Hijab Or No Hijab: The Discourse Either Way Endorses A Stereo-type

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New Zealand’s ‘hijab’ campaign as part of solidarity for its Muslim community has been viewed differently across the globe. Many liberal feminist friends from across South Asia critiqued the move as ‘patronising’ and ‘stereo-typing Muslim women’ on the social media.

The argument was based on the assumption that hijab is oppressive. I am afraid that by bracketing a piece of cloth and its user into neat black and white categories, we are endorsing the very stereo-types we claim to fight. Should clothes be an indicator of who an individual is in terms of religion, region, beliefs and opinions? If the stereo-types of Muslims with beards, skull-caps and burqa or hijab have painted a radicalized image of the community the world over, by appropriating the right to be liberal only by discarding these apparently Islamic symbols, one is creating a stereo-type of another kind.

Hijab’s popularity across the world has increased in recent years. Kashmir is no exception where the young girls have picked up the hijab that their older generation had discarded. Does it signal a sexist bias, religious assertion and eagerness of young to wear their religion on their sleeve? The reasons for wearing hijab vary from person to person. While some wear it as part of religious faith irrespective of the patriarchy that it symbolizes, for some it’s a popular fad where as many other women link it to the conflict and use it as an assertion of their religious and Kashmiri identity in the face of constant demonization and vilification of the Muslim, particularly Kashmiri Muslim. The hijab, for them, becomes a symbol of defiance rather than being oppressive.

While hijab is often a subject matter of discussion and debate in the name of liberalism and gender rights, one wonders whether a similar debate would revolve around bindis or other sundry symbols that in some cultures are used and worn as a compulsion rather than for their physical appeal. Like the hijab, the bindi can be worn for its fashionable appeal, for its religious symbolism peppered with its patriarchal quotient. That unlike the hijab, the bindi is less likely to be bracketed as gender oppressive and a matter of religious display, or have the potential of sparking an intellectual debate, is proof of the selective stereo-typing of some dress codes even by the liberals, of perpetuating stereo-types while endeavouring to fight them.

Some tend to draw parallels between the ‘hijab’ and the ‘ghoonghat’. The latter is more akin to the burqa – both denoting the exclusion of women from public space. The ‘ghoonghats’ and ‘burqas’ are more regressive, not only because they come from sexist positions but also because they tend to ghettoise women into isolation. But such generalisations could be misleading as well. Women in ‘ghoonghats’ and ‘burqas’ are known to have broken their shackles and barriers too in some ways. In Rajasthan, many self-help groups are being run with the active involvement of women in ‘ghoonghat’. Kashmir’s famous feminist poetess Rumuz dons a burqa. Her poetry nonetheless remains just as soulful and liberating.

The hijab narrative is even more nuanced. Many women donning the hijab are known for their liberal views as compared to some who do not wear it. Noted feminist and liberal writer, Kamla Das, began wearing the hijab after she converted to Islam at the age of 65. Her political and feminist views remained the same. I have known women who discarded the hijab at some point in time in their life, and those who adopted it as a way of life after years of not wearing it. None of them ceased to be the persons they were. They remained the same in terms of their faith, beliefs and views.

It is difficult, even erroneous, to create categories on basis of dress and dress-codes. Being judgmental on this count is to rob an individual of an agency that is as much being exercised while wearing or not wearing a hijab or any other thing that is symbolic from a gender or religious perspective. What’s in a hijab, afterall? Nothing that matters, but the person beneath. If hijabs are seen as regressive, the discourse that outrightly looks at hijabs in a condescending way is no less oppressive and militates against the liberalism that is being espoused by failing to recognize individual choice.

It was this right to choice that France denied by imposing a ban on hijabs. The ban has not helped the French nation from seeing Muslims as the ‘other’. During the reign of Kemal Ataturk in Turkey, a militant brand of secularism, imposed by the state invoked a similar ban which gave women no choice. If women wished to fall into the category of being liberal and secular, which the Turkish state wanted them to be, they had to discard their hijabs. The move didn’t make Turkey any more secular – the increasing might of right-wing Erdogan in present times serves a reminder. In Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, women cannot move outside without a hijab or burqa.

It is not the hijab that is essentially oppressive. The forced imposition of hijabs or the forced bans on it are what are far more oppressive. The problem is less in the ‘parda’ that is adopted as an attire, the problem is more in the ‘parda’ on the minds that create stereo-types.

At one superficial level, New Zealand, which has shown exemplary courage, morality and true spirit of liberalism and secularism after the shocking terror attack on Muslims, may have endorsed the stereo-typed image of the Muslim women with its ‘Hijab Day’ observation. But in a world of Islamophobia, that allows countries like France to crackdown on its Muslim population through a hijab-ban, New Zealand has also made a significant political statement.