Young women, like Safoora Zargar and Gulfisha, while becoming the objects of state violence, have also successfully de-familiarized the myth of “hapless” Muslim women, who await the intervention of the Hindutva-driven state patriarchy for their deliverance. One wonders, whether the Sulli deals and Bulli Bai apps, the hijab controversy, are mediated responses to such an emergence of a new Muslim female political selfhood, writes Olivia Banerjee.
On February 14th, 2022, in Mandya district of Karnataka, school teachers barred two hijab-clad Muslim girl students from entering the school premises. They claimed that wearing the hijab was a violation of the school’s dress code. The students were forced to remove their hijabs to be allowed into the school premises. Their right to education stood face to face with their right to embody the religious clothing of their choice. The parents of the Muslim students along with the other students had vocally protested against such an act, but the authority did not pay any attention to their concerns.
News reports from ANI show repeated occurrences of such incidents in Karnataka in the districts of Udupi and Shivamogga. The issue has escalated to the point where seven students were refused entry to their examination, because they were wearing hijab to school. Even Muslim teachers were forced to remove their hijabs before entering the premises.
The hijab controversy came about during a crucial time. The schools have just begun to reopen after the COVID-19 induced pandemic. Amidst the uncertainty of the pandemic, the breath of fresh air that the students and teachers enjoyed after the subsequent re-opening of campuses, were taken away from them after the Karnataka Government announced that the schools and colleges could only reopen if all religious clothing, including hijabs, are shunned. As such, the state government identified the hijab as a kind of “religious clothing” which often operated as a catalyst for religious disharmony. The exclusive marking of hijabs as “religious clothing”, thus, became yet another instance through which the state in India, in recent times, has attempted to erode every form of cultural representation of the minority Muslims. In fact, one can even argue, there is a dire form of impunity here, as Arundhati Roy pointed out in an interview with Karan Thapar- “if the BJP ministers could enter the parliament with sindoor tiloks (religious vermillion marks worn, as a Hindu custom) and saffron covers, why are the Muslim students being refused education or being marked as the perpetrators of communal violence.” In other words, the forms of religious clothing and embodiment, often understood as inextricable elements of a Hindu identity, were not identified as religious as such, a point which will be taken up later in this essay.
The hijab suddenly became a critical issue in Indian politics and gained prominence after six young Muslim women protested against such diktats of the school administration in Udupi. Whereas one needs to see these women’s protest as a new form of emerging language of assertion for the Muslim women in Indian politics and civil society, one must not also ignore the fact that these incidents have ignited deep fear amongst the women of the minority community. As Saira Shah Halim points out, these instances of hijab ban and conflict over Muslim women’s clothing, cannot be merely seen as just another form of patriarchal assault, but also need to be seen as a form of communalized patriarchy, where the ultimate political goal is to normalize the ‘othering’ or ‘dehumanisation’ of the entire Muslim community, achieved predominantly through attacks on its women’s bodies. Zakia Soman writes, “Constitutionally speaking, this is an open and shut case of Right to Education as well as Right to Religious Freedom. Whether it is mere overstepping by college authorities or yet another case of Islamophobia, singling out girls in hijab, is difficult to tell.” As it is, the Muslim women, who have historically been deemed to be by and large, insignificant both within the Indian polity and civil society at large, owing to the years of gendered structural hierarchy, juxtaposed upon their religious identity, find themselves within a curious crossroads, a kind of strange visibility thrust upon them through the hijab debate.
