Hijab bans in India: Where communalism and patriarchy intersect

Why does India’s Hindu right refuse to believe Muslim women when they say the hijab is not a sign of oppression?

Four years ago, when I was travelling across the northern Indian state of Haryana to report on “rape culture” there, I met a slight-bodied young woman at a local district court. She, a Dalit, was there to fight a case against four upper-caste men who had raped her.

We spoke for a few hours. She told me about her recent separation from her husband of eight years and the physical violence she faced, including repeated rape, throughout her marriage.

What struck me was that she was valiantly fighting a legal battle against strangers who raped her, but had never considered filing a case of domestic abuse against her husband. Her story made me realise that women don’t always make choices that appear modern and progressive. That their choices are informed by the social, historical and personal contexts they exist in. That feminism does not have one face.

The ongoing hijab controversy in the southern Indian state of Karnataka made me think of that young woman in Haryana. Why? Because in Karnataka, young Muslim girls are fighting their schools, Hindu right-wing mobs, the state government and even the state’s judiciary to be able to keep their hijabs on in classrooms. This is unquestionably a feminist struggle – after all, these women are fighting against patriarchal attempts to police their dress. But not everyone is seeing it that way.

Hindu right-wing groups, and even certain sections of India’s elite intelligentsia, appear convinced that these women must have been “brainwashed” by their oppressive families or the Islamic orthodoxy to want to wear this garment. Smartphones and television screens across the country are filled with provocative reports and images implying that young Muslim women do not have agency. That they must be tricked into thinking this way. That they must be saved from their own families and culture – they must be saved from themselves.

Of course, these points of view are not sprouting out of the ground completely organically. Amid elections in five states, including India’s most populous and perhaps politically significant state Uttar Pradesh, there were political machinations at play. The hijab controversy was being amped up by the governing BJP and the wider Hindu right wing to legitimise and whitewash their anti-Muslim attitudes and rally their supporters behind an emotive cause during elections.

The Hindutva project to ‘save’ Muslim women

As scholar Hilal Ahmed recently wrote, the “Hijab controversy has exposed the interplay between patriarchy and communalism” in India. But this is in no way a recent development – the Hindu right wing has been pretending to “save” Muslim women from Muslim men to further their own anti-Muslim agenda for decades.

For example, in 1986, when the Congress government passed an act that overturned the Supreme Court’s Shah Bano decision – which had established that Muslim divorcees are entitled to collect alimony from their former husbands like divorcees from other religions, and was opposed fiercely by some Muslim groups – the BJP emerged as one of the main defenders of the rights of Muslim women. Their main gripe was, of course, the “appeasement” of the Muslim community by the Congress government, but they still presented themselves as working to save Muslim women from Muslim men.

Some 30 years later, in 2019, they once again tried to assume the role of the “saviour of Muslim women”, when they passed legislation criminalising triple talaq (Muslim instant divorce). Never mind that the very same party, and mobs associated with it, have been behind countless policies, laws and violent agitations, from the tearing down of the Babri Masjid to the discriminatory citizenship laws, that devastated Muslim communities, including countless Muslim women, over the years.

The BJP’s apparent urge to “save” Muslim women, of course, does not indicate any real concern over their wellbeing and, in fact, has very little to do with them. Often, in the politics of saving, the person who is being “saved” is less important than the person from whom they are being “saved”. For the Hindu right wing too, the person they are “saving”, the Muslim woman, is of little importance – the one that matters is the person they are saving her from: the oppressive, violent, sexually deviant Muslim man. The Muslim woman is nothing but a tool to vilify the Muslim man.

And this is the primary reason why the Hindu right wing is trying to prevent Muslim women from wearing the hijab despite their protests: Their efforts have nothing to do with “saving” women, and everything to do with making Muslim men, and Islam in general, appear backward and oppressive.

The hijab through the Western gaze

Feminist critic Gayatri Spivak, in her influential essay, Can the Subaltern Speak, famously defined the abolition of the Hindu rite of sati (self-immolation of women after the death of their husbands) in India by the British as “a case of white men saving brown women from brown men”.

Since then, the phrase has routinely been used to describe Western pretences to “save” brown women, especially Muslim women, from their own culture and communities, with the ulterior motive of demonising – and even criminalising – Muslim men, and furthering the West’s own political and strategic agendas. And for the West, “saving brown women from brown men” has remained a primary excuse for wreaking havoc on the rest of the world for centuries.

After the 9/11 terror attacks, for example, the US attempted to classify its invasion of Afghanistan as an attempt to “save” Afghan women. In November 2001, then First Lady Laura Bush delivered a radio address to the nation, claiming that America’s “fight against terrorism” in Afghanistan was simultaneously a “fight for the rights and dignity of women”.

Hijab – and other types of head and face coverings used by Muslim women across the world – has long been at the centre of these efforts. Indeed, the West has historically viewed the hijab as a symbol of female oppression and waged numerous legal and cultural wars against it, often despite the protestations of the women wearing it.

It is hardly surprising that an almost identical war against the hijab is currently being waged in India supported by certain sections of the intelligentsia.

Over the years, many in the upper echelons of Indian society, both those on the left and the right, adopted a Western gaze, and came to see the hijab the way white people do: a symbol of oppression, a cry by Muslim women to be “saved”.

In the end, the ongoing hijab controversy in Karnataka is not only an interplay between patriarchy and communalism but also the adopted Western gaze. Hindu nationalists who are claiming they are on yet another mission to save Muslim women, against their will, from Muslim men and culture, are just playing the same game they have played for decades. Those supporting this “saviour narrative” and also claiming to be “feminists”, meanwhile, are adopting tropes long used by the West to subjugate, rule over and devastate the Global South.

So how should feminists, and anyone else who claims to care for women’s rights, respond to this latest controversy? Well, they should shed their arrogance and acknowledge that Muslim women do not need “saving” – neither by Hindu nationalists nor by elite liberals.

They should recognise that Muslim women have agency, and a voice. And all that they need is for people to listen.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.