Hijab Bans and the Myth of Secular Equality

Over the past two weeks, hijab-wearing Muslim women in the Indian state of Karnataka have been blocked from attending college and university because their headscarves, a very clear symbol of their religious affiliation, violate the ruling government’s edict that banned clothing that would ““disturb equality, integrity and public order.” The neutral phrasing of the restriction, neatly targets Muslim women while seeming not to be a deliberate attack on them. Such policies are not unusual. Muslim women have encountered them in one form or another from Islamophobic regimes, which seek to exert gendered control on Muslim women’s social identities. The hijab, or veil, is probably the most over-policed piece of clothing in the our modern era. 

In response to the Indian state’s injunction on the hijab, courageous Muslim women protested by continuing to attempt access to their education. While some institutions allowed them entry, their protests were met with hordes of Hindu nationalists, intent on stopping their entry. One such incident went viral last week, when a Muslim woman, Muskan Khan, wearing a burqa was heckled and followed by a mob of saffron shawl wearing extremists. The saffron shawl pointing to their own religious affiliation, but importantly not, in the eyes of the state, “disturbing equality, integrity, and public order.” Reacting to their intense harassment, Khan raised her fist in defiance and proclaimed, “Allahu Akbar,” (God is great).  While we might see this moment as reinforcing the sectarian division that India’s current government has fomented and continuously mobilizes, Khan’s actions expose the gendered violence at the heart of these policies. 

Muskan Khan shouting “Allahu Akbar” to hecklers.

Under the guise of equality and religious freedom, hijab bans reinforce Muslim women’s otherness at the same time that they peddle in their own form of sexism. From France to India, in so-called tolerant democracies we witness policies that are deliberately discriminatory. Hijab bans are about denying Muslim women equal opportunity in the name of some ephemeral idea of secularism or national security. While attempting to free Muslim women from the sexist tyranny of their own religion, these regimes institute their own tyranny.

Even though we can all recognize the Islamophobia at the root of hijab bans, we should also note that this particular manifestation of Islamophobia deliberately targets Muslim women. Already marginalized within global hetero-patriarchal regimes, Muslim women are further disadvantaged by hijab bans that rely on the visibility of the veil in order to target them. The hijab makes Muslimwomen more identifiable than their male co-religionists and so makes it easier to enact discriminatory policies on and through them. Muslim women can more easily be denied an education or access to other public resources because their hijab announces their religious affiliation. The same does not hold true for Muslim men.

Yet these measures are framed as egalitarian as countering the inherent sexism of Islam. How anti-sexist is it to deny women an education? To deny them basic services because they wear a headscarf? Indeed, sexism is the point. Controlling what women wear and how they present themselves is part and parcel of patriarchal regimes. Therefore, these policies end up embodying precisely the kind of tyranny they claim to abhor. When it comes to Muslim women’s bodies restriction is the norm, particularly from the West and their anti-Muslim allies, such as Modi’s regime in India.

Picture credit: © 2022 Naveen Sharma / SOPA Images/Sipa via AP Images

Hijab-wearing Muslim students in India are not asking for any special dispensation. They are simply demanding their constitutionally protected freedom of religion and their right to an education. To prohibit women from attaining a college degree because they wear a hijab exposes the limitations of liberal democracies, that full citizenship is only granted under certain conditions and that being a Muslim woman means you require greater scrutiny and policing. Moreover, it means that Muslims don’t deserve access to education. This uprising is about the hijab right now, but make no mistake, this is a slippery slope. It will soon be about all Muslim women. By fixing on the hijab as the problem, the Indian government is able to deflect from its own religious bigotry and sexism and lay the problem on the heads of Muslim women. From the courageous uprisings we’ve seen this week, it’s clear that Indian Muslim women and their allies are having none of that.

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