On Jan 1, 2022, 6 hijab-wearing students were denied entry into Udipi’s state-run PU (pre-university) College. The reason? Their choice to wear the hijab to school. This uncalled for incident snowballed, with multiple educational institutions across the state following the same aggressive stance. They decided to gatekeep education from girl students. Clearly, this was a systematic politicisation of young women’s clothing choice. And they retaliated by filing a petition. They emphasised their Constitutional rights, which grant them the Freedom of Conscience and the right to profess, practise and propagate religion. However, as the state government chose to justify the ban, it was an attempt to create uniformity. And need we spell it out? It failed!
Protests erupted in support, and against the move. Chilling visuals of boys and girls of all ages, marching, we have hitherto believed to be uncorrupted, emerged. They wore symbolic religious colours, shouted slogans and in the process, shredded the fabric of secularism into pieces. And as these events unfold, we watch in sheer horror. The striking realisation is that education is being held at an expensive ransom. In a country where girls’ education is still considered unimportant and social strife often demands a daughter’s illiteracy from parents, this divisiveness over a piece of clothing is stifling.
Divisive By Design
This isn’t the first time India has denied women the right to education and equal opportunity, especially, to those from marginalised communities. Veiled in the pretence of liberalism, snatching away the freedom of choice from women when it comes to their preference in clothing, hardly counts as a masterstroke. Last year in Kerala, teachers had to fight the imposition of the sari as a mandated dress code; it stemmed out of the government’s vague dress code policy made in 2012. While the Tamil Nadu administration asked for educators to follow modesty as a thumb rule when it comes to attire, the interpretation of sari being heralded as that exact modest attire by certain institutes and government authorities was alarming. As a country, we thrive on being able to police what women wear and where they wear it, without any repercussions. It’s a convenient case of patriarchy being at rampant play.
A History Of Policing Women’s Choices
For a brief period in 1997, Fr. Joseph M. Dias, former principal of St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, banned red outfits for women on campus and for the annual prom because it was deemed inappropriate and distracting. To men, of course! In 2022, a colour in the same spectrum as red is used as a get-out-of-jail-free card—nevermind the heckling and intimidation of women in broad daylight (which is a crime, btw). Whether it was the ’90s or now, rules are made by men, for men, towards the advantage of men, being accommodative of men—we could go on.
And as a direct repercussion, women’s education is being used as the bargaining chip against faith and freedom. For as long as we can remember, women have been puppeteered by patriarchy using literacy and liberation as threads. Whether it was the 17-year-old Neha Paswan from UP who lost her life because she wore a pair of jeans, or the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Malala Yousufzai, who was shot in the head for fighting for her right to education.
Today, as the church and state are at an intersection, women are yet again being used as the pawn in this power game. If we are not in the favour of forcing women to embrace the hijab, we shall not force its removal—either way, it counts as extremism. The internet is making a valid point—if the Sikhs aren’t being forced to let go off their turbans, and the Christians aren’t being demanded to stop wearing the crucifix, then why should Muslim girls be asked to give up the hijab? If the rules are not uniform for all, then this is yet another attempt at arm-twisting women from a minority community into submission.
If Modesty Is The Ask From Women, Why Is The Hijab The Problem?
So let’s get this straight—in certain parts of the country, we are enforcing control over women’s autonomy on the grounds of morality. Modesty is required from women even in 2022, while men continue to abuse their powers as they please. And yet, we continue to blatantly contradict this sentiment by disallowing girls to wear an outfit that serves the exact same purpose?
This begs the question: What’s the evident difference here? And for those who know, know that this is not about the piece of clothing at all. This is about power. About politics. And the constant and exhausting need to stamp out the identity and the voice of the minorities.
We can be divisive when it comes to religion, politics and every other polarising subject under the sun—but women’s right to education and freedom of choice is not up for debate. After all, isn’t Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao the headlining motto of our current regime?
For more on women and their freedom of choice, read here.