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Hijab and Quran

The paradox of hijab

Print edition : Mar 11, 2022 T+T-
A hijab-wearing girl, later identified as Muskan Khan, who was heckled by a group of boys in a college in Mandya, Karnataka, on February 8, 2022.

A hijab-wearing girl, later identified as Muskan Khan, who was heckled by a group of boys in a college in Mandya, Karnataka, on February 8, 2022.

Hijab-wearing  students talking to a faculty member after they were not allowed to enter  the school, in Kundapura in Udupi district of Karnataka, on February 5, 2022.

Hijab-wearing students talking to a faculty member after they were not allowed to enter the school, in Kundapura in Udupi district of Karnataka, on February 5, 2022.

At a protest  near Mumbai against the hijab ban in schools in Karnataka, on February 13, 2022.

At a protest near Mumbai against the hijab ban in schools in Karnataka, on February 13, 2022.

The hijab controversy, while exposing a sinister right-wing agenda to communalise the situation for political gain, has given rise to scrutiny from within the Muslim community and revived the debate on issues such as patriarchy, feminine seclusion, and Quranic misinterpretation.

In early February, the shocking sight of a lone Muslim girl being heckled and chased inside an educational institution by a large group of Hindu boys chanting ‘Jai Shri Ram’ stunned India and reverberated across the globe. One could well imagine the demoralising effect it must have had on the Muslim psyche. The uncivilised attempt to stop a Muslim girl from entering her college was part of a students’ agitation in Mandya, a city in Karnataka. The Hindu students were questioning the right of Muslim students to wear the hijab (headscarf) inside classrooms.

For several years now, Indian Muslims have been at the receiving end of frightening harassment that has affected them psychologically and curtailed their freedom in almost every conceivable sphere of democratic activity. This social exclusion has, to a large extent, been effected through extreme violence including brutal mob lynchings in the name of cow protection and demonisation campaigns that accuse Muslims of resorting to innovative forms of jehad against Hindus to either lure them into marriage, infect them with disease, outpopulate them, gobble up their lands, or infiltrate the country’s civil service at their expense. The vilification of Muslim women too forms a significant aspect of this community-baiting. Malignant tech tools such as the ‘Sulli Deals’ and ‘Bulli Bai’ apps have been used with gay abandon to “sell” and humiliate them on the Internet.

In December 2021, weeks before the hijab imbroglio erupted, the Islamophobic offensive appeared to peak when genocidal calls for the massacre of Indian Muslims were issued by saffron-clad Hindutva leaders during a three-day ‘Dharam Sansad’ (religious parliament) held in Haridwar, Uttarakhand. The conference was a blatant attempt to deceive Hindus into believing that India was on the verge of being taken over by Muslims, and that nothing short of their complete elimination would save the situation. The most horrifying incitement in pursuance of this objective came from Sadhvi Annapurna, a bellicose female ideologue of the Hindu Mahasabha who urged her community to kill no less than 20 lakh Muslims. She claimed that India was steadily moving towards becoming an Islamic state, and for it to be converted back into a ‘Sanatan Vedic Hindu Rashtra’, Hindu youth must throw their books away and start wielding weapons.

The facts of the case

It would be difficult, therefore, not to see and assess the hijab controversy in this context. The issue came to light on December 31, 2021, when a group of Muslim girls belonging to the Government Pre-University College in Udupi protested against being sent out of their classes for wearing the hijab. According to the facts of the case presented in a writ petition dated January 29, 2022, before the Karnataka High Court on behalf of six aggrieved girls, the discrimination against hijab-wearing students had started in September 2021. Since then, they were regularly made to stand outside the classroom and marked absent. The petition also alleged that on January 14, 2022, three of the petitioners were manhandled inside the college and threats were issued “to spoil their education completely”, forcing the students to approach the court.

The issue soon took a communal turn. Hindu students in different Karnataka colleges started counter-protests by wearing saffron clothing and preventing hijab-wearing girls from entering colleges. The most frightful of these incidents was clearly the one mentioned above, on the back of which the Muslim girls’ case gained international attention. If an investigative report by The News Minute (TNM), a news portal, is to be believed, it was not a simple case of a group of students protesting against another group’s violation of college rules. It was a communal issue from the beginning. The report blamed the Udupi-based Hindu Jagarana Vedike for instigating Hindu students into protesting against their hijab-wearing classmates, and providing them with saffron shawls and turbans. The report also claimed that Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Yashpal Suvarna was seen standing amidst the students who were chanting slogans at a faceoff that took place in MGM Pre University College, also in Udupi.

Given the fact the hijab was not a contentious issue before September 2021, but was created and subsequently communalised as alleged in The News Minute report, the best course of action would have been a friendly discussion between the leaders of Hindu and Muslim communities to sort the matter out at the local level. But perhaps such a negotiated settlement was not attempted, or had failed, because both parties, or one of them, wanted to exploit the matter for political gain.

