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  • Paran Amitava

Social Learnings or Religious Signs - Unko kapdo se mat pehechano

For the last decade, Indian Muslims have time and again been brought to the centre stage of national debate, where their identities have been stretched, distorted, humiliated, and charged with many offences. Sometimes they have been held responsible for increasing the population; at other times, they have been held responsible for disturbing the national peace. Sometimes their monogamy has been doubted; at other times, their citizenship has been called into question. But all in all, Muslims in the country, the ones whose ancestors chose a secular country at the time of partition, have been reminded that they might not belong in a nation they call their own.

In this long list of offences, the latest has been the hijab, a piece of clothing that Muslim women wear which cover their bodies over and above clothes. Some women like to wear the hijab with a naqab, covering their faces. At other times, they cover their heads and upper bodies, and some of them go all out and wear a burqa. Interestingly, due to the increase in soft power influences from west Asian nations, the hijab and burqa come in different shapes, sizes, and colours—some with exciting sequins and others with a monochromatic black.

But this piece and the current debate prevalent in the country is not about the various colours in which hijabs exist. The discussion – or backlash - is more about whether the act of wearing a hijab is discriminatory enough for women to be forced to take it off in places of education and learning. The issue began when a few schoolgirls in Karnataka were debarred from attending their classes because of their hijab. These young girls continued to come to school and attend their lectures sitting outside the classroom. Unfortunately, they were asked to stay outside of the campus, and they went in for a protest on their freedom to choose what they would like to wear.

Let us deconstruct this issue. From a sociological perspective, the hijab is a piece of clothing worn predominantly in Muslim households. Some Muslim families encourage this practice, while some don't. Like many other behavioural aspects, Muslim girls learn to wear or not wear a hijab based on what they see their elders practicing around them. Everyone stays equally Islamic irrespective of what they notice and learn.

One might say that since this is a practice that women learn at such a young age and that there is possibly a sort of peer pressure to be 'in' the club of hijab-wearing women, that choice and agency do not play a role in deciding when somebody wears a hijab. Unfortunately, how much ever this might seem like the entire truth, the reality is that many women who grow up as non-hijabis start donning a hijab at a much later stage in their lives. In my own experience, I have met quite a few strong, independent, thinking women who have chosen to start wearing the hijab as an adult. So, before you see the next hijabi person and assume why they wear a hijab, a conversation might be useful.

But let us assume for a second that a large majority of the women who do wear hijab are socialized into it at a young age, and hence don't consciously choose it – that this is the truth and all of the truth. And since hijab – the idea of covering oneself permeates from a larger idea of a male gaze from which one should try to cover themselves – I would like to bring in another example from my school days.

I was born in a small town in UP and shifted to Delhi during middle school. My skirt saw a drastic change from being well below my knee to a few inches above it. When I was in the final few years in school, I noticed that A-line short skirts had become the latest fashion trend. It was like a domino effect, where if a friend bought it, so did the other. Sooner than later, at birthday parties you'd see a lot of girls, similar age groups wearing similar skirts but in different colours.

This example tries to bring out the aspect that most of us wear clothing, seeing what others around us are wearing. It is a behaviourally learnt aspect. Yes, most of our clothing has a historical reasoning behind it. So, hijabs began in what is today known as western Asia a couple of centuries back, or that short skirts began in western nations a couple of decades ago. Both the hijab and the skirt and the tendency of a person to wear either of them could be socially learnt or consciously chosen. To put the hijab in silos and hold the offence of being socially learnt on it makes little sense – because if we don't observe others around us and follow them, how are we doing anything at all? We cannot possibly be the origin of all things ourselves.

Secondly, the logic that one is oppressive, and the other is not makes little sense either, because almost all of the female clothing available in the market is often designed keeping in mind the male gaze. Women wearing skirts appear in advertising because it sells – since it appeals to the male gaze. More profound cleavages are encouraged because they get men excited. If the tendency to wear the hijab is only to avoid the male gaze, by that logic, hijabi women are infact less hypocritical while the rest of us move around in our clothes, imagining they don't have the male gaze acting on them. Oppression exists in them all, and I believe that women being coerced into wearing shorter skirts are as oppressed as women being forced into covering themselves – because the point is coercion, not the choice of clothing.

All women everywhere should get a chance to decide how to step out of the house. Whether she would like to be as naked as her birth date or whether she would like to only keep her eyes open for navigational purposes. It is her body; it is her choice; it is her decision. Clothing is a spectrum, and all options are fine as long as the person donning them are not coerced into it. Some of these women would welcome conversations around why they wear what they wear, and others might tell you it's none of your business. In either case, it's okay. But to isolate an entire community, decide for them that clothing of their choosing is oppressive, and force them out of it – that is a new level of self-righteous hypocrisy us social media liberals have attained.

And lastly, religious clothing – is societal clothing from an era of the past. It will continue to be present in the world today as well. It does not inherently become discriminatory simply because it belongs to a different time period. It is clothing at the end and should be treated like one. It would be foolhardy to believe that our oppression would begin or end simply with our clothes.

It is crucial for all of us engaging in this debate to sit and think if it's real discrimination against women that we care about or whether this is just a fancy philosophical argument to cover our inherent communalism and xenophobia towards a religious minority. And for all the young women out there, braving the storm and standing up for their rights, I wish it was not so. I wish you could write your papers without feeling so watched. But if there is a silver lining to this, then it would be the fact that you might be beginning the postmodern Indian feminist wave.


The author is pursuing her post-graduation in social work and community development from TISS. Her interests lie at the intersections of social policy, poverty and social exclusion. She is currently designing a vulnerability index to help improve targeting in developmental programs. And more than anything, she hopes to live in a more equitable society someday.

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