The hijab controversy, as it has spilled over in our national politics, cannot be seen solely through the dynamics of the regional politics in Karnataka, but it has to be seen in the context of the emergence of a larger national politics predicated upon Hindutva fascism, which, of course, finds its most serious political expression in the Modi government. The instances of stone-pelting, which added to the confusion of the events, the group of saffron-waving aggressive young men shouting ‘Jai Shri Ram’, behaving like an itate mob, and the young student of Mandya – Muskan – clad in black burqa, shouting “Allah-hu-Akbar”, all points out towards a general situation, where one has to shudder at the reality of an aggressive Hindutva ideology successfully alienating the Muslim youth, for whom, shouting religious slogans possibly becomes the only resort to assert their dignity. The religious slogan, thus, acquires an impending socio-political significance, which makes us revisit the horror of successfully isolating the entire Islam community, and attaining a structural shift, through which the nature of social life is transformed from one of a ‘secular democratic republic’ to ‘Hindu majoritarian’ India. Muskan, therefore, becomes the face of a much larger struggle — a fight for co-existence, a fight to ensure her education while upholding her own religious identity, right to safe existence within her own school premises, and right to her security in the face of male Hindutva hostility and aggression. At the same time, one needs to remember, these are not merely questions of Muskan’s “personal” rights. These are the questions that, today, face the Muslim communities in India, at large, and the Muslim women, in particular.
Yet, at the same time, our focus should not be on Muskan or the protesting women alone. Much of the success of the current regime, predicated as it is, upon a philosophy of Hidutva fascism is, its ability to produce a popular ‘common sense’ among masses, common sense that happens to be a strange cocktail of casteism, anti-Muslim communalism, juxtaposed upon toxic patriarchal ideals. One needs to pay attention to the irate mob of young men, waving their saffron shawls and scarves, and ask a few crucial questions. For example, how do the state ideologies of Hindutva fascism create a body of active citizenry, who are not only sympathetic to its causes, but would continue to implement them within the boundaries of their own individual and social lives. How, for example, such instances of implementation often predicate themselves upon highly gendered and communalized narrative, which unabashedly de-humanize Muslim women. How, for example, such communalized and gendered narrative also intersects with narratives of aggressive nationalism and patriotism. How, for example, the “ordinary” citizenry, identify the very idea of religious diversity as a threat for Indian progress, the “others” as potential threats to Indian society, or even as “anti-national.” In other words, the visuals of the crowd of aggressive young men, shouting “Jai Shri Ram”, bring home to us the spectre of a thoroughly polarised citizenry. A citizenry that has been systematically weaponized to serve as puppets of the larger Hindutva project.
At the same time, such “common sense” operates on the notion of normalising the Hindu religious symbols, coding them as marks of a “secular culture”, rather than as markers of “religion.” Consider, for example, the Bajrang Dal activists in front of government PUC college in Indi, when a young man was banned from entering the premises, for applying sindoor (vermillion). Commenting on the incident, Education Minister, BC Nagesh, opined, “We have not told any student to sport vermilion or flowers. It is decorative … nothing to do with the uniform circular.” On the other hand, the founder of Sri Rama Sene, Pramod Mutalik, said, the vermillion represented the culture of the country, and can’t be regarded as a religious mark. In both of these instances, the Hindu religious symbols were attempted to be made invisible, and through that invisibilization, the hijab and other Muslim religious symbols, were made overtly visible, thus marking the Muslim bodies – especially Muslim women’s bodies – in very specific ways.
In that context, the hijab controversy can hardly be seen as isolated incidents, as my subsequent discussion would show.
While most of us were celebrating the dawning of 2022, hundreds of prominent Muslim women – including journalists, activists, educators and social media influencers – found their doctored pictures being auctioned off in the Bulli Bai app hosted by the GitHub platform. The app was very similar to the Sulli Deals app, which had created a furore in July of the earlier year, and had tagged and priced prominent and vocal Muslim women as ‘available’. No arrests were made right away, and the hosting platform, GitHub, shut down the app after receiving several complaints.
The Bulli Bai app was promoted by a Twitter handle operated by ‘Khalsa Sikh Force’, which eventually proved to be fake. There was, then, also, as is evident in the name, outrageous and malevolent efforts to incite communal disharmony amongst Muslims and Sikhs. With the arrests of four young engineering students, all of whom were Hindu, one feels a kind of dread at the extent to which the foundational notions of Hindutva have infiltrated into the minds of the youth.
