Karnataka Hijab Row: Competitive Communalism And Patriarchal Politics – OpEd


On March 3, 2023, Karnataka’s School Education and Literacy Minister B. C. Nagesh stated that students who wear hijab to the examination centres would not be allowed to appear for the Pre-University Course (PUC) examinations, which are being held beginning from March 9, 2023.

During the previous academic year, some students had not appeared for the aforementioned exams as they were not allowed to wear hijab. Since the Supreme Court refused the urgent listing of the plea to allow hijab-wearing Muslim girl students to give the exam, it is most likely that they will lose another academic year. This is part of the wider negative repercussion of the hijab ban. According to state government figures, 1,010 students have dropped out of college, most likely due to the prohibition of the hijab.

Organized Interests

The current conjuncture in which Muslim female students are facing a tradeoff between their religious identity and education is one that has been created through the involvement of organized communal interests. This controversy began on January 1, 2022, when six female students of the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial college in Udupi gave a press conference to oppose the college authorities’ rejection of their demand to keep wearing their hijabs after they entered their classrooms.

Rudre Gowda, the principal of the college, said that wearing the hijab on the college campus was not disallowed, but the girls were required to remove it when they entered the classroom. In his words: “The institution did not have any rule on hijab-wearing as such, since no one used to wear it to the classroom in the last 35 years.” Leefa Mahek, one of the six students at the press conference, reiterated in an interview given to New York Times “that her head scarf had not been mentioned as a problem by administrators when she was admitted to the school a year ago.” So, she was comfortable with having to remove her hijab in class for an entire year.

The six girls in Udupi began wearing the hijab in December 2021 after realizing that there was no rule banning the practice. Aliya Assadi, one of them, explained: “When I joined the college for 1st PUC in 2020, the college authorities forced me to remove my hijab because, according to them, there was a circular that banned its wearing within the classroom. Colleges were closed after this because of COVID lockdown. When colleges reopened for 2nd PUC in September last year, I realized that there was no specific rule that banned the wearing of the hijab in the classroom. I urged my parents to speak to the principal, but when they went to meet him, he ignored them. Finally, I started wearing the hijab to college with my parents’ support because it is my right. Since then [December 27, 2021] we haven’t been allowed into the classrooms.” The question is: what changed the minds of the six girls to start wearing hijab to their classrooms? Here, we have to delve into the structural context within which the hijab row is situated. 

Udupi district has been witness to many incidents of moral policing, cow vigilantism, the propaganda of “love jihad”, boycott of Muslim businesses, and unfounded claims of forced religious conversions. Along with Sangh Parivar entities like the Bajrang Dal, the Hindu Jagrana Vedike (HJV), the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, and Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the region houses many Islamist organizations like the Popular Front of India, its student front, the Campus Front of India (CFI), and its political party, the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI). This nexus of majority and minority communalism made itself felt in the Karnataka hijab row. The January 1 press conference was organized by CFI. Furthermore, “there were efforts for solving the problem on the local level by local Muslim leadership through Udupi district Muslim Okkuta, an umbrella organisation of local mosques, jamat, and Islamic organizations.” But the issue was intensified by the parents of the three girls who were connected to the SDPI, the CFI leaders, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) members in leadership positions on the college development committee. 

On February 8, 2022, Muskan Khan, a Muslim student, was heckled by a mob at the gate of PES College of Arts, Science and Commerce in Mandya, Karnataka because she was wearing a hijab. Hundreds of students, donning saffron headgears, chased the girl and raised the “Jai Shri Ram (praise Lord Ram)” slogan. This event emphasized that Hindutva views hijab as a sign of Muslim identity that has to be erased in order to preserve the country’s cultural purity. On the other hand, Muslim organizations like the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) congratulated the girl, and Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind gave her rupees 5 lakh. The AIMIM displayed “posters at various locations in Beed and other places in Maharashtra saying ‘Pehle Hijab, fir Kitab [Hijab first, education later],’ ‘Her Kimatee samaan parde me rakha jaata hai [Every precious object is kept covered]’ etc.” Fundamentalist organizations like Raza Academy held the same position. Anil Singh, Awadh Prant Sanchalak of the RSS Muslim wing, Muslim Rashtriya Manch (MRM), also upheld the practice of hijab, remarking that purdah is part of Indian culture. Senior functionaries of the organization later disowned this view, which indicates how Hindutva groups want to obscure their affinities with Muslim communalists. 

