Why Are ’Headscarf’ Protesters Wearing Full-Body Veils?

Why Are ’Headscarf’ Protesters Wearing Full-Body Veils?

by Swati Goel Sharma - Feb 23, 2022 05:33 PM +05:30 IST
Why Are ’Headscarf’ Protesters Wearing Full-Body Veils?Image for representation only
  • As argued by the Karnataka Advocate General yesterday, a clarification by the petitioners as to what exactly they are demanding (headscarf or burqa?) is much needed.

The Karnataka high court began hearing a bunch of petitions filed by some Muslim students against an alleged state ban on ‘hijab’ inside classrooms at government educational institutes on 8 February.

Early in the hearings, Senior advocate Devadutt Kamat, appearing for some petitioners, told the court that the case is about the institutes allowing “an additional cloth” over the uniform, that is, a “headscarf”.

“This is not a[n] issue of uniform. The students were wearing uniform. They only wanted to wear the head scarf of the same colour. The State has issued a GO saying head scarf cannot be worn. This is part of their religious culture. This is an innocuous practice," argued Kamat.

Since its beginning in December when a few girls in all-women pre-university college in Udupi district of Karnataka turned up in headscarves covering hair and neck and the institute asked them to remove it as it was not in line with the prescribed uniform, the controversy around hijab has been presented in the media and before the court as one pertaining to headscarves alone.

But looking at the controversy closely, is the ongoing hijab agitation across the country really about headscarves?

The visuals betray this claim

Much before the issue went to court, media shared visuals of Muslim students arguing with college management to be allowed to wear ‘hijab’ inside the campus. The girls were seen in the full-body black veil, commonly known in India as ‘burqa’.

A rally by Congress MLA Kaneez Fatima and her supporters on 6 February showed women clad in black burqas, with eyes barely visible.

Two days after the Karnataka high court began hearing the issue, an organisation called All India Lawyer Association for Justice held a protest against ‘hijab ban’ at Karnataka Bhawan in New Delhi.

The protest was much publicised by the media. The invitation for the protest showed women in full-body black burqas holding placards that read ‘hijab is our right and no one shall snatch it from us”.

Why Are ’Headscarf’ Protesters Wearing Full-Body Veils?

On 7 February, news agencies reported that students wearing “Hijab” were allowed to enter the campus. The visuals showed students dressed in full-body veils.

On 9 February, a student leader of All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) put up banners in Maharashtra’s Beed town in support of the Karnataka agitation. The banners showed women in burqas and carried the text – ‘pehle hijab, phir kitab’ (Veil first, books later).

Pictures of protesters carried by national English dallies such as The Times of India have been consistently showing women clad in full-body veils even as the captions accompanying the pictures have used the term ‘hijab’.

Similarly, videos shared by journalists of protesters have been consistently showing women clad in full-body veils.

Going by these visuals, one cannot be faulted for believing that the agitation is really for the full-body veil and not merely a headscarf as is being made out to be.

Quran doesn’t use the term 'hijab' to mean ‘headscarf’

As recently pointed out by Kerala governor Arif Mohammad Khan, the core Islamic text that is the Quran, mentions the word ‘hijab’ seven times, but everywhere, it is in the context of a curtain and separation and not any cloth.

Khan said that the word used in the Quran to refer to a cloth that covers the neck and chest is ‘khimar’. Khan said that historically, Arab women would dress up in a way that their neck and chest were not covered (Khan said he was quoting from the works of Saiyad Ameer Ali), but they used ‘khimar’ as somewhat of a modern-day dupatta.

Along the same lines, US-based Islamic Research Foundation International says the term ‘hijab’ is used in the Quran to mean a separation between Muslims and wives of Islam’s founder Muhammad. For clothing, the Quran uses the word ‘khimar’ (as earlier mentioned), and ‘jilbab’ for a modern-day cloak, the organisation’s website says.

In the hearing yesterday, Karnataka Advocate General (AG) Prabhuling Navadgi, who is representing the Karnataka government, argued that the Quranic verse number 24.31 that the petitioners have cited in support of their right to wear ‘hijab’ inside state institutes, does not mention the word ‘hijab’ and, instead, uses the word ‘khumur’ (a variation of the word khimar).

The AG further argued that the second verse cited by the petitioners - 33.59 - refers to a long gown and not a head-dress.

The AG said that it is for the petitioners to demonstrate beyond doubt as to what is compulsory to be followed.

Hijab has a shifting definition

As shown above, in the context of the ongoing agitation for ‘hijab’ across India, the term has been routinely used for Muslim women in full-body veils.

Hijab, thus, has a shifting definition, and different groups have used it to mean different kinds of veils.

While some, such as the lawyers appearing for the original petitioners, are insisting that Hijab in their context means ‘headscarf’ alone, others, such as the social and political groups as well as the media, have used the term for women in full-body veils.

This liberty taken with the word 'hijab' is not limited to this agitation.

Radical Islamist group Taliban, that regained power in Afghanistan last year, put up posters of women on public walls in January ‘advising’ them to cover up.

The posters showed women in full-body veils that did not expose even their eyes, but the text accompanying the visuals said, ‘According to Sharia law, Muslim women must wear the hijab’ (as translated by global publications).

It is thus safe to conclude that while the word ‘hijab’ literally means a separation, the more radical groups have used it for a more extensive piece of covering for women.

For instance, in the relatively liberal Pakistani Punjabi society, the norm among the women is to wear a dupatta over head. In the relatively more conservative Deoband and Kairana cities of India, the norm among the women is to wear a loose cloak covering the entire body leaving only a mesh around the eyes to peek through.

(Left) Poster put up by Taliban in January. (Right) A woman in Kairana city of India’s Uttar Pradesh state
(Left) Poster put up by Taliban in January. (Right) A woman in Kairana city of India’s Uttar Pradesh state

It appears that a favourable verdict for ‘hijab’ in government institutes would further embolden radical groups to enforce the full-body veil for women, in a possible bid to further chain them into the shackles of Sharia.

As argued by the Karnataka AG yesterday, a clarification by the petitioners as to what exactly they are demanding – headscarf or burqa? - is much needed. Their supporters carrying out street agitations on their behalf have, clearly, understood it as a full-body veil.

Swati Goel Sharma is a senior editor at Swarajya. She tweets at @swati_gs.

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