The veil as a symbol

A close friend of mine, a Sanskrit scholar and an exponent of the Paninian grammar school, besides wearing many hats, said with regret that any attempt to promote Sanskrit becomes suspect in India due to the ancient association in the popular perception of the Sangh Parivar as being the sole defender of the Sanskrit language and literature and the religious traditions surrounding it.

Similarly, the hijab controversy in Karnataka revolves around a trope of regressive dress and anathema to the cause of female empowerment, which seems suspect because the animosity of the dispensation to power draws its strength not from any idea of ​​progressiveness but from Islamophobia and an insidious need for polarization.

The controversy that erupted in Karnataka over the wearing of the hijab by some students of Udupi Women’s Pre-University college and the resulting repercussions can be compared to an incident that occurred in the Paris suburb of Creil in the fall of 1989 when two students came to class wearing Muslim headscarves.

The incident ~quickly hijacked and politicized by all parties~ sparked a national debate over religious neutrality in Republican schools. And the range of issues that emerged from bitterly contested agitation included, among others, the diminishing status of public education in a fragmented society, the status of women in minority cultures, the problematic legitimacy of traditional norms of authority and social integration, the prolonged liquidation of the colonial legacy, the politicization of race and immigration, the seemingly difficult integration of North African immigrants, fears of a “clash of civilizations” opposing the West to Islamic fundamentalism and a sense of diffuse threat to French national identity.

Besides France, the Shabina Begum case in the UK, involving a pupil who sought to defend her right to wear the jilbab in her public school and the public remarks made by Labor politician Jack Straw against the face mask of Muslim women in October 2006, These are the two particularly publicized controversies that are relevant here because despite these very public disputes and the hostility to the niqab in the popular right-wing press, there has been no serious initiative to regulate the wearing of masks.

The guidelines that followed were that tolerance should be the rule (based on multicultural inclusion), except when the performance of duty is hindered or safety is breached. Religious jingoism among students might despair at the way religion is used as a divisive tool instead of education being used as a unifying force, which had been the case so far. How many of us have actually cared about the religion of our school, college, and university friends? What is even sadder is that young female students wearing saffron stoles who fight with female students defending the hijab have even more pressing problems other than fighting each other, for example, rising unemployment which look them in the face.

How to distinguish Hindu students in bindis or red wrist chords, or mangalsutras signaling married status for some of them, Sikh students with their turbans or kadas, or Muslim women with or without veils, or those wearing Jewish yarmulkes, crosses on the chains and skullcaps on the heads, unless a dispensation favors one religious symbol over another? So, as our jurists deliberate on the Essential Religious Practices (ERP) doctrine, perhaps one could argue the need to recognize the interdependence of religion and secularism in our democracy as well.

While it is legitimate for some girls at Udupi University to insist on putting on a hijab, Aroosa Parvaiz, who topped J&K’s 10+2 board exams this year, chose not to wear one, is also legitimate. The hijab is a dress in which national and liberal identities overlap, exposing the paradox that while it may be an affront to liberal values, its removal is equally intolerant. The superficiality of the debate risks colliding with a rather illiberal liberalism. Saffron is highly regarded as a color of renunciation in accordance with the most sacred Hindu traditions, which are also millennia old. But today the usurpation of saffron has also made it a color with which the Hindu right is associated, like red with the Communists, or green with the Islamists, although the comparisons are as disparate as they are misleading.

In a multitude of contexts, a hijab can be seen either as an erotic symbol or as a romantic symbol, as much as a symbol of oppression or a sign of piety, modesty or purity ~ the religious, sexual, social and politics of who is millennial. But the mass production of saffron stoles, presented almost as a symbol of competitive bigotry, and as a strain of the hijab, is both politically malicious and dangerous. Hindu sadhus of some denominations wear saffron robes, but just because Swami Vivekananda was dressed in saffron and Yogi Adiyanath is dressed in saffron, they cannot be on the same page because of the symbolic value of the color. Rituals are recurrent standardized acts within the framework of the hermeneutics of meaning.

