Free to Be Me: Perspective on Hijab – Local and Global

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Divya Chhabra, AIF Fellow (Photo courtesy of Divya Chhabra)

“Free to be me” was a discussion held by SAFA to give a safe space for women to discuss and voice out their opinions to build the community and challenge stereotypes. The panel included Rubina Nafees Fatima (CEO of SAFA Society), Dr. A. Suneeta (independent scholar), Ms. Saleema (sub-editor, Nava Telangana Newspaper), Ms. Syeeda Zainab (co-founder, Al Ilm Madrasa and a practicing psychologist), Ms. Kaneez Fatima and Ms.Noorjehan, both social activists.

Panel for the Session of Free to be Me (Picture Credits: Author)

Panelists shared different perspectives regarding the politicizing of the Hijab which came up through the discussion. It started with Rubina Nafees Fatima, CEO of SAFA warmly welcoming the members for the session and briefing them about the theme and the purpose of the session. She later handed it over to the moderator, Dr. A Suneetha, to further the proceedings.

The discussion was initiated by Dr. A Suneetha, who emphasized the present-day context of hatred and differences between religions, adding how the religious rights of minorities are being politicized. She said that Muslim women need to voice out their concerns and call for solidarity. She discussed different perspectives on the Hijab in a global and local context. It included women in Iran being forced to wear Hijab, while on the other hand, women in India, France, and European countries were forced the other way around.

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There was an opinion presented by Syeeda Zainab regarding the struggle of Muslim women regarding the Hijab. She claimed that owning and disowning cultural values can vary according to the actions of individuals. Social media has led to people living a dual life. One as a reserved person at home and the other as a modern person out on social media. People feel discomfort when their behavior does not align with their values or beliefs. It occurs when a person holds two contradictory beliefs at the same time. These controversies or discomforts lead to low cognitive dissonance.

There was a varied opinion presented by Saleema as she emphasized that it is a pity that people are politicizing certain cultural elements like wearing / not wearing a hijab. Still, many more serious issues need to be discussed. Some renowned ideologists speak or comment on the way of dressing of women which leads to assaults but Saleema questioned what attraction a 5 or 6-year-old girl pose with her dress which leads to sexual assaults, thus challenging the mindset rather than the clothing. Kaneez Fatima said that the Hijab issue relates to an identity issue, and this started without any agenda. She was also brought up in her family with the freedom to choose whether to wear a burqa or a hijab. But unfortunately, some religious leaders and others are making this political.

Noorjehan, one of the human right activist stated that wearing a Burqa and a Hijab is one’s own choice and belief. The religious heads to some extent just blindly pressure Muslim women to follow the customs. There is a need to understand the community’s cultural values and beliefs, only then we can fight for ourselves and others in the community. Our religious heads and men outside should understand that there are many other issues to be bothered about and not confine the entire discourse just around a Hijab.

Round Table Discussion among the Participants (Picture Credits: Author)

GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE

Globally, there seems to be a deadlock and confusion in understanding the significance and relevance of the Hijab. For instance, France has prohibited hijabs and come up with the defense that they are protecting Muslim girls’ rights as they are being forced to wear headscarves by their parents and extremists religious leaders. This resulted in the French parliament passing Act No. 2010-1192 of 11th October 2010. The two ladies, Sonia Yaker and Miriana Hebbadj addressed the UNHRC claiming that the French law infringed upon their right to religious practice, which is protected by the ICCPR.

Sonia Yaker and Miriana Hebbadj are French nationals born in 1974 and domiciled in Saint-Denis, France. They are Muslim and wear a niqab (full-face veil). On 6th October 2011, they were stopped for an identity check while wearing their niqab on the street in Nantes. They were then prosecuted and convicted of the minor offense of wearing a garment to conceal their face in public. Consequently, they were convicted on 26th March 2012 and were ordered by the community court in Nantes to pay a fine of 150 euros each, the maximum penalty for the offense in question, which was established by the Act. Through its two historic rulings from 2018, Sonia Yaker v. France and Miriana Hebbadj v. France, the Human Rights Committee determined that the French burqa ban does in fact violate both the freedom of religion (Article 18) and the right to equality (Article 26) of the ICCPR.

Women wearing the hijab is an issue of personal religious belief across the world. But it became a representation of repression and marginalization in Iran. Consequently, the current opposition to the headscarf by Iranian demonstrators does not automatically imply opposition to Islam or Islamic principles. Instead, it stands for the woman’s rage and despair at having been denied even the most fundamental free choice for so long.

OPINION

Freedom or choice of clothing refers to the ability to choose the haircut, cosmetics, clothes, footwear, headwear, tattoos, jewelry etc., as well as other adornments that go into creating the sometimes-private personas that we present to the world. This is a situation where the proverb “the personal is political”, rings tremendously true because these decisions are highly personal but frequently quite publicized.