The unity of Hindu and Muslim communalism is laid bare in their symbiotic relation of opposition, which ultimately weakens female independence. By threatening the cultural identity of minority groups, majoritarianism reinforces their sense of group solidarity, which manifests itself in the increased policing of women so that they remain within the communitarian boundaries. Thus, after the destruction of the Babri masjid in 1992, there was an increasing number of Muslim women in Kerala who were wearing burka. This narrow dynamic of intensified religious consciousness is exemplified by the Karnataka hijab row, which is built upon the efforts of local Islamists to use women’s bodies as a terrain for reinforcing Muslim religiosity against the Hindutva programme being carried out by the BJP chief minister Basavaraj Bommai. Given this politics of mutual religiocization, it is hardly surprising that a leader of MRM can voice support for hijab, as it helps consolidate regressive identitarianism and thus prevent the formation of inter-religious bonds. 

The hijab controversy stands in contrast to the Shaheen Bagh protests, which used the platform of constitutional equality to practice a politics of civic identity. Male-dominated leadership from Muslim fundamentalist organizations and political parties failed to hegemonize the Shaheen Bagh movement as it was completely led by women. Consequently, they manufactured the hijab controversy as part of a communal agenda of religious assertion. Hindutva communalists also disliked the way the Shaheen Bagh movement made Muslim women aware of wide-ranging issues like the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, and National Register of Citizens (NRC), and thereby allowed them to participate in national life as democratic citizens. They are now eager to restrict Muslim women’s movements around sectarian issues like the hijab, which play into the spiral of religious communitarianism. 

The Limits of Post-Modern Theory

The recognition of the patriarchal character of the hijab row has been hindered by the post-modern theoretical constellation in which contemporary philosophizing is situated. Panchali Ray writes in The Hindu that the hijab needs to be seen as “contingent, contextual and situational and not ahistorical or unchanging”. This means that the hijab can take on multiple meanings by different actors and can even be re-signified by women as a sign of resistance against Hindutva.

In opposition to perspectives that consider the hijab to be a tool that is manipulated by Islamic patriarchs, Ray notes: “why then is the hijab so contested and what is women’s agency? Can only those women who question religious and cultural norms be seen as having agency while those who don the hijab but negotiate other gender norms be perceived as ‘pawns’?” Feminist agency then is not the open defiance of patriarchal norms but a re-negotiation of the rules through the internal subversion of power structures. This position, she says, avoids the construction of “a false dichotomy between Enlightenment assumptions about progressive secular rationalism and the supposedly premodern, patriarchal nature of Islam.”

Theoretical hostility to the forced universalism of Enlightenment is characteristic of the Foucauldian paradigm, in which the rejection of the self-transparent, autonomous subject of Western metaphysics translates into the rejection of any form of transcendental overcoming of an oppressive system. In place of total revolution, we have Judith Butler’s paradigm of re-iteration: the fact that power depends on the repeated enactments of hegemonic practices means that it can be destabilized through the troubling and reinvention of such practices. The location of agency within the structures of power is inherently problematic because every subversion of norm presupposes the very norm it intends to subvert. Butler’s subject of politics can never revolt but only reiterate with minor variations. 

In the case of the Karnataka hijab controversy, the innovative re-enactment of hijab as a weapon of feminist resistance against Hindutva communalism ignores that such a subjective action is situated within the objective system created by patriarchy. While it is true that women do not passively accept veiling but actively subjectivize this practice by attaching personal meanings to it, the fact remains that the veil as a product of patriarchal imposition has been internalized by women and their agency has become confined within a pre-given set of coordinates. In the Indian subcontinent, hijab is part of the discursive regime of purdah, which refers to the various methods of seclusion through which women are guarded from the male gaze. As such, the patriarchal connotations of hijab can’t be denied.

