A few days ago, Khatija Rahman, daughter of the legendary music director AR Rahman made a public appearance along with her father, bringing hijab into the limelight with a lot of discourse around it. The images made people go berserk and created a ruckus across all social/mass media platforms. AR Rahman was relentlessly trolled for forcibly imposing his religious orthodoxy onto his daughter. The gravity of the situation made Khatija put up a post on her Facebook wall, defending her choice and the right to live with dignity. Excerpts from her post say-
“The veil has been my personal choice with complete acceptance and honor. I’m a sane mature adult who knows to make my choices in life. Any human being has a choice to wear or do what he/she wants and that’s what I’ve been doing. Hence, kindly don’t make your own judgments without understanding the exact situation. #freedomofchoice #Embracingmyidentity’’.
The hijab is always seen as a means of ‘othering’ a section of women from the mainstream social fabric on account of unfamiliarity. The perpetrators of this othering or the hijab critics have historically denounced the use of hijab, marking it as a symbol of blatant patriarchy. Some criticisms also shuddered at the deep-rooted patriarchal conditioning which made women think it is necessary to cover a part of their identity as basic as their face. While we cannot fully denounce the role of patriarchal conditioning in the matter, it must be understood that patriarchal conditioning does not exclusively apply to hijab only. It comes forth in a lot of other religious symbols and more.
While we are refraining from violently opposing the other symbols, it is unfair and unjust to single out hijab from them all and launch an attack. The idea of consent expressed as ‘freedom of choice’ in the Facebook post also came under the radar, as many felt that in an oppressive and institutionally misogynist society it is not possible for the woman to take any decision completely devoid of any conditioned notion. Our deep-rooted socio-religious beliefs manifest in these supposedly arbitrary, free-willed decisions. All these arguments have put forth some valid points undoubtedly, but we must remember that nothing, absolutely nothing can contest the idea of free-willed consent pronounced by a woman. This is the trope on which patriarchy thrives on- first, it will refuse to acknowledge women their agency to give consent; secondly, when women finally gain their agency to give consent, it will nullify its authenticity.
Feminism, in this century invariably means intersectional feminism, where simply not a homogenous idea of oppression is propagated, but women from all ethnic backgrounds are included. In this era, where inclusiveness is the only way for a holistic society, it is unfair to single out and exclude a particular section of the oppressed.
The Constitution of India identifies the Indian union as a ‘secular’ nation, and not an ‘atheist’ nation. It does not denounce the whole idea of religion, rather it separates the state from actively propagating any religious ideas. But the citizens are free to practice any religion of their choice. Therefore, it is only imperative that a practicing religious person will carry some religious marks on his/her body. Ironically, it is mainly the women who have to bear the marks- be it sindoor,shakha-pola (vermilion)etc for Hindu married women, or hijab for Muslim women. Thus patriarchy affects women from all religious backgrounds, we cannot be oblivious to one form just because it is propagated by the majority population (and normalized) and denounce the other as regressive (and thus isolated).
We may have our personal opinions regarding hijab, which is absolutely fine in a liberal democracy, but when the opinion becomes prejudice and is being used to judge, discriminate and harass others, it becomes a menace. It is unbecoming of liberal democracy to discriminate people, just because they don’t conform to the familiar majority narrative. Our personal opinions cannot give birth to structural ‘othering’ and labeling of any community.
Clothing is a completely personal choice and if we denounce the patriarchal dictating of a woman’s clothing, we must not propagate it under the garb of feminism. Feminism never dictates. Feminism thrives on the idea of equality cutting across gender, race, ethnicity, skin color, religion, caste, creed, sexuality and so on. Feminism propagates freedom of choice. We cannot exclude and isolate a whole section of women from this battle against patriarchy, because it nullifies the whole guiding principle of feminism.
We must also try to acknowledge the sense of privilege (of being majority, and thus mainstream), which gives us the authority to label or denounce a section of society as regressive or backward. Whoever is on the privileged side of the status quo, becomes very vulnerable to see a narrative different from theirs. When members of the dominant group believe that their privilege is natural, and accept that their group is socially superior to others, they have internalized their dominant status in the society which gives them the authority to denounce diversity and difference. Intersectional feminism must critique this structural discrimination. We must discomfort the comfortable.