Hijab is visualized as identity, modesty, and religious choice by the community. The main problem does not lie in Hijab, but it is in forcing the women of the Muslim faith to remove or wear Hijab based on the perspective of the state. France has defended the prohibition of the Hijab by arguing that they protect Muslim girls’ rights by protecting them from being forced to wear headscarves. Although I disagree that a headscarf’s meaning is as fixed as the French government contends, I believe that it is not acceptable to socialize children in a way that the government deems appropriate by discouraging the wearing of the hijab. The stereotypical opinion formed by the state that women in Hijab are marginalized, oppressed, and do not have an opinion is regressive. Shaheen Bagh’s protest in India showed the opposite perspective of Muslim women wearing a Hijab and rebelling against the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 (CAA).

The Hijab has turned into a question of identity globally. In educational institutions, nothing should be more important than imparting quality education. In a democratic and secular country like India, wearing or not wearing Hijab is a matter of individual choice. The uniformity in school cannot turn into a reason to deprive education women of any community. I understand that wearing a headscarf is not obligatory in Islam and is instead a patriarchal tradition, but it is for women to decide whether they want to wear it or not.

There is a need to understand that clothing is a personal choice and politicization of the matter is to oppress the minority communities and against the right to freedom of religion. Also, the practice of wearing a headscarf is not limited to a single community as other religions like Sikhism, Judaism, Hinduism etc. have similar practices.

The hijab has drawn controversy since it has been politicized, stripped of its religious significance, and used as a political talking point by movements and actors in the geopolitical sphere. Hijab use may be a type of discrimination, but so is prohibiting it. Both force and coercion in removing a woman’s clothing and coercively covering her up invalidate her choice. Therefore, it is up to all women to make a choice.

REFERENCES
*Alouane, R. S. (2014). Bas les masques!Unveiling Muslim women on behalf of the protection of public order: reflections on the legal controversies around a novel definition of ‘public order’ used to ban full-face covering in France. The Experiences of Face Veil Wearers in Europe and the Law, 194–205, https://doi.org/10.1017/cbo9781107415591.010.
*Gökarıksel, B., & Secor, A. J. (2009). New transnational geographies of Islamism, capitalism, and subjectivity: the veiling-fashion industry in Turkey. Area, 41(1), 6–18. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-4762.2008.00849.x
*Gowri Ramachandran. (2006). Freedom of Dress: State and Private Regulation of Clothing, Hairstyle, Jewelry, Makeup, Tattoos, and Piercing. Maryland Law Review, 66(1), 11.
*Hebbadj v. France, CCPR/C/WG/123/DR/2807/2016 (2018).
*Karnataka Hijab Case: Supreme Court Reserves Verdict On Plea Against HC Judgement Upholding Hijab Ban In Classes. (2022, September 20). Outlook.
*Maximilien Turner, Comment, (2005). The Price of a Scarf: The Economics of Strict Secularism, 26 U. PA. J. INT’L. ECON. L. 321, 336–43.
*Photographs used from SAFA India | Women Empowerment | Hyderabad. (n.d.). SAFA Society. https://www.safaindia.org/.
*Yaker v. France, CCPR/C/123/D/2747/2016 (2018).

About the Author:
Divya is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Fellow with SAFA in Hyderabad, Telangana. For her Fellowship project, she is working towards developing and creating local employment opportunities through incubating micro-entrepreneurs (homepreneurs & entrepreneurs) & developing an ecosystem for micro startups. Born and raised in a small district in Punjab, Divya always questioned the patriarchal system of society and the increasing dichotomies between the developed and developing world. Divya pursued her integrated course of BCom LLB from Tamil Nadu National Law University, Tiruchirappalli. All through her academic pursuits, Divya weaved a dream of playing a part in the development sector. During her graduation, she interned under various organizations such as People’s Union of Civil Liberties, Jaipur during her first year where she experienced the working of NGOs through surveys and public interest litigation filed by the NGO. She worked with Majlis Legal Centre, Mumbai which is a women’s organization. This organization is working in the field of women and children’s empowerment through domestic violence litigation and as support persons under Prevention of Children against Sexual Offences Act, 2009. Here she learned various aspects of litigation in various courts in Mumbai. She interned with Jagori Rural Charitable Trust, Dharamshala with the violence investigation team and actively participated in surveys through home visits. Divya strongly believes in two-way communication with the communities to know their needs to bring change and draw inspiration from the stories of others to analyze the social structure of the society. In her free time, she enjoys reading and traveling. Divya is honored to be serving as an AIF Fellow to expand her horizons in the development sector. For her, this Fellowship would act as a stepping stone to starting her own social enterprise or NGO in the future.

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