Hijab row: What India can learn from women’s march without hijab in Iran


In women’s protests in Iran after a woman who chose not to wear the hijab died due to custodial torture lie important lessons regarding the hijab row in India.

Women took to the streets and took off their hijab on Saturday to protest the police torture of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini for not following the dress regulations.

The scene marked a contrast with India, where girls protested in Karnataka to wear the hijab in a girls’ school.

A simplistic reading of the happenings in Iran would suggest that both protests — for the hijab in India and against it in Iran — were protests against imposition of dress codes by the state.

A deeper reading shows a fundamental error of ‘liberal’ thought in India. It divides the world into distinctive societies and employs cultural relativism to argue that each society should be free to follow its norms.

The norms, however, come from the dominant sections of society and are internalised as they are enforced over time.

So, those who see themselves as progressive often end up siding with the dominant sections of a community, with the sole exception of Hinduism, where the see, say, a Dalit take as meaningful and don’t see a Brahmanical gaze as the only way to make sense of society.

I recall an interesting anecdote that my history professor in JNU KN Panikkar told us in class. He said that when the Meiji Restoration happened in late 19th century Japan, feudalism was abolished with the stroke of a pen and it was announced that no peasant would bow before a feudal lord. In the countryside, a feudal lord was travelling on horseback and a peasant bowed before him out of habit. The enraged feudal lord chopped off the head of the peasant with the words, “Don’t you know that you are not supposed to bow any longer?”

The story brings the tricky relation between ‘choice’ and internalised codes to the fore. Choices are always conditioned. We are taught to behave in a certain manner. Patriarchy prescribes greater restrictions on women and many women begin consenting to them over the years due to habit. This habit becomes ‘choice’.

The hijab is one such choice. The worldview of the conservative Muslim male has been authorised as the authentic Islamic way of life by liberal voices in India. And purportedly progressive voices in India are celebrating such ‘choice’ as cultural relativism. They have lent the weight of their articulate voices to the cause of patriarchy, perhaps because the BJP is in power in Karnataka and tried to enforce the school dress code. What they forgot is that the Karnataka High Court also said that this isn’t a question of freedom of religion — as hijab isn’t essential to Islam — but one of freedom of expression under Article 19 (1) (a), which is subject to reasonable restrictions as per the constitution, a school uniform being one such restriction.

The matter is being heard in the Supreme Court. When the counsel for the petitioners said that the girls were just adding a hijab to the uniform, the judge asked whether the freedom to dress would also mean freedom to undress, wondering whether lengths of skirts in a school uniform could also vary as part of Article 19 (1) (a).

The logic of the backers of hijab is strange. What they mean is that Muslims are a different community with its own codes, and Muslims should thus be free to choose the hijab anywhere, including in schools that prescribe uniforms, if they so wish. This is like saying that Rajputs are a distinctive community and Rajput boys should be allowed to go to school on a horse with a sword in hand.

India was fortunate that this tide of cultural relativism had not disrupted its journey at Independence. It was rightly recognised by the Constituent Assembly that social reform cannot be sacrificed at the altar of cultural relativism. The constitution abolished untouchability by law and Parliament passed laws to prescribe punishment for practising untouchability. None hid behind the logic that untouchability is a distinctive practice among Hindus and should, thus, remain. None argued for revoking the 1829 ban on Sati on the purported grounds of its having been a distinctive Hindu practice. Widow remarriage became a reality not because it was distinctively Hindu but because it was a change required for making India a better place for women.

The tradition of social reform that was central to Rammohan Roy and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was continued by Dayanand Saraswati, Vivekanand, Mahatma Gandhi and, in a constitutionalist manner, by Dr BR Ambedkar.

Ironically, the petitioners in the hijab case told the Supreme Court that the views of Ambedkar that the purdah system is regressive, as cited by the Karnataka High Court in its judgement, are “deeply offensive” and “totally biased”.

It is clear that Indian secularism, which saw social reform as its ally in the Constituent Assembly, has now switched its loyalty to social conservatism. Had the present drift of marrying secularism with conservatism been present in India a century back, most regressive social practices would have been dignified as distinctive choices interpreted on cultural lines.

The greatest irony in this debate is this: it is the BJP, a Hindutva party, that is enforcing codes that can also be seen as gender-neutral — whatever be its intent behind this — among Muslims, and it is those who see themselves as progressive who are trying to turn the clock back by being allies of patriarchy.

The author is a columnist and media educator. The views expressed are personal.

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Hijab row: What India can learn from women’s march without hijab in Iran
Hijab row: What India can learn from women’s march without hijab in Iran
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