A symbol, unlike a sign, is something that refers to something else; it carries extrinsic values. Without an appreciation of the social function a symbol performs in its own environment – its role in the community, the values ​​and practices it evokes, the history and traditions it evokes when used, one could be misled. In 1925, Reza Shah founded the Pahlavi dynasty. The Westernized monarch with a flair for drastic and unorthodox measures aimed at modernizing the country banned the wearing of the hijab for women and traditional oriental dress for men in 1936. The 1979 Iranian revolution ended the establishment of the monarchy in Iran and replaced it with a republic. On February 21, 1994, a woman who gesticulated at the sight of a crowd in a public square in Tehran, removed her government-mandated veil and full-body jacket, doused herself with gasoline and set herself on fire. . To the horrified crowd watching her. she committed suicide slowly and painfully, crying: “Death to tyranny!” Long live freedom ! in a last desperate attempt to make the world aware of the slave-like conditions of women living in Iran.

Oscillating between progress and regression, Iran suffered much conflict and confusion caused by the impact of Western views on the hijab in the 19th century, which is clear from the range of seminarian reflections in Iran on the controversial subject of hijab. Representative thinkers such as Murtaza Mutahhari considered the veil to be obligatory, Ahmad Qabil argued for the desirability of the hijab, while Muhsin Kadivar considered it neither necessary nor desirable. The framework known as “New Religious Thought” among seminarians could help understand how and why the younger generation of scholars have made divergent judgments about the hijab. In recent years, in a number of European countries, hijab-related controversies have increasingly become catalysts for a broader challenge to the ideals of pluralism and multiculturalism.

In her book The Politics of the Veil by Joan Wallach Scott (2007) discovered a disturbing trend among opponents of the veil in France ~ from conservative politicians to feminist intellectuals ~ denouncing “intolerance”, “backwardness” and “the ‘authoritarianism’. nature of global Islam ~ towards “absolutist secularism” and an uncompromisingly hostile stance towards cultural difference. The paradoxes of religion and secularism revealed by the French government’s ban on the headscarf ~ also called veil ~ in school betrayed a surprising degree of chauvinism in the political ideals of French universalism; intolerance in France’s vaunted defense of “abstract individualism” as the basis of citizenship; and patriarchal authority in the insistence of some French feminists that any wearing of the “veil” is inherently oppressive and degrading for women.

The debate is so tense that it is not uncommon to discover both opponents of the ban and defenders of the headscarf who, through quoted testimonies, had revealed why a headscarf or a veil is a symbol of survival and of social well-being, why young women from the poorest neighborhoods of major French cities, condemned to study in woefully underfunded schools, are increasingly taking the veil “to negotiate their gender, spiritual and political identity” and why some wrap themselves in adherence to their roots, family and cultural traditions, or to assert individual dignity, or when pushed, to mark territoriality and religious entitlement.

Even if we accept for the sake of argument that the hijab is an expression of gender inequality, what if women voluntarily choose to wear the symbol of their sexual submission? So ultimately it’s a matter of choice. In France, according to a 1905 law, no religion can be supported by the state, either financially or politically. Building on this, the 2004 law prohibits the display of any religious and political signs in primary and secondary schools, but not in universities. In France, the principle of secularism applies to all public institutions and services (including teachers) as well as to the courts.

In Turkey, although the majority of citizens are Muslims, the headscarf has been banned as modern Turkey has followed France’s historic model of proclaiming a strict form of secularism. But India’s secularism, as we know it, is different. Gandhi foresaw a simple but critical logic: people live by a set of beliefs, whether rooted in atheism, secularism, or spiritualism, and these must be integrated into secular politics. . Gandhi disavowed the separation of religion from the state as they saw it, to deduce that in India, religion is extremely powerful in the social, cultural and political order.

This is perhaps the reason why Nehruvian secularism has failed on the ground. This is also the reason why we cannot rely on the examples of France and Turkey. When we see the prime minister of a secular country inaugurating a large-scale temple hallway or spending public money to perform lavish pujas and Hindu rituals and ensure they are televised to every home , or a candidate seeking votes based on religion, we understand the power of religion.

The Representation of the People Act provides that reliance on religion to garner votes would be considered a fraudulent practice and would disqualify a candidate, but this happens as a general rule in all of our elections. All political parties have thrived on religion to garner votes. Until we can separate state from religion, we cannot separate students based on religious symbols.

(The author is a Kolkata-based commentator on politics, development and cultural issues)

James V. Hayes