The very trope on which these apps operated – putting Muslim women up for auction – is indeed symbolic. The women are de-humanized, turned into commodities, evoking the long histories of trafficking and auctioning off of human bodies, slavery within and beyond the subcontinent. The fact that the women who were featured there, often happened to be prominent Muslim women, who haven’t hesitated to raise their voices in public, also directs us to think of the apps as symbolic silencing of dissenting Muslim female voices, thus revealing a public performance of a very specific brand of Hindutva patriarchy. For example, the use of the doctored images of journalists like Ismat Ara, is a cautious attempt to erase the emerging and influential voices of the Muslim women, who, often, have been at the forefront of anti-Hindutva movements and organizing in the recent times. Those who were behind the apps, have not even spared the mother of Najeeb, who had become a voice speaking out against the disappearance of her son, who happened to be a student of Jawaharlal Nehru University, and had mysteriously disappeared, leading many to suspect the hands of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) behind the incident.
At the same time, the very narrative of auctioning off Muslim women, on a “public” app, operates as a form of affront to Muslim men, thus providing them with the message that they are indeed incapable of “protecting” the honour of the women of their community from Hindu intervention and aggression. Such tropes reinforce narratives long in circulation in subcontinental politics. According to such narratives, women are almost always treated as symbols of honour of their respective communities. The assault on their bodies and selves are almost always interpreted as attacks on the communities as such. In case of the Sulli Deals and Bulli Bai apps, the bodies of the Muslim women were put through symbolic brutalization, whereas in the hijab controversy, such attacks are concretized, through the symbolic act of forcing the women to take off their hijabs. One might say, the hijab controversy amounts to a state performance, where the Muslim women are symbolically disrobed, an act that also amounts to an erasure of their religious identity and robbing of their dignity as human agents. It is through these acts of symbolic and real violation that the state imposes upon the Muslim women the identity of the precarious citizen of the Hindu Rashtra. And in this, they are thoroughly aided by a polarised and weaponized citizenry, as is evident in all of these instances.
The imagination also dovetails into the internal misogyny existing within the community. As was reported by the prominent activist Khalida Parveen, in a recent meeting, after the Bulli Bai incident came into public view, voices of the community – belonging primarily to men — have raised concerns that not wearing the hijab, or coming out so publicly by the Muslim women, through sharing of their pictures and such on social media, have given the Hindutva perpetrators the chance to do what they have done. In other words, the women themselves are to be blamed. The state discourses and the traditions of patriarchal discriminations inherent within the Muslim community, thus, become mirror images of each other, silencing the women concerned further. One is, then, left to wonder – does the state-sponsored Hindutva fascism, communalism and the policies innovated to institutionalize such, encourage the Muslim community at large, to take solace within a misogynistic interpretation of women’s sense of being?
Indeed, the gender politics inherent in Hindutva, and the current regime in India almost always portrays the Muslim women as hapless and unable to speak for themselves. Thus, the aspirations of many of the Muslim women, that the divorce laws be reformed to curb the patriarchal authority levied to the men, has been made into a source of gimmick by the Modi government through its handling of the Triple Talak issue. The regime has utilised such aspirations symbolically, representing the Muslim women as a powerful pro-BJP vote bank, thus also projecting themselves as champions of “oppressed” Muslim women, while criminalizing Muslim men in the name of reforming the Muslim personal laws. The similar perspective is born on the hijab incident, where the hijab ban is commented as an emancipatory measure for the Muslim women, in order to humiliate the Muslim population at large.
As had been pointed out by many journalists and cultural critics, regular and derogatory hate speech, targeted towards the Muslims, happen to be one of the weapons through which the Sangh umbrella organizes itself. For a country claiming to be secular, such bigoted comments are regularly aired on media channels with a kind of impunity that, indeed, reinforces the very real shadow of persecution within which Muslim communities are compelled to live in contemporary India. The recent calling of genocide of Muslims for building a ‘Hindu Rashtra’, is one such example. On the one hand, such instances force us to confront the erosion of secularism as the cementing force that had held together, albeit in problematic ways, the Indian polity. On the other hand, such hate speech also aims to prevent the formation of noteworthy Muslim voices from within the larger Indian political scenario.