Even when the gender-biased practice of veiling is re-signified as a political struggle for education against majoritarian bigotry, it continues to maintain its cultural association with the valuation of feminine modesty in the face of the “lecherous” male gaze. That’s why the failure of reiteration to frontally confront power ensures its sustained connection to the original significatory system through which it was produced. This deficiency of purely immanent resistance is visible in the way in which Islamist organizations established the demand for hijab as more important than education and linked to the treatment of women as sexual objects. Noor Zaheer predicted this outcome when she wrote how veiling is embedded in a narrative wherein women “have the responsibility of protecting the family honor but no right to decide what would bring shame to it”. The totality of the dominant discourse has to be overturned so that the logical-structural range of possibilities and impossibilities prescribed by patriarchal notions are overturned. 

While postmodernism identifies power with resistance in its attempt to eliminate the autonomous humanist subject, there is an alternative form of transcendental universalism that can avoid the colonizing tendency contained within the Enlightenment project headed by Western capitalist states. For postmodernism, there is no place outside the discourses of power, which implies that the subject can’t act as a free agent capable of destroying a given power structure. This reduction of subjectivity to the internalized imperatives of power ignores the basic insight of Lacanian psychoanalysis: ideological interpellation is not the internalization of external rules but the externalization of an inner necessity, which concerns the traumatic uncertainty inherent in the constitutive lack of human beings. For human desire, no object is satisfactory enough, which means that the subject is the very gap between the symbolic order and the perpetually unattainable signifier. This lack is fundamental for human existence because the absence of lack would mean that we would neither have the need to compensate for it nor the urge to create something new. Mari Ruti writes that “[w]e might in fact not even have much curiosity about the world and its offerings, for our self-sufficiency would render the world uninteresting…it is our lack that not only encourages us to invent imaginary worlds, but also allows us to meet the existing world as a place that might have something of value to offer to us.” 

So, lack indicates the fact that we are socially relational individuals who fail to belong fully to any symbolic order. We can never exist as particular monads oblivious to the need for a lacking Other through which we can symbolically express our own lack. In this impossibility of complete, sovereign belonging lies the universal site of agency. In the words of Todd McGowan, “[m]y belonging in a society always breaks down, which enables me to turn against this society when it takes a direction that I cannot accept…Even the most authoritarian society cannot eviscerate the freedom that exists as a result of its inability to integrate individuals into its order with complete success”. Even though we all fail to belong equally due to the endless nature of our lack, some believe that their belonging is more secure than others. Refusing to recognize universal nonbelonging, these subjects construct an enemy who is said to be hindering the attainment of complete satisfaction that would end the repetitive loop of desire. 

The general logic of communalism operates through the logic of consolidation, in which homogenous religious communities set aside the fact of their internal nonbelonging to focus on the external Other said to be preventing the religious identity’s full realization. In the Karnataka hijab row, this identitarian politics is evident in the way in which the struggle against Islamophobia has been converted into a struggle for the hardening of Muslim identity. Minority communalists have ceded the political ground to majority communalists by identifying the target not as the system of Hindutva but the reified Hindu community. This ultimately benefits the BJP regime. As K Neela writes: “Everybody knows how the hijab issue in Udupi became so big. We know which organization [referring to PFI] made it so big. Similarly, where the BJP is likely to lose, which party goes there to contest? Doesn’t AIMIM contest there? The threats of these organizations cannot be compared to the communalization of the majority. However, communalization of the minorities cannot liberate us.” 

Subaltern Solidarity 

In order to break with the destructive language of homogenous religious communities, we need to consider the Brahminical Indian ideology that dominates the political landscape. According to Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, the solidification of communities as self-centered entities is built upon the caste system, whose purity-pollution theory provides the normative matrix within which attacks against the economic and cultural mobility of the Other can be enacted. He notes: “More than religious supremacy which gets invoked in attacks on the ‘other’, in India it is Brahminical supremacy which gets invoked in attacking others on a daily and an hourly basis. In the past, all other caste–communities were forcibly made subservient to Brahminism. Brahmins established a perpetual slave–master relationship with Dalit bahujansfor centuries, and that it what it expects from Muslims today.” The Hindu dominance that right-wing actors project today is cloaked in a Brahminical framework that equates India with an ancient Hindu cultural core, thus unifying lower castes against the Muslim Other. Muslim political assertion in the form of narrow religious communitarianism only fuels this dynamic of dichotomous differentiation. Only an anti-Brahminical stance against the internal hierarchies that divide religious identities can break the deadlock created by communalism. 

