ‘combustible’ video was swift and partisan. “I pray that our sisters fighting for their right to wear hijab are successful in their fight. Grave violations of the Constitution’s Art 15, 19 & 21 are being committed in Karnataka. I condemn this decision of Karnataka’s BJP govt” Asaduddin Owaisi of AIMIM tweeted. Replying to this, a person tweeted, “@asadowaisi only prays for his sisters when they are being subjugated, whether it’s about discrimination via Triple Talaq/Halala or via pushing them behind burkha.”

Politicians fervently opposed to BJP chimed in with their outrage at a young woman’s harassment by hooligans. Suhasini Haidar in her tweet asked, “What part of “Beti Bachao Beti Padhao” – Save Daughter Educate Daughter, do the goons not get? Happens in the open, yet the government/police are ok with this.” Omar Abdullah sarcastically tweeted, “How brave these men are & how macho they must feel while targeting a lone young lady! Hatred for Muslims has been completely mainstreamed & normalized in India today. We are no longer a nation that celebrates our diversity, we want to punish & exclude people for it.”

Ministers serving in the state and central governments spoke to the issue fervently presenting their party’s stance. “All students must follow the dress code prescribed by the schools/administration. Law and order must be maintained in the State. We need to see who are these people instigating the students” proclaimed Union Minister Joshi. State Education Minister Nagesh said students who insist on wearing hijab should not be allowed into government educational institutions, further ordering that college women protesters wearing hijab be confined to a separate classroom in the colleges.

The hijab controversy soon crossed state borders surfacing in BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh, Puducherry to Maharashtra, and Congress-ruled Rajasthan. Opposing parties spoke with equal passion and outrage, making Hijab a convenient hook on which to hang the ruling majority party at the state and central level. Congress and other Opposition Parties protested against the Karnataka hijab order by staging a walkout from the Lok Sabha amidst the important Budget Session of the Indian Parliament.

In Karnataka, Right-wing student groups, ever ready to muddy the waters and vigorously opposed to hijab-wearing, retaliated by turning up in saffron scarves. Equally inspired Dalit students donned blue scarves to convey solidarity with hijab-wearing girls. Fearing an escalation, the Karnataka government ordered all schools and colleges in the state to remain closed for the next three days.

In the US, unlike private schools, public schools have stayed away from following the uniform dress code, arguing that uniforms add to the financial burden on poor parents for sending their kids to school. In fact, speaking purely from personal experience, it risks making schooling more expensive as poorer kids are compelled or seduced into keeping up with the Joneses. My own kids first became aware of the power of ‘Gap’ clothing and designer footwear only when they entered the public school’s uniform-free culture, in contrast to compulsorily dressing in uniform in the school they attended in India. Denying them branded stuff added to their resentment of us, while also burdening us with unnecessary guilt.

Unfortunately, the world today is more glued to diversity. It frowns upon any effort to inject symmetry. In the current American and global culture where love for one’s country, respect for its flag, and obedience to parents, teachers, and other symbols of authority are considered inhumane, and demeaning colonizing practices and notions, schools in Karnataka or elsewhere seeking to enforce uniformity stand on weak grounds.

In contrast, Twitter and other digital platforms have been allowed to appropriate unprecedented power to enforce a kind of uniformity through thought policing and canceling out or permanently excommunicating users for merely holding views that differ from their worldview.

The digital monopoly of news is just one of its curses. More damaging is the instantaneousness of news projection and its vicious repletion and replication which makes every issue however small appear bigger than what it is. Suddenly a minor infraction becomes enlarged as a large-scale public wrong provoking an outburst of outrage.

At the receiver’s end, a digitally conveyed text message or video turns viral with pro-and anti-viewers imparting their own ‘take’ turning the Twitter dialogue and ‘multilogue’ into a powerful destructive cyclone. Thus it is that a spark becomes a raging fire, a mere difference of opinion becomes a lasting painful divide, and an episode assumes the potency of a longstanding grudge against humanity at large.

Bindi and Hijab wearing has been a bone of contention in western countries as well, most glaringly in France and other parts of Europe. In the US, the threat to bindi and sari-wearing Indian women surfaced as far back as 1987. In a New York Times report appearing on October 12, 1987, the author interviewed an Indian gynecologist who immigrated to the United States 21 years before but she “had to put aside the traditional Indian saris she adores and wear Western-style dress in public instead”. In Jersey City, she said, “a sari’s glimmering silk is likely to make any woman who wears it a target for harassment”. She had “even abandoned her bindi – the small cosmetic dot worn on the forehead of most Indian women.”

Decades back or now, the impolitic use of hijab and bindi remains an effective way to incite and manipulate public support and ultimately to achieve social hegemony and political triumph.

Neera Kuckreja Sohoni

Images courtesy of (Image Courtesy: India in Pixels) and pROVIDED

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