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Hijab Ban And Muslim Women's Right To Education: 'Reform Needed, Not Coercion'

Outlook spoke to women’s rights activist Zakia Soman, one of the founding members of Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, about how the hijab ban impacts Muslim girls’ education and whether the hijab is essential in Islam.

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India has recently witnessed protests against the ban on hijab in classrooms
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The Hijab ban in Karnataka has severe implications for Muslim women’s right to education and freedom of expression. Since the Hijab ban by the Karnataka government in February, studies and media reports show a fall in number of school-going Muslim girls. 

In September, Senior Advocate Huzefa Ahmadi, who appeared in the Supreme Court on behalf of Muslim girls challenging the Karnataka High Court's verdict on hijab ban, told the court that the ban had resulted in nearly 17,000 girls skipping their examinations this year.

There has been a 16 per cent drop in women attending college in Mangaluru since the ruling, according to a report in The Deccan Chronicle. 

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Outlook spoke to women’s rights activist Zakia Soman, one of the founding members of Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, about how the hijab ban impacts Muslim girls’ education and whether the hijab is essential in Islam. Excerpts: 

How does a ban on hijab affect Muslim girls’ education?

Any discussion on hijab has far-reaching impact on Muslim girls now as well as in the future. As the recent People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) report shows, a ban on hijab can have an adverse effect of the education of Muslim students, especially those coming from socially underprivileged sections where orthodoxy is high. Since the hijab ban in Karnataka, several girls have dropped out of school in the state. 

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It is a multiple edged sword for girls coming from socially underprivileged families. Their parents are often ultra-conservative and lack education and face social pressures. The issue of the hijab has been politicised by all sides. In Karnataka, for instance, there are certain conservative Muslim groups that hold sway in rural areas and these groups go around preaching how hijab is essential to Islam. 

Do you think Hijab is essential in Islam? 

I am myself very clear that hijab is not at all mandatory in Islam. It is a patriarchal imposition. There is a lot of Quranic evidence to support this as well. For instance, the word hijab itself is not mentioned in the Quran. It mentions an equivalent word that represents a barrier or a curtain and it is mainly used in the context of men. 

The word which occurs inside the text has nothing to do with women. We have to understand that hijab is a question of patriarchy since men have interpreted the Quran and they have interpreted that part as a barrier or curtain specifically for women. So if we talk about the veil or the burqa, it’s not really mentioned in the Quran. It has been interpreted as such by male religious and political authorities.

Moreover, full veil is rooted in Arabia. It is not really an Indian or South Asian concept. Muslims in Malaysia and Indonesia don’t necessarily follow the full veil rule. It is only found in some Arab nations. Hijab has only come up in South Asia in the last 25 years. Our grandmothers, for instance, never wore a Hijab. But they would cover their heads during religious occasions. If hijab was mandatory, we would see all Muslim women across the world donning it whereas only about 30 per cent of Muslim women to my understanding actually wear the hijab.

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Even in some of the middle-eastern countries where wearing hijab is mandatory by religious law, it only happened after state interventions. One example is the Islamic Revolution of Iran and expansion of right-wing conservative Islamic politics of the 1970-80s. 

How do you relate this to what is happening in Karnataka? 

Having said that hijab is a patriarchal imposition, what is happening in Karnataka is absolute discrimination and injustice to the young girls whose education is hampered. They are giving this technical argument about uniform. But uniform cannot be more important than education of girls. The right to education is a fundamental right, as is the right to privacy and freedom of expression. What is happening in Karnataka is part of politics. By using this contentious issue, they are trying to polarise opinions on it. 

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We are a secular country and we also have right to religious freedom. If an MP can enter Parliament in saffron robes or a priest-chief minister can wear his ritualistic clothes to official occasions, why can’t the Muslim girls wear hijab to school? Is the Parliament not a public place? Such rules are clearly discriminatory and target a certain community and reflect the deeply troubling and polarised climate in Karnataka.

How do you think this issue can be tackled?

At best, you can have some kind of uniform in hijab also. For instance, blue colour hijabs match with blue school uniforms — or some such combination. This is not a problem that cannot be solved by talking to parents. The ultimate goal is to convince these parents who refuse to send their kids to school without hijab. Education is key to changing such deep-seated conservative beliefs and behaviours bud sadly the girls are barred from receiving education and empowering themselves.

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But how to bring about social change among Muslim women?

Education. For a girl, to understand what is wrong, what is right, what is mandatory and what is her free will, what are her rights in a democracy, what are her choices, she needs to first go to school and then to college. But this kind of political positioning where you are denying the girls entry to classrooms, and a lot of girls have already dropped out of exams, you are already in the wrong. It’s a step backwards. 

So there is a lot of conservatism among Muslims. There is a lack of overall education and social reforms. In several Karnataka districts, there is a lot of dominance of orthodox religious Muslim groups. These groups enforce the wearing of hijab and they pressurise families in Muslim mohallas of small towns to adhere strictly to the guidelines of the Quran as interpreted by them. These groups often act as custodians of patriarchy and perpetuate harmful gender roles. They also exert social power and intellection as well as financial capital. 

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Having said that, the social pressure is often too hard for families to defy conservative orders. Some fear ostracisation, others themselves fear the wrath of God. It takes a lot to go against the tide. 

There is a lot of need for education, awareness, and reform within Muslim society. But under these circumstances, hold of political clergy or orthodox groups have been seen to prevail. And this kind of communal politics further polarises both sides. 

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