Pro-Hijab Verdict Would Be Dog-whistle For Fundamentalists
If the Supreme Court accepts petitioners’ argument on women wearing 'headscarf' to school, it will send a signal to all fundamentalists to enforce their interpretation of hijab.
Afghanistan and Iran are examples of how far hijab imposition can go.
Senior advocate Devadatt Kamat, arguing for hijab petitioners in Supreme Court, recently made the argument that hijab is protected under Article 25(2) of the Constitution.
Kamat made his argument by saying, “If I wear a headscarf, whose fundamental rights am I violating?"
It must be noted here that the very use of the term ‘hijab’ in the ongoing agitation when the stated demand is that of ‘headscarf’ could have dangerous repercussions for Muslim women.
If the Supreme Court indeed accepts the petitioners’ arguments and they win the case, it will send a signal to all fundamentalists to enforce their interpretation of hijab.
That interpretation will certainly not be limited to ‘headscarf’ as has been the case for centuries – in India as well as in the Muslim world.
What happened in Afghanistan
Take the case of Taliban. When the Taliban captured Kabul on 27 September 1996, one of the first orders they gave was that the women must wear chadari as hijab.
The chadari is a head-to-toe cloak that covered the entire body leaving only a square mesh over the eyes.
Before Taliban, women in the almost wholly Islamised country already wore chadar, a large shawl-like headscarf draped over the hair and falling to cover about three-quarters of the body. However, it left the face open.
On 6 December 1996, the Taliban made an announcement on Radio Kabul (which was renamed to Radio Shariat) that the Islamic hijab cannot be completed by wearing a headscarf alone. All “honorable sisters” are informed that the observance of Islamic hijab is for the sake of their own dignity, they said (Fundamentalism reborn? Afghanistan and the Taliban, by William Maley, 2001).
Once it was made a rule, Taliban soldiers openly harassed women in the streets on petty issues such as the length or colour of their hijab. Women would be thrashed in the streets and humiliated.
Members of Taliban ordered women through loudspeakers to stay indoors. If they come out, they must be accompanied by a relative and wear an all-enveloping burqa. They were told not to report to work and that education was terminated.
In December 1996, Taliban-controlled Radio announced that a group of 225 women had been rounded up and punished in Kabul for violating hijab rules. Sources said the punishment comprised of the women being lashed on the back and legs after the sentence was handed by a tribunal.
In March 1997, Taliban asked residents to screen windows in their homes on ground so women could not be seen from the roads. A representative said that “the face of a woman is a source of corruption for men who are not related to them”.
Taxi drivers were beaten up for serving women and shopkeepers for selling to women without hijab.
The same Taliban was also punishing women more brutally for other offences. In March 1997, a woman was stoned to death in Laghman Province in eastern Afghanistan for trying to elope with a man while being married. Islamic tribunal found her guilty of adultery.
A woman in the Khair-Khana area of Kabul had the end of her thumb cut off for wearing nail-polish.
During that time, in an interview with Dharb-i-Mumin, Maulvi Ehsan-Ullah Ehsan, Minister of Finance and Member of Supreme Shura said, “Purdah (is) not the injunction of the Taliban but order of Allah. Objection against it is point-black kufr.”
(The above information has been taken from The Taliban: Accent to Power by MJ Gohari, 2000)
Now that the Taliban have regained power in Afghanistan after retreat of American troops, they have issued similar diktats on women’s clothing and social segregation.
In December 2021, Taliban’s Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice issued an advisory to taxi drivers not to take in women passengers if they are not wearing the hijab.
In March, they declared that women who do not wear the hijab would be denied healthcare services.
Members of Taliban’s religious police make announcements on streets through loudspeakers, saying, “Dear Muslim brothers and sisters, hijab and implementation of Shariah law is the duty of every Muslim.”
If they find a girl with a strand of hair showing, they admonish her publicly.
In India, many celebrated the re-rise of Taliban, prompting even actor Naseeruddin Shah who routinely criticises the BJP for being “anti-Muslim”, to condemn the Taliban mindset.
What happened in Iran
Iran is another glaring example of how far hijab imposition can go.
Soon after gaining power in 1979, Iran's new leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini made it mandatory for all women to wear hijab. This was regardless of religion or nationality.
This hijab was an all-body covering barring the face. Khomeini justified his move by calling unveiled women useless, distracting and “naked”.
In February 1979, Khomeini told a journalist, Oriana Fallaci, that “these coquettish women, who wear makeup and put their necks, hair and bodies on display in the streets”, did not know “how to be useful, neither to society, nor politically or vocationally. And the reason is because they distract and anger people by exposing themselves”.
The next month, he made a statement that women working in government institutes must wear the veil as “naked women” could not work in Islamic countries. “Sin may not be committed in Islamic ministries. Women should not be naked at work in these ministries.”
Angry at the speech, more than 6,000 women staged a four-hour march from Tehran University to a government office chanting, “In the dawn of freedom, there is an absence of freedom.” (New York Times, 9 March, 1979).
Khomeini had come to power after Iranian Islamic revolution and overthrowing of Mohammad Reza Shah, who had not made the hijab compulsory.
Eventually, Khomeini managed to write compulsory hijab into law. Four years after the women’s agitation, the law was amended to penalise the women that did not wear the hijab. They could be imprisoned, get lashed or asked to pay hefty fines.
“The veil, the hijab, was not a secondary issue, it was one of the ideological pillars of the revolution envisioned by Khomeini,” wrote Kim Ghattas in Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Rivalry That Unravelled the Middle East.
The law is in force even today. In between, Iran has seen several street protests against the compulsory hijab by women.
In Hindu-majority India, hijab is not written into law. On the contrary, governments incentivise panchayats to end the malpractice of ghoonghat, which crept in the Hindu society through Islamic invasions.
As the government does not interfere with personal laws and customs of Muslim society unless asked to by the courts, no such scheme has ever been introduced for Muslim women to come out of purdah.
In India, Maulanas issue diktats for the purdah with the same zeal. Only because the state has never gone after the women for violating it, its enforcement has not come to light the way it has been in Iran and Afghanistan.
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