The first time Nidha Parveen realized that her choice to wear the hijab could be a point of contention was when she moved to New Delhi to attend university. Having been brought up and schooled in the southern state of Kerala, where Muslims make up more than a quarter of the population, she was not used to being interrogated about her reasons for covering her head. “I could feel the othering on a day-to-day basis,” she tells The Nation. “In the beginning I used to answer the questions, but at a certain point I stopped, because I understood that they wanted me to say that it was a form of oppression.”
Parveen, who claims that her hijab was once pulled off by one of her classmates, describes the hostility toward Muslims in Narendra Modi’s India as part of a concerted push toward Hindu majoritarianism. “We, the Muslims, the oppressed in India, have to take on the burden of peace; we have to take on the burden of secularism, and we have to take on the burden of uniformity,” she says. “To integrate ourselves we have to deny the fundamentals of our culture and religion, and we have to adopt the common representation of the ideal citizen.”
This burden to conform has been placed in sharp focus by the row that erupted in the state of Karnataka. On New Year’s Day, six female students at a college in Udupi held a press conference alleging that they had been barred from attending classes on account of their hijabs. As a result, Karnataka became the stage for a series of protests, which were met by counter-demonstrations by Hindu students and activists.
On February 5, in a move that was widely condemned by Muslims, the BJP-led government of the state issued an order banning clothes that could disturb “law and order.” When this decree was challenged, the High Court issued an interim order restraining students from wearing religious clothing in the classroom, which led in some instances to the forcible removal of the hijab from some Muslim girls and women. In the view of writer and social activist Farah Naqvi, this amounted to public humiliation. “Little girls going to school are being made to take off the headscarves they grew up with in full public view; they are being forced into what they are subjectively experiencing as a disrobing before gleeful audiences. It’s a painful sight, no matter which God you worship.”
Her sentiments are echoed by the Bengaluru-based playwright Nisha Abdullah, who suggests that there might be a sexual dimension to this forcible disrobing. “There is an aspect of this distant and unreachable and therefore fetishized Muslim woman who is almost hidden as this gem that comes out as an idea in these kinds of situations,” she says. The forced removal of women’s clothes “is a toxic power act, and we can’t miss the sexual undertones of that.”
The sexual objectification highlighted by Nisha Abdullah came to the fore at the turn of the year when reports emerged of a mobile app called Bulli Bai that offered Muslim women in a mock auction as maids and other domestic servants. Among the women “sold” was Parveen, who believes that the threat of violence was being used to intimidate Muslim women. “What they were trying to do was perpetrate a culture of fear so that even though it was in the virtual world, we could see that our photos were out there and that at any time we could face an attack.”
Despite these attempts at intimidation, however, the moment is being defined at least as much by those in the resistance: The dominant image of the hijab row is that of Muskan Khan, a college student from Mandya who stood up in defiance to a mob of hecklers. In a video that went viral on social media, the burka-clad Khan is seen responding to the rabble with the chant of “Allahu akbar” (God is great). “There were 40 of them, while I was alone,” she said in an interview with BBC Urdu. “Whenever I get scared, I utter the name of Allah. When I speak Allah’s name, it gives me courage.”
In addition to Muslims in her own country, her resistance has been lionized in neighboring Pakistan, where women are much more likely to be coerced into donning the hijab. It is a phenomenon that the civil rights activist Tahira Abdullah describes as the perfect mirror image of what is happening in India. “Pakistanis have theocratized the entire issue of Muskan Khan,” she tells The Nation. “Her chanting ‘Allahu Akbar’ has now become a rallying cry. It’s almost like she was Mohammad bin Qasim or Mahmud Ghaznavi.”
In the run-up to Valentine’s Day, a medical college in Islamabad issued a circular demanding that female students wear the hijab according to the university dress code, with cash penalties for those who refused to comply. Meanwhile, Federal Minister for Religious Affairs Noor-ul-Haq Qadri has written to Prime Minister Imran Khan asking him to redesignate International Women’s Day—March 8—as International Hijab Day.
For feminist scholar Farzana Bari, who served as director of the Gender Studies Department at Quaid-e-Azam University, the whole issue of covering women’s bodies stems from the sexual division of labor, something she calls the patriarchal privilege dividend. “There is a material benefit to having free domestic labor that justifies the control men exert over women’s bodies,” she says. “In a way, women are slaves for men. They will do domestic work; they will bear and rear children; they will look after the family; they will cook and clean—and they will do all of this free of cost. Patriarchy has this economic base, a privilege that the political right does not want to relinquish.”
It is this atmosphere of compulsion that has left many feminists in Pakistan conflicted about the resistance of Muslim women across the border. Both Farzana Bari and Tahira Abdullah are of the view that no one has the right to tell a woman what to wear, but both admit to a certain amount of anxiety regarding the hijab. “We—all of us human rights defenders—are in a huge fix,” says the latter. “On the one hand, I want to stand with Muskan Khan’s right to wear whatever she wants to on her head; on the other hand, it’s not my ideology to cover my head as a woman living in a Muslim society and an Islamized country.”
But there are also those who see the entire debate around the hijab as an oversimplification. “There is a global obsession with and a global deconstruction of Muslim women’s clothing and what their clothes represent about the community,” says Farah Naqvi. “The problem with that discourse is that you reduce the idea of disempowerment to a single religious source. It’s a regressive religion and its regressive men that are basically the cause of the disempowerment of Muslim women—that’s the prevailing global wisdom, right? But this is regardless of the fact that, just like all other women, Muslim women need education and jobs; they need clean housing; they need a sewer system; they need access to health care and a whole lot of other stuff to empower them. To reduce Muslim women’s inequality to ‘the source is religion, and the source is their patriarchal men who are imposing the hijab on choiceless women’ is nonsense.”