As a Muslim woman who has eschewed religious garb all her life, I am in complete solidarity with the anti-hijab protests in Iran. In a modern society, clothing of any form – whether it conceals the body or reveals it – cannot be a marker of moral behaviour.
Whether it is the limiting burqa or the unobtrusive hijab or the ghoonghat, “modest” clothing embodies a highly gendered perspective of sexuality: men are hypersexual and women vulnerable. If men and women are assumed to have no hold over their actions, the notion of individual choice no longer remains as simple as it is assumed to be.
For this reason, I ought to have been happy at the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s self-professed reformist attempt to curb the hijab in Karnataka schools – and the views of Justice Hemant Gupta, one of two judges who delivered the Supreme Court verdict on the matter on October 13.
To the contrary, research on veiling behaviour gives strong reason to believe that interference from the state will only help buttress a regressive practice and deter Muslim women from integrating with the mainstream. Scholarship on Islamic veiling practices, mainly in the west, and to some extent in India, predicts two worrying consequences of the BJP’s politics and similar attempts to ban the hijab.
Rejecting the mainstream
One, in the face of a ban, religious Muslim women may altogether shun the mainstream. It is a fact that modernising factors, such as education, wealth, and contact with people from outside one’s own community, reduces religiosity – but research finds this to be largely true only for the averagely religious.
Among the highly religious, modernisation is believed to present greater opportunity to be “tempted”. When a religious group is a minority, once the number of non-Muslim friends and natives rises, religious norms are likely to weaken. How do you assure your community that you will not give in to the temptations of modern society and turn away from religiosity?
An Oxford study of veiling behaviour among Muslims in 27 countries in Europe found that educated, highly religious Muslim women increased the adoption of the Islamic veil to signal their piety. These Muslim women veiled for reasons other than religious obligations, such as the liberty that the veil provided to them to move freely in a Western society.
More visible signs of religious identity, therefore, indicate greater integration of Muslims rather than the reverse. Banning or shunning forms of veiling would deprive these women the opportunity to integrate.
But this is not a perspective commonly shared by non-Muslims. For example, the niqab or facial covering has been restricted by law in France. But in the wake of this ban, France experienced a negative educational shock – the gap in education between Muslims and non-Muslims widened.
Once the law singled out Muslim schoolgirls who chose to veil, it automatically subjected them to differential treatment increasing the girls’ perception of discrimination. The psychological stress that followed led to many of the girls dropping out of the school system – the dropout rate increased by 6 percentage points more than that of their non-Muslim counterparts – and poor school performance.
In India, the mainstream education of Muslim women remains a challenge, worse than that of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, despite a recent uptick in their schoolgoing rates. A ban on what is an essential practice for these women, whether it is essential in their religious books on not, could drive them further into isolation.
Discrimination and defiance
Two, in a gesture of defiance, women who never wore religious headcovering may begin doing so. It is possible that discrimination against one minority can provoke defiance or rebellious behaviour.
In any society where a religious group is in a small minority, those who adopt identifiably religious clothing are deviating from the norms of this broader society – whether it is the Islamic veil, the Jewish yarmulke, or the Sikh turban. The decision is costly, for it increases the probability of being discriminated against.
In India or Europe where Muslims are a minority, wearing the Islamic veil in public often leads to harassment. Yet, many Muslim women prefer wearing the noticeable veil than an innocuous accessorising scarf after experiencing hostility from non-Muslims. Signalling defiance, these women willingly embrace a stigmatised identity.
In 2006, four years after the riots in Gujarat, I recall meeting a small but significant number of highly educated young Muslim women in Ahmedabad who had adopted the burqa after the violence.
The burqa was a “slap in the face of the BJP”, as one woman told me. She, like the others, blamed the BJP for the killing of Muslims in Gujarat and the consistent anti-Muslim propaganda that had followed. “All of us friends felt cowed down by a constant anti-Muslim rhetoric since 2002. And we thought whether it made any sense to be scared. We said, okay so you want to hate us? Here are our burqas so we know that you know we are Muslims. Now come, get us.”
Anthropologist John Ogbu observed similar defiance among Black American students in the United States. Their identities as minorities were developed as a response to White racism, which then led them to oppose conformism in education – that is, all that which would be “good” (White or majority) behaviour.
It is worth noting that defiance can result in both the acceptance and the rejection of the veil – women who take it up rebelling against family tradition or against hostility by non-Muslims and those who reject it against family tradition in order to assimilate with the majority.
I recall meeting a Hyderabadi Muslim woman last year who once wore the hijab, only to discard it later stating that “piety and modesty has been reduced to what we do in public… what we wear outside our homes rather than whether we pray five times a day in our homes”.
A matter of choice?
Religious garb, for any community, is usually steeped in normative pressures. Women experience pressure from other women and from men (as potential marriage partners) to dress conservatively. Individual choice is therefore often contingent on family tradition.
When one defies the family or the majority by either adopting religious garb or rejecting it, one can call it a matter of choice. But for most part, clothing in itself, especially religious garb, remains a marker of moral behaviour.
Today, I can spurn the Islamic veil simply because my mother, by rejecting the burqa, defied her community despite considerable rebuff. For the very reason that women themselves possess the agency to defy their family traditions and rebel against social norms, the state has no business interfering with these practices.
Raheel Dhattiwala is a former journalist and holds a doctorate in Sociology from Oxford University, where she has previously worked as a research fellow and tutor. She is the author of Keeping the Peace: Spatial Differences in Hindu-Muslim Violence in Gujarat in 2002 (Cambridge University Press, 2019).