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Hijab protests: India’s role in ensuring gender equality

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The word 'hijab' that has been the cause of bloodbath and repression in several countries is mentioned just seven times in the Quran and it has been used to denote a curtain, separation or wall.

"If Bharat wants to be a Vishwa Guru, then equal participation of women is required," said Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Dr Mohan Bhagwat. He made these observations during the Vijayadashmi celebrations.

Hijab protests: India’s role in ensuring gender equality

The comment has come at a time when women across the world are fighting for their right to be seen in public spaces.

In Iran, close to 140 people have been killed in anti-Hijab protests following the tragic death of the 22-year-old Mahasa Amini in police custody for allegedly not wearing hijab properly. While closer home, in our neighbouring nation of Afghanistan, women have been systematically erased from public spaces, a year after the Taliban took control of the country.

What a few from India could learn from the anti-hijab protest in IranWhat a few from India could learn from the anti-hijab protest in Iran

The larger question that needs to be pondered over is whether theocracies lead to oppression of women? In such societies, religion is often used as a tool to suppress women and exert control on them. The inherent patriarchy and the convenient misinterpretation of religious texts have ensured that women are relegated to their homes. The forced dichotomy has helped maintain the status quo between the powerful and the powerless.

In such a scenario, it becomes essential for a country like India that prides itself in being a thought leader to help women claim their rightful place in the social order. It is interesting to note that the word 'hijab' that has been the cause of bloodbath and repression in several countries is mentioned just seven times in the Quran and its contextual meaning has remained the same. It has been used to denote a curtain, separation or wall. An example of this can be found in verse 33.53 of the Quran which talks about a group of people being invited for a meal at the Prophet's house. It says:

"O you who believe! Do not enter the Prophet's rooms (in his house) unless you have been given leave, (and when invited) to a meal, without waiting for the proper time (when the meal is to be served). Rather, when you are invited, enter (his private rooms) at the proper time; and when you have had your meal, disperse.... When you ask something of them (his wives), ask them from behind a screen (hijab). Your doing so is purer for your hearts and for their hearts."

It is evident that the word hijab meant nothing more than a curtain. It was about respecting the Prophet's personal space and his family's right to privacy. It does not mention anything about women's role in public spaces. In fact, the word that refers to scarf is 'khimar' in the Quran. Verse 24:31 of the Quran says

"...and not display their beauty except what is apparent, and they should place their khumur over their bosoms..."

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Apart from this, the Quran mentions dress code in only one another verse. 33:59 of Quran says:

"O Prophet! Say to your wives, your daughters, and the women of the believers that: they should let down upon themselves their jalabib."

In this, jalabib essentially means an outer covering or a sheet with which a woman should wrap herself and should draw and let down a part of it in front of the face.

But even when interpreting these verses, it needs to be kept in mind that the social realities of that time were vastly different and it should ideally be seen in the spirit of the Islamic tenants of decency and modesty in public life. Also, the harsh climatic conditions may have had a role to play in women fully covering themselves. Unlike the meaning that these words have taken on in the current times to keep women within the four walls of their homes, the Quran does not talk about relegating their roles to domestic spaces. Modesty in public life was a trait that is considered important for both men and women in the Quran.

In the light of these facts, it is clear that there needs to be serious discussion on how a word like hijab that meant partition came to mean head scarf in the present times? Since when did it become a powerful tool of oppression of women? Also, in a world where matters of faith and religion are increasingly becoming deeply personal, how is that some states still wield the power to completely take over the autonomy of women over their lives and bodies? In fact, it is interesting to note that the holy text from which the authority to impose such draconian rules states in passage 2:256:

"There is no compulsion in religion, the right direction is clearly distinguished from the wrong."

If there is indeed no such compulsion, why did so many women have to lose their lives? Why were so many girls taken out of schools? While trying to find answers to these questions, there is another perspective that has silently swept into the world view which on most occasions does not get due attention. It is the age-old thought of women as chattels and witches that has prevailed in the western world as late as the 17th century.

From the perspective of history, the witch trials that gave death sentence to any woman who chose to rebel against the system and the practice of keeping women indoors are too recent and cannot be erased completely from the collective consciousness. The vestiges of it are bound to stay and the oppression against women will continue in one form or the other. Any lasting change is possible only if lessons are truly learnt from history and there is a mindful attempt to see women as equal partners in a society's development.

Perhaps a country that the world can look up to during these trying times is India. During the Vedic period, women had the freedom to move around freely without any veils. It was only during the Delhi Sultanate period that 'purdah' was first enforced and it was a practice that was more prevalent in the upper class, according to the book, Medieval India, written by renowned historian Satish Chandra. It was from there that the veil slowly transformed to symbolise honour and modesty. With many working towards reclaiming India's lost history and traditions, there is now an honest attempt to go back to the roots and put the various interpretations in perspective.

This attitude was seen recently during the hijab controversy in Karnataka when a number of pertinent observations were made by the courts, the lawyers and the government, in an issue that many wrongly portrayed as Indian women's struggle to protect their religious identity. Among them, the most important one was not to accept the wearing of hijab as a religious practice as it would make it mandatory for all Muslim women to wear one. It was argued that such a move would rob the fundamental rights of those girls or women who do not want to wear one.

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Essentially, the underlying argument here is that a piece of clothing cannot become a source of identity for all women belonging to a particular religion. It is time to move beyond the patriarchal norms and let every human being irrespective of gender exercise his/her/their choice. And just like how India led the way in universal suffrage, it may be necessary for our nation to once again step in and show what is meant by true equality.

(Lekshmi Parameswaran is a researcher and writer based in New Delhi. Her twitter profile is @lekshmip.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of OneIndia and OneIndia does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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