Indeed, such political projects are also often enacted with an overall objective of curbing Muslim – and especially, Muslim women’s – access to public spaces. Thus, an inevitable outcome of the hijab ban happens to be one of those crucial occurrences, where several Muslim girl students will be denied schooling and education, often seen as important starting points for access to public spaces, as their religious clothing gets banned. The state-sponsored hijab ban, thus, successfully conjoins itself with the traditional community-based cultural customs, narrowing the scope of education, and other forms of access to public spaces, including the right to step out of one’s home on an everyday basis, for the women of a community, already facing an inherent socio-political segregation. The burden of the communal othering of the Muslims, thus, comes to fall significantly on the shoulders of the women of the community, where their membership to national citizenry remains, forever, precarious.
As it is, communalism remains a complex reality, which intervenes in every structural change, pervading both the public and the private spheres, often intersecting with patriarchy and realities of gender inequality, as is evident if one looks into the realities of the lives of Muslim women in more concrete terms. For example, according to the reports published after the Census in 2011, whereas 57.08% of Muslim women were in the working age group, only around 28% participated in the workforce. The states of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana had witnessed a significant drop in the workforce participation of Muslim women. As had also been observed, the extreme polarisation by the orthodox Hindu groups have alienated Muslim women from working in the public sector as well. In other words, realities of anti-Muslim communalism has meant, lesser access to socioeconomic and educational benefits for Muslim women, who, often times, have lowest access to resources and microcredit opportunities, when compared to other communities.
Further the census of 2011 reveals, in the post-Partition era, realities of communalism have had long-term material impact on the Muslim communities. While various theorists and commentators mark Muslim community as “backward,” using their high fertility rates, teenage pregnancy and child mortality rates as important indicators, what goes unnoticed in these writings, are the realities of the governmental negligence in regards to the provision to basic access to educational and health care facilities for such communities. Effective building of educational institutions for the “backward” communities would probably have affected the oft-repeated markers considerably. Better sanitation facilities, ensuring better education for mothers and more access to wealth for households, would have probably brought down the child mortality rates, as would have better access to healthcare services for women. The Census also shows a disproportionate number of Muslim individuals affected by severe bodily illness and diseases. This, too, could have been improved through basic changes in infrastructures within the communities – such as access to proper sources of drinking water, access to better toilet facilities and such.
Hindutva fascism, as we have observed, is a dynamic entity. Its electoral and political face, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), survives primarily upon mobilising religious identities and narratives to redefine the realm of politics, as had been documented by numerous scholars, journalists and writers. One such mobilisation happens to be the CAA-NRC-NPR, which has, indeed, re-defined the very notion of “religious identity” especially in its relationship to the issue of citizenship in India. While, there cannot be any doubts about the foundational communal nature of the CAA-NRC-NPR, one also needs to pay attention to the fact the anti-CAA-NRC protests have lead to the formation of a very different order of Muslim political personhood, especially Muslim female personhood.
Young women, like Safoora Zargar and Gulfisha, while becoming the objects of state violence, have also successfully de-familiarized the myth of “hapless” Muslim women, who await the intervention of the Hindutva-driven state patriarchy for their deliverance. One wonders, whether the Sulli deals and Bulli Bai apps, the hijab controversy, are mediated responses to such an emergence of a new Muslim female political selfhood. As Zakia Soman comments, Muslim women, in contemporary India, have gained a crucial form of resilient political voice, and have, in many cases, become the faces of the struggle against communalism, Islamophobia, and Hindutva fascism, notwithstanding the long histories of both discrimination within the society at large, and their communities as such. Indeed, the fight against the apps – both online and offline – were lead by this emerging Muslim female political voice, whose presence is yet to be fully grasped by even the “progressive-democratic” circles of contemporary India.
It is precisely this new female Muslim subjectivity, that also tells us, issues of the intersections of religious persecution, religious identity and gender, are indeed, complicated. And, one cannot take a hasty stand on the issue, generalising it either this way or that. But, what one must not lose sight of, in this complex intermeshing of issues, that the Hindutva fascist forces, whose face is constituted both by the angry mob, and the shadowy presence of the “well-educated” youth behind the laptop screens, are to be opposed vehemently – ideologically, politically, and culturally.
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The author is a student of Presidency University. The Views expressed are authors own.