Hijacking the Hijab: Minority Significance in India and the United States

By Shivaji Sengupta
The incident in Karnataka involving a Muslim college girl wearing burqa and hijab has quickly inflamed not only India, but also by extension, America, thanks to the over four million Indians living in this country. Add to that almost two million in Canada, and we have a substantial number in the North American continent interested in what is happening in India, especially if it has to do with the people’s religion.
Religion is a great divider. It ought not to be; indeed, within the same religion people often unite and help each other. I also believe that because the human species gravitate emotionally toward some preternatural being to protect themselves from natural and human disasters, and attain spirituality, religion, in and of itself, is not negative. But when we add to it human beings’ overreaching power and control, religion becomes divisive and problematic. In extreme cases, even dangerous.
It is tempting to blame only religion for what is happening in Karnataka, indeed in many parts of India. Moreover, when turn attention to our adopted country and see racial unrest all over, we may be compelled not to think of the hijab issue as a religious issue in isolation. Whether it is religion or race, humans, it seems to me, have a biogenetic characteristic that seek differentiation in the service of power and control. If denied the latter, they destroy.
Religion and the color of one’s skin are the main culprits.
Yet India is a secular state! Officially, the State subscribes to no religion, everyone is free to follow which ever god. By law, Indians cannot convert anyone to their own religion – all these are guaranteed by its Constitution.
Then why do we witness the type of incidents every now and then like the massive, predominantly male mob, chasing a lone woman in burqa, condemning her for her attire, and shouting Hindu slogans? In this incident in Karnataka the men did not touch the woman. Some even tried their best to separate her toward safety. In the constellation of religious upheavals in India, mostly instigated by Hindus over Muslims and other minorities, this particular incident was not so bad. In other cases, over accusations of cow slaughter Muslims have been lynched and killed. Like gun violence in America religious strifes are regular in India.
Administrative and/or judicial intervention are probably not the cure. At best, they are antibiotics. Curiously, the local authorities have “temporarily” banned wearing burqa, hijab or saffron-colored clothes in schools and universities, “until further notice.” There are indications the caveat is being followed. The police have also taken precautionary measures banning for the time being religious marches in the vicinity. It is a matter of some curiosity to me that the hijab has become what one journalist has called “a differentiating marker,” not just in India but the world over. Why? It is important to try and give some answers to this deceptively simple question, because it might be relevant in other non-religious political contexts, like race.
In the U.S., Canada and in Western Europe, we have witnessed civil cases against denying people of minority religions the right to wear certain signifying costume in the workplace, like the hijab for Muslim women and the turban for Sikhs. The reason for the restriction is uniformity: you have to wear what the mainstream wear, otherwise you draw unnecessary attention that is bad for the workplace. Happily, in most cases the courts have sided with the minority. But the hijab and the turban have remained as “objectionable” to conservative, usually white, groups supporting nationalist, exclusivist agenda. Why?
Sociologists call such signifying attire – hijab, turban – as “political fault lines” by which exclusivists (those who say, “India is a Hindu country!” “America for whites only!”) routinely get provoked and, in some cases, elicit violent responses. In such instances, law and order must step in to maintain peace. Not surprisingly, these kind of differentiated markers become problematic in communities where minorities are in the majority, but also where the minorities are the poorest, as was the case in the part of Karnataka where this incident took place.
But there is also a larger context.
The larger context is the overall political climate where a whole country is being forced to face an uncomfortable, anti-social political choice: should India be a Hindu country? Should African Americans remain in a subservient position in a white man’s America? Liberals and humanistic people may dismiss this question out of hand, but they need to be discussed. Here again, I need to separate two issues: the rule of law and order, and the overall social problem cause by human beings’ inability for living with differences.
First, law and order. While the broader conversation is going on, there should be no doubt that law and order should prevail. There should be no mob rule under any circumstances. The incident in Karnataka was brought under control through law, and through law enforcement (order). Other places haven’t been so lucky. In Pakistan, this week, a man was stoned and beaten to death for allegedly breaking “blasphemy” laws. Witness what is currently going on in Canada. The truck drivers protesting governmental Corona mandates has forced Emergency laws. Or the infamous January 6, 2021 – In these cases despite the law, law and order completely broke down. We ought to appreciate that it is only under the protection of law and order that the larger, more fruitful conversations can go on.