Nonetheless, the case is now in the court and, interestingly, the liberty to wear the hijab has been claimed mainly as a “cultural and religious right” and not on the basis of an unconstrained autonomy of an individual’s rational choice. In his arguments before a three-judge bench of the Karnataka High Court, the senior advocate Sanjay Hegde, one of the counsels for the petitioners, did his best to incorporate the idea of a person’s decisional autonomy by focusing on the ‘freedom of conscience’ that Article 25 of the Constitution grants to all persons equally. He cited the landmark case of Bijoe Emmanuel & Others vs State of Kerala (1986 SCC (3) 615), in which the Supreme Court ruled that even if a religious belief or practice does not appeal to anyone’s reason or sentiment it would attract the protection of Article 25 if it is “genuinely and conscientiously held as part of the profession or practice of religion”.

Sanjay Hegde’s point was that the right to wear the hijab in government educational institutions could be granted on the basis of an individual’s conscientious belief without subjecting it to the essentiality test where belief is primarily ascertained with reference to the community-endorsed doctrines of the religion, as laid down by the Supreme Court in the Shirur Mutt case (1954) and in Srimad Perarulala Ethiraja Ramanuja Jeeyar Swami vs The State of Tamil Nadu (1972). In principle, Sanjay Hegde is right for religious communities are almost always controlled by patriarchs who decide what constitutes an essential religious practice and impose it on all followers without giving them the freedom to dissent. In fact, dissent is often construed as apostasy or blasphemy and punished. Hence, the need for judicial intervention in a secular democracy to protect individual rights within a community. Otherwise, the freedom of conscience available to reformists within a religious group to challenge outdated doctrines and authoritarian edicts will be seriously compromised. Political philosopher Will Kymlicka calls this, citing John Rawls, the idea of “rational revisability” that gives believers the right to rationally evaluate and revise existing conceptions of faith.

Justice D.Y. Chandrachud addressed this question in a different way in the Sabarimala case. Agreeing with the “anti-exclusion principle” which limits the autonomy of religious groups “in situations where these groups are blocking access to basic goods”, the judge held that “where a religious practice causes the exclusion of individuals in a manner which impairs their dignity, the freedom of religion must give way to the overarching values of a liberal Constitution”.

However, it may still be argued that if the right to dissent from within a religious group is entitled to judicial protection under Articles 19 and 25, the right to follow one’s faith would also qualify for the same protection when it is sought to be curtailed from outside by another religious group or the state. For this reason, the freedom to wear the hijab in public or in government educational institutions cannot be denied as it does not affect any legitimate state interest or security, public order, health, or morality.

Scrutiny from within

That may settle the issue insofar as hijab’s legality is concerned. But no religious belief or practice can escape philosophical and ethical scrutiny from within. The Bijoe Emmanuel case cited by Sanjay Hegde hardly involved any deontological inquiry as it was an act of omission by which students belonging to a Christian sect refused to sing the national anthem, believing (conscientiously, of course) that singing it was against the tenets of their religious faith. Significantly, the students’ belief (even if it was held under duress) did not perpetuate any questionable custom. The only consequence of that belief was their expulsion from school, which was undone by the favourable court decision.

On the other hand, in the case of hijab, Muslim students will be indulging in an act of commission when they wear it, thus attracting moral consequences. This would mean that even if the court upholds the Muslim students’ right to cover their heads, agreeing in good faith with their claim to decisional autonomy or conscientious belief as they case may be, it can still asked if their volition is free from the constraints of another’s choice. In his 1958 essay Two Concepts of Liberty , political theorist Isaiah Berlin had called such a freedomfrom external constraints negative liberty , while terming as positive liberty the freedomto pursue one’s choices with full autonomy.

In other words, if the court upholds the Muslim students’ positive liberty to wear the hijab, their negative liberty can still be questioned because coercion does not always take the form of physical threats or intimidation. An individual’s free will can be subverted through propaganda, indoctrination or advertisement.

Hijab for non-religious reasons

Insofar as the hijab and the burqa are concerned, Muslims have also worn them for non-religious reasons—for instance, to resist the objectification of the female body by the cosmetic industry through its consumer culture.

In his essay Algeria Unveiled Frantz Fanon powerfully narrates how the burqa was used by the Algerian women during French occupation as an expression of anti-colonialism to resist the colonisers’ attempt to assimilate Algeria by unveiling its women and sexualising the city by treating them as merchandise.