Brahminism as a communal formation is foundational to the social and cultural fabric of India, affecting all identity groups of the country. As a status quoist ideology that naturalizes hierarchy, it is highly appropriate for elites who seek to maintain their power and privilege. Rajeev Bhargava remarks that this is “the reason why it spread everywhere in India and beyond and why it endures: regardless of your religio-philosophical world view, if you are a privileged elite, you would find this ideology irresistible”. Since Brahminism tells those who are at the bottom to forget any chance of social mobility and know their place, it crafts “a system of graded inequality that seals… [people] in particularist identities and prevents the emergence of any radical universalist politics that could challenge its existence”. This consideration of Brahminism was present in Periyar’s thought, for whom Brahminical Hinduism was a wide-ranging term that “included and referred to Aryan and North Indian subordination, Hindi-Sanskrit hegemony, patriarchal systems of power, upper class domination and even the institute of Congress”. As such, his political focus encompassed all the constituents of subalternity – caste, gender, class, language and region. 

Through anti-Brahminism, he demystified the theological foundations of all forms of oppression, which use the motifs of zealotry, belonging, self-sacrifice, and reverence to make cover over the subject’s lack, to erase the existentially restless void that resides at the heart of the individual’s desire. Those who occupy the subaltern position in the hegemonic discourse don’t develop a strong affective relation to the ideals of devotion and deification that regulate the symbolic order. This is because they only gain a restricted entrance to the ideal offered by the symbolic order; their capacity to partake in the illusion of belonging is hampered by the exploitation they suffer at the hands of elites. Since they receive unequal treatment from contemporary society, their belonging is shorn of the appearance of complete realization.

Subalternity shows that the social structure can never constitute a closed totality – it always fails. Working from the site of failure, subaltern subjects gain the potential to point out the contingent nature of society, to show that it is a mere symbolic response to the traumatic void that is desire. That’s why Periyar opted for rationalist criticism, as it constantly invalidates and interrogates identities based on religion, nation, gender, language and caste as part of a struggle whose moment of arrival never comes. It is “ever-fluid, remorselessly struggling for citizenship, informed by ever-changing contours of rationalism, and continuously violating boundaries”. In the Self-Respect movement’s gender politics, this rationalist edge meant that anti-patriarchal criticism was framed from the perspective of a “free, autonomous and desiring subject, who is already disengaged from community and caste ties.”

In the context of the Karnataka hijab controversy, the experiences of the Self-Respect movement aid theoretical positions that don’t wish to ground their politics in the identities of family and community. Instead, they aim to build a new female subjectivity that is neither subordinate to men nor essentially different from men. This demonstrates that “a politics of identity need not always work from within already existing subaltern positions. It can also pitch its arguments in the future and in the present which is an anticipation of that future.” Such a utopian politics of secular association is something that has to be pursued in the present-day situation if we wish to step out of the competitive communalism in which Hindutva has landed us.  

Yanis Iqbal

Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at [email protected]. His articles have been published by different magazines and websites such as Monthly Review Online, Tehran Times, Modern Diplomacy, ZNet, Canada Files, Anti-war, Midwestern Marx, Anticonquista, Anti-Capitalist Resistance, Challenge, Big News Network, CGTN, Quint, Federación Anarquista, Akademi, South Asia Journal, International Magz, Green Social Thought, New Age, Frontier Post, Green Left, Palestinian Media Center in Europe, Rebelion, Newsclick, Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt, Weekly Worker, Europe Solidaire Sans Frontières, News and Letters Weekly, Economic and Political Weekly, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, Counterfire, Journal of People, Peasants and Workers, The Greanville Post, Plateforme altermondialiste, Dandelion Salad, Scribe, Arena, Eurasia Review, Coventry University Press, Culture Matters, Press TV, Global Research, Independent Australia, Dissident Voice, Axis of Logic, Marxism-Leninism Today, Scoop, United National Antiwar Coalition, Gauri Lankesh News, Kashmir Times, Good Morning Kashmir, Countercurrents, Counterview, Syria 360, Revolutionary Strategic Studies, Socialist Project, Hampton Institute, Orinoco Tribune, Intrepid Report, Ecuador Today, People’s Review, Eleventh Column, Pressenza, Karvaan India, Clarion India, OpEd News, Janata Weekly, The Iraq File, Iraq Sun, Portside and the Institute of Latin American Studies.

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