Editor’s Note: India is in the grip of what can only be described as a state-sanctioned campaign of Islamophobia. Recent examples include: a spate of state-level laws targeting individuals who change their religion or are in inter-faith marriages; active interference with Muslims offering prayers at designated prayer sites; attempts at social and economic boycott of Muslims, as well as mass calls to violence, by militant Hindu religious groups, with no response from the government; and more. The exclusion of Muslim women students from school and college premises, ostensibly on grounds of their wearing the hijab, is best understood in the context of an ongoing institutional project to violently exclude Muslims from Indian public life.
We strongly condemn the decision of several colleges in Karnataka to prevent the entry of women students into educational spaces due to their wearing of a hijab. This is one more addition to the aggressive policing of minorities that has become normalised under the BJP. From the banning of beef, the disruption of people offering namaz, the passing of an anti-conversion law, and passing the CAA-NRC-NPR, the majoritarian Hindu government in the Centre is going to every length to stoke communal tensions and discriminate against the democratic rights of Muslims in India.
We fully support the protesting women students in Karnataka, whose right to education cannot be denied based upon their religious identity and expression. Such actions deeply harm the plural nature of educational spaces and push people into separate educational institutions based upon their religion.
In the context of today’s highly Islamophobic political climate instigated by right-wing groups, the assertion of wearing a hijab becomes a symbol of maintaining the right to a minority religious identity, and displaying that right in a public manner. Therefore, the struggle of Muslim women to wear a hijab in educational and public spaces must be seen as a brave struggle against the diktats of those in power. In order to counter the onslaught on their rights, communities on the margin have mobilised themselves on the basis of their identity.
The struggle for the right to wear a hijab in India exists along with the struggle of many women to not wear a hijab or a burqa. The women’s movement has engaged with the question of gender equality, women’s autonomy from family and community, and the use of women’s bodies as markers of religious identity for all communities.
While there are many differing opinions on the subject, the fundamental difference is this — nowhere, in these conversations about reform, choice, and freedom, does the option of the State or external agencies imposing rules on women’s bodies emerge as a progressive option. When women struggle against the wearing of a burqa due to their own internal critique of the community and religious practices, this has an entirely different significance. The decision about wearing or not wearing a hijab or burqa must come from Muslim women themselves, who have to negotiate a complex world between a majoritarian Hindu State and their own vilified community and public spaces.
We call upon all the colleges in Karnataka who have closed their doors to Muslim women students to open them again and take back their unjust rules.
Bebaak Collective (Voice of the Fearless) is a collective of autonomous women's groups across states fighting for the rights of marginalised women
Hasina Khan is one of India's most visible, courageous and effective activists raising issues and questions of women's rights in general and Muslim women’s rights in particular. She is the founding member of Bebaak Collective (Voice of Fearless) and PI Council Member.
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