Why Muslim women wear hijab? After two years of trying to decipher muted speech and hidden expressions while wearing a mask, one learns to feel empathy for the millions of women who hide their faces. Face coverings with varied limitations are a way of life for 58 percent of Hindu women and 88 percent of Muslim women in India, whether they are called ghunghat, pallu, burqa, or