One of the larger phenomenain evidence in developing countries like India is education. It is both boon and bane. Boon, because it has brought out well over one hundred million Indians out of poverty and ignorance to serve as paraprofessionals and professionals. The country, as a whole, is also able to employ them as was not the case even twenty years ago. The people have emerged, moving toward self-sufficiency, no longer willing to take the crap from those who have historically controlled them. In cases where the minority are Muslims or Christians, they have defied Hindutva. To Hindutva, therefore, education is the bane.
The above situation is not that different from America. I have spent a lifetime teaching in Boricua College, a minority institution in New York City. In its comparatively brief existence of forty-five years, the college has graduated over 12,000 students, lifting them off poverty and unemployment into the corporate world and helping professions. Not surprisingly, these educated graduates have also attracted unwanted attention amidst the negative anti-immigrant environment created by Donald Trump. Boricua trains its students in engaging in conversations, written and spoken. People engage in less physical confrontation the more skillful they are in communication. Educated, they have learned to talk about living with differences. Be they race or caste.
One of the main obstacles that the BJP is facing in places like Karnataka that is outside of the “Hindi-belt,” is that the religious minorities there do not have the same deferential attitude toward caste and Hindutva, as the minorities in U.P. and Bihar have. This poses difficulties in controlling them. Add to this, the educational level of the people in South India who have a higher rate of literacy than of those in the north. From the point of view of Hindutva supporters, you have a problem. Although it is true that caste is a part of the Indian infrastructure, that everything in India is laced with caste differences, and is unconsciously followed by a vast majority, caste, nevertheless, weakens in front of education. This is especially true of the Indian southern states.
Having come up with a stiff educational barrier, the BJP and its lieutenants are reverting to signification: “The hijab issue, says The Hindu, “offers one of the best opportunities to [the BJP] to polarize Muslims against Hindus. While in this wider arena, Muslims become the scapegoats for the failure of Hindutva to consolidate itself, in the case of coastal Karnataka, it is the staid nature of Hindutva nationalism and its failure to reach out to a vibrant community that accounts for the social fissures highlighted in the hijab controversy.”
The Muslim minority in Karnataka and elsewhere in the south have, through education, themselves made the hijab a symbol of their identity as Muslims. It is not something they have been forced to wear by their family. BJP and the exclusivist supporters of Hindutva are realizing this intuitively. Denying opportunities of educating religious minorities by removing special opportunities for them made possible by the Mandal Commission, may soon become the next big move by the BJP led government. Access to education is thus deeply bound with this search for self-definition. If the BJP can forbid Muslim women to wear hijabs, whether they do it in the name of modernization and progress, it is an assault on their self-worth and dignity. As one journalist in India writes,” Binding them to the prescriptive dress code subjects them to a uniformity that not only submerges their difference but also reinforces prevailing political dominance.
The situation described in Karnataka is not radically different from the one here in America regarding both religious and racial minorities. Here, too, education is becoming a great equalizer. While in America controversies regarding minority clothing is sporadic, few and far in between, let this not lull the rest of the population into thinking there is no discrimination, on the contrary, in the United States, there is a sharp distinction between populism and nationalism on the one side which with its glare can easily create opposition in the progressives; and racism on the other, which, like caste in India, is endemic. Clothing in the U.S.A. is a ruse. By wearing culture specific clothes some people in the United States seek to hide the real fissures in our society. Muslim women openly wear hijabs in San Francisco and New York. It says nothing about the real resistance to the Muslim minority among the proponents of America First.
Similarly in India there are important distinctions between the burqa and hijab. The former, by being a “bolder statement” of one’s identity, is more resented by Hindu fanatics. But the hijab is far more acceptable, even as style in the metropolis. In big cities the hijab may have the same significance in India as it has in the States. They reveal and hide at the same time.
In a deeply diverse society such as India and America we need to build our common futures by encouraging those who are made to feel different, into a conversation.
That way we will continue to build an inclusive society.

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