Thankfully, such a situation does not exist in India today, nor is it the case of the Muslim students. They have clearly indicated to the court that hijab is their cultural and religious right. In fact, Muskan Khan, the girl who was harassed by Hindu students in Mandya, has been wearing the hijab from the age of 7. This is not surprising because there are several “Islamic” CBSE [Central Board of Secondary Education] schools in India where hijab is part of the uniform from classes 1-12 without which students are not allowed to enter the classrooms. Many conservative Muslim families too make their female members wear the hijab from a very young age.

These facts suggest that the conditioning of Muslim girls to adopt an “Islamic” attire does happen in India. Hence the speculation about the free will of the Muslim students who want to wear the hijab both inside and outside their classrooms. Given these facts, a look at the theology of hijab becomes imperative to know if the hijab and the burqa are indeed symbols of Muslim patriarchy.

The theology of hijab

Interestingly, the Quran does not specify any attire for men or women except modest clothing and an instruction to “lower their gaze” (24:30-31), which would make sense only when women are not shrouded in a burqa. However, the Quran mentions jilbaab , an outer garment to be worn around the body (33:59), and khimaar , a covering for the bosom (24:31). The word hijab occurs eight times in the Quran (7:46, 17:45, 19:17, 33:53, 38:32, 41:5, 42:51 and 83:15) but not once in the meaning of headscarf as understood by Muslims today. It refers to an imaginary or real barrier between people or things. For instance, verse 17:45 talks of a hidden barrier ( hijaaban mastoora ) between the non-believers and Prophet Mohammed, and verse 33:53 teaches social etiquette to the not-so-literate Arab guests of the Prophet by instructing them not to confront the women of his household directly for their requirements but to talk to them from behind a curtain ( min waraayi hijaab ) as a mark of respect.

Why then this insistence on the full veil or the hijab in Muslim societies? It is mostly due to intentional mistranslation and misinterpretation of the Quran and hadiths by Muslim patriarchs. For example, The Noble Quran, an English translation authorised by Saudi Arabia, inserts an extra-Quranic meaning to the following text in 24:31 concerning the dress code: walaa yubdeena zeenatahunna illa ma zahara minha wal yazribna bi khumurihinna ala juyoobihinna. The Noble Quran translates it as: “[Tell the believing women]….not to show off their adornment except only that which is apparent [like both eyes for necessity to see the way, or outer palms of hands or one eye or dress like veil, gloves, head cover, apron], and to draw their veils all over juyoobihinna [i.e., their bodies, faces, necks and bosoms].” The meaning of the phrase khumurihinna ala juyoobihinna that is sought to be conveyed in the parentheses is not what the Arabic text means. The correct meaning is “to put a covering over the bosoms”. The face finds no mention in text. The translators of The Noble Quran have also cleverly tried to support their views by mistranslating a hadith from the Bukhari, which quotes Hazrath Aisha as saying that when verse 24:31 was revealed, women tore off pieces from their waist sheets ( murooth ) to use them as a covering for their “heads and faces”. Once again, the words “heads and faces” are not found in the original hadith text, shaqqaqna muroothahunna faqtamarna biha , which means “they tore off the murooths to cover themselves up”.

In this manner, Islamic scriptures have been hermeneutically distorted to seclude Muslim women. In the Indian subcontinent, the most influential votary of feminine seclusion was Abul Ala Maududi, founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami. His book Purdah and the Status of Women in Islam has been so widely quoted by Muslim theologians in India that it is now a byword for Muslim patriarchy. The book warns that Muslim women must not just cover their heads but their faces too, because the “face is the most impressive thing in the human body. It is the index of the natural human charms, the most attractive part and the one possessing great sex appeal for others.”

In Maududi’s understanding of Islam, a Muslim woman cannot “wear glamorous clothes that attract attention, nor should she cherish the desire to display the charms of the face and the hand, nor should she walk in a manner as may invite the attention of others.” He goes on to misinterpret Islam, saying: “It [Islam] says that the real place for the woman is the house and she has been exempted from the outdoor duties so that she may lead a dignified and peaceful life at home and carry out her domestic responsibilities efficiently.”

And if any Muslim dissents from this view, it is because of “modern democracy [which] looks upon man as wholly independent and unaccountable and makes him his own legislator, and so renders all legislative business dependent on majority opinion.” The culprit, of course, is the “concept of liberty [that] gave birth to the democratic system of government”.

Maududi wrote Purdah around 1939, which means that for more than eight decades, his shocking misinterpretations of Islam—especially those suggesting that uncovered Muslim women are sinners who could pose a threat to the moral integrity of the society—have been percolating into Muslim minds in the Indian subcontinent. The result of this is there for all to see, and now, has engendered a paradox where freedom of conscience is being used by liberated women to impose on themselves a symbol of patriarchy, in the process essentialising it in the name of a religion that does not mandate it.

A. Faizur Rahman is Secretary-General of the Islamic Forum for the Promotion of Moderate Thought. He can be reached at and on Twitter at @FaizEngineer.

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