Dissecting the liberal dilemma over the hijab

Muslim women need equality, no doubt. But for the necessary process of social change to take place, Muslims first need security to live and conduct their lives as equal citizens, especially when their rights are under threat during BJP rule.

Representative photo: iStock

The hijab ban in schools in Karnataka has thrown some liberals into a dilemma. The religious control over female sexuality, implicit in the norm specific to women that they should conceal, is an oppression, alongside the obvious oppression of the Muslim minority evident in the selective banning of a Muslim religious symbol, even whether religious symbols of other denominations are deemed acceptable. Should the hijab ban be welcomed as was the ban on the practice of burning Hindu widows at the stake of their late husbands? Or should we defend the normative subjection of female sexuality to the male control embodied by the hijab, in order to oppose the harassment of religious minorities?

There are a lot of confusing thoughts behind posing the problem as the false choice presented above. Perhaps an analogy that would help us think more clearly about the subject. Take the case of a murder committed in a house while a burglary is in progress. The perpetrators are two different individuals, but the burglar is arrested and charged with both crimes. Is it okay to let the man hang for his crime? Is defending the accused against the charge of murder the same as defending his act of burglary? If the man is hanged, can he be punished for burglary, maybe get another chance, to reform himself and do better in life, even if not as dramatically as in the case of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables?

Read also : Karnataka HC prevents students from wearing hijab and saffron shawls in class

Gender equality is not a problem of logical classification, but the goal of a process of social and political reform. Liberty, equality, fraternity, these are what we associate with the French Revolution; life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, with the American Declaration of Independence. The average liberal embraces these terms with hazy, uncritical warmth, untroubled by their mutual contradictions and contextual meaning.


If people are free to pursue their interests to the best of their abilities, there is no guarantee that the end result will be equality – some might be endowed with superior ability or tenacity, fortune might smile more to some than to others, some are more successful in their efforts than others and freedom would end up creating inequalities.

The term fraternity, or fraternity, excludes women. If we want to be charitable, we could blame this exclusion on the language and its lack of a term that covers the unity of brothers and sisters of both sexes, rather than on the narrowness of the vision of the French revolutionaries. But the idea that the French revolutionaries upheld the essential feeling of a close bond between all peoples, as if they were all born of the same mother, is in contradiction with the fact that the revolutionary zeal of the French does not is not quite extended to colonial France. topics.

Likewise, the signers of the American Declaration of Independence included slaveholders, and slaves were considered property, not people. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” the statement said. Men are created equal, women are not. It goes without saying that humanity is the work of a “Creator”.

Women have fought long and hard for the right to vote, in formal democracies, and won, primarily because of the opportunity presented to them to prove their worth as capable civil servants in the non-domestic world. , thanks to World War I, which drew hard-bodied men to the trenches, forcing the establishment to tap into women’s untapped potential to perform tasks outside the home that had hitherto been the preserve of men.

President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Declaration in September 1862, after the outbreak of the American Civil War, freeing slaves in the 10 rebellious Southern states with effect early the following year: “That the first day of January of the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves in any state, or designated part of a state, the people of which are then in rebellion against the United States shall then, henceforth and forever free; and the executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will acknowledge and maintain the liberty of such persons, and shall do no act or deed to suppress such persons, or any of them. them, in the efforts they could make for their real freedom.

Four slave states were not in rebellion, and slaves in these states did not become free due to the Emancipation Proclamation. They became free later when their respective governments changed the law on the matter. The US president exceeded his normal powers as head of the federal government only in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, presenting the emancipation of slaves in rebellious states as a wartime measure to achieve victory sooner. .

Lincoln deserves credit for seeing the difference between legal freedom and real freedom, urging, in the Proclamation itself, the military and other parts of government, to recognize and uphold the freedom of emancipated slaves and not to suppress the efforts that freed slaves make for their real freedom. This real freedom remains elusive for black people, although things took a dramatic turn for the better after strong protests that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But even today, blacks and supporters of democracy are forced to take to the streets. in the United States, shouting that “black lives matter”.

India is governed by the Constitution which came into effect on January 26, 1950. However, social consciousness continues to be conditioned by the norms of caste hierarchy and gender discrimination. Women don’t deserve autonomy, said Manu, the famous legislator of ancient India. Do we hear young men showing off their saffron scarves and protesting the hijab in Karnataka or trying moral police stunts on Valentine’s Day everywhere else denouncing the Manusmriti?

In short, achieving real equality and freedom for those whose rights to equality and freedom have been proscribed by tradition is a long and arduous struggle, a process of social reform that goes beyond change in their legal status. This is true in all societies, everywhere on earth.

The Indian Constitution considers all Indians regardless of gender, caste, religion, region and class to be equal. It is the legal status. To know the reality, ask the Dalit groom who was beaten for daring to ride a horse like high-caste grooms, the women sexually harassed in public spaces and oppressed in private spaces, the Muslim who struggles to find a landlord who would rent him an apartment in Mumbai, a student from the northeast who is called “Chinky” in a busy Delhi market or a litigant who can barely afford a lawyer but has to defend his case against someone who can hire the entire list of Supreme Court Bars.

Read also : Taslima Nasreen compares the hijab to the “dark ages chastity belt”

Muslim women need equality, no doubt. But for the necessary process of social change to take place, Muslims need the security to live and conduct their lives as equal citizens. This is what is being attacked under the BJP regime – crudely in several states and a bit more subtly in the Center.

So liberals, defending the right of Muslim women to study even while sticking to the regressive tradition is the right thing to do. To prioritize the emancipation of the veil over the defense of a fundamental collective right to a dignified coexistence is to join the attack on democracy, make no mistake about it.