Though many women in my extended family wear the hijab, I chose not to. I faced no resistance and was never asked to follow them.
Studying in a convent school and then in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the Delhi University, religious and cultural identities were complex and open for many of us. As a consequence, I write this article as a woman with multiple public identities: an Indian citizen, a practising Muslim, a researcher and a university faculty member.
Over the last few decades, the hijab has emerged as more than just a garment worn as a religious obligation. It has developed its own political meanings. In the present political situation in India, situating the hijab in the larger majoritarian discourse and politics is important.
Making their mark
Amidst these recent political developments, Indian Muslim women have been carving out autonomous spaces in various fields. From educational activities to entrepreneurial engagements to justice-based resistance, Muslim women continue to affirm their right to be heard and represented.
Their achievements, though, are often overlooked in the larger popular imaginations around Islam as a regressive, backward religion and the growing global Islamophobia.
However, after they became pioneers of political protests against the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh and other places across India, they have emerged as a formidable political group.
They have evolved at a time when many discourses around religious and caste affiliations, nationalism, human rights and democratic principles are being refashioned in India.
As a result, there have been several instances of Indian Muslim women becoming the target of the Hindutva hatred. Their citizenship is being questioned and their patriotism challenged. Whenever they assert their civil and constitutional rights, they are branded as “political agents”.
Now, Hindutva forces are reaching an obscene low and are more openly discussing bodily lineaments of Muslim women, attacking their sartorial choices and assassinating their character.
The instances where Muslim women – especially those who are active in the public sphere – were mock-auctioned online through apps with names like Sulli deals and Bulli deals were extremely demoralising not only for the Muslim women whose photos were used but also for other Indian women who aim for self-sufficiency.
More recently, the intimidation of Muslim students in government colleges in Karnataka over their decision to wear the hijab has made the question of civil liberties of Muslim women in India even more urgent. These events reflect a larger trend to humiliate Indian Muslim women and to instil a permanent fear in them – and in the community itself.
There are attempts to discredit and de-legitimise protests by them by regarding Muslim women as vehicles of “Islamic fundamentalism” who are facilitating an Islamic intrusion into “pure” Indian culture.
This is why it is crucial to address the question of gender within the larger frameworks of majoritarianism, communalism and ultra-nationalism prevalent in India now.
Moving towards a majoritarian state
These instances are not casual or localised incidents and should not be seen in isolation. These episodes are symptomatic of the political circumstances in which the majoritarian forces subjugate minority groups as India is moving towards becoming a majoritarian state. This is evidencec of protracted hatred, cultivated gradually against the minority groups by Hindutva groups.
The open call for genocide against Muslims at December’s Dharma Sansad in Haridwar and the insensitive remarks against them during the campaign for the Uttar Pradesh elections further facilitated the percolation of hatred. In Karnataka, the aggressive display of hatred by male students wearing saffron scarves against a lone Muslim woman student was a spectacle of shame for India.
Tensions between minority groups (in this case the Muslim community) and the ruling regimes of the day have been a constant feature of post-colonial India. As the larger political narrative of shifted from secular and socialist issues to communal and radical issues, minority groups were subjected to further political, social and economic alienation.
Within this political milieu, when religious-nationalism has gained currency, the plural religious identities of citizens are being accorded even less space and recognition within an imagined Hindu nation. The very presence of minority groups has become an obstacle in the implementation of their idea of a unified state that aims for unity of religion, culture and language.
The canons of Hindutva ideology disregard the very existence of any sensibility that possesses the sensitivity to celebrate groups outside its fold.
Aiming for homogeneity
In India, the cultural project of the majoritarian political order is to create a homogeneous society by transforming or by denigrating existing pluralistic structures of society. Minority groups are required to fit into the new social order of Hindutva hegemony. The communally volatile atmosphere in India in recent years as a result of the majoritarian assertion has been propagated through “managed” electronic and social media.
At the same time, this propaganda also produced community “heroes”: hyper-masculine, aggressive and violent. These heroes now require villains to be counterpoised against them so that they can garner validity. The most convenient thing in this situation is to pick villains from the “other” community and present them as the inherent enemy.
At another level, the spread of puritanical religiosity in each community has instilled in their members a newer sense of religious selfhood and the sense that it is threatened by the presence of the other community. In this scheme of things, targeting women from the other community, who they presume to be already vulnerable, gives these forces a sense of double gratification.
It helps fulfil their male super-egos. It also facilitates the widening of the antagonisms between the two communities.
Analysing the Hindutva ecosystem – predominantly a man’s world – shows that creating a “religious other” and a “gendered other” are fundamental acts through which it functions. Likewise, it demands obedience and submission from the “others”, specifically women.
The refusal of the new generation of Indian Muslim women to fit into their category of the “other” and submit to any majoritarian pressure make them a formidable force to deal with. Their endeavour to achieve economic independence and assert their identity while enjoying civil liberties guaranteed by the Constitution threatens the Hindutva forces.
This new Muslim woman, who does not conform to the conventional stereotype of being oppressed by their community and in need of protection, shatters the delusion of “saviour syndrome” portrayed by the majoritarian state.
Is this a sudden awakening? No, it is a result of how they have struggled for a long time with considerable success within the framework of a constitutional republic, to make its institutions fully open and responsive to their needs as equal citizens.
Dr Sana Aziz is an assistant professor in the department of history at Aligarh Muslim University.