By Riad Azam:
The recent judgement of the Supreme Court of India in summarily rejecting a petition against a CBSE directive that had banned the wearing of veil or any other headgear during the AIPMT exam is an assault on minority rights as well as the multicultural ethos of India.
The condescending manner in which the court delivered its judgement exposes a deep ignorance of its Muslim sensibilities. The judgement has referred to the petition as a ‘waste of its time’, and the issue ‘a small matter’, going on to say that nobody would be committing a sin if one were to remove the headscarf for a few hours. It also carries some more unfortunate implications. The judgement ought to be seen in the context of the rising Right Wing Hindutva assertion in India when anyone who seeks to disagree with this narrative is asked to ‘go to Pakistan’. As Ratna Kapur writes in The Wire “…the veil is not a small issue. It needs to be located in a context where religious minority communities especially Muslims under siege…Viewing the petition as a ‘waste’ of its time is itself a position. It is a position that sides with the rising tides of majoritanism.”
In my understanding, most Muslim women who choose to observe the veil do so as a fulfilment of their religious obligations, they find it to be a source of their spiritual fulfilment and most importantly consider it as a part of their identity. To ask them to remove the veil for a few hours is actually asking them to do away with a part of their identity. Aligarh Muslim University, which has around fifty percent of its female students wearing the veil has strongly reacted upon the issue. Sobia Manaal Siddiqui, a second year MBBS student said, “Hijab (veil) is an important part of me and I cannot imagine having to go anywhere without it. The judgement of the court has hurt the sentiments of a lot of people and this makes us no better than totalitarian countries like China. Ours is a secular country and our beauty lies in its diversity. I feel betrayed.”
There is another important aspect that needs to be considered here. In the recent times, especially in the post- Nirbhaya phase there has been a virtual takeover of the women’s rights movement in India by the upper class elite women, dwelling in metropolitan cities. Without any strong theoretical foundation, they adopt a very reactionary political language emphasising on short term goals of women empowerment. While it vehemently puts forward the idea that a woman must not be judged by the nature of the clothes she wears (which is an absolutely correct contention), but at the same time it looks down upon the veil or headscarf wearing woman as disempowered, refusing to believe that the veil can be an informed choice of a woman and need not necessarily be forced upon her by the local mullah. While it is quite true that patriarchal pressures and societal norms at times force women to observe the veil, but at the same time for a large number of women, it is a result of their rational and informed choice, and hence the judgement does them a great disservice.
Unfortunately the reportage of this entire judgement in mainstream media displays such an outlook. A news report in The Times of India states that, “The Supreme Court on Friday firmly declined to entertain the trend of flaunting religious beliefs to seek immunity from dress code, asking three Muslim girls and little known- Students Islamic Organisation of India to follow the code prescribed by the CBSE.”
The tone of the report, apart from being strikingly similar to the Supreme Court judgement also exposes similar ignorance. The Students’ Islamic Organisation of India (SIO) is the student wing of the Jamaat-e- Islami Hind, and is one of India’s largest Muslim student organisations. While it would be an exaggeration to say that all Indian Muslims agree with the principles of the SIO but in no way it is a ‘little known’ organisation.
The Indian Constitution has laid out the laws perfectly, especially those pertaining to arrests or interrogation of women which provide significant powers to the law enforcing agencies without compromising on the beliefs or the customs practiced by the woman who is to be interrogated or arrested. A large number of Muslim women students who had decided to appear for the examination had made a decision of being a part of India’s mainstream while at the same time maintaining their belief and identity. By putting this ban the Court has only forced them to make a choice between the two. In the whole brouhaha an opportunity of development of India’s minorities has been jeopardised. The minorities and the oppressed look upon the Judiciary for justice. This judgement by the Supreme Court will only lead to further alienation of Muslim women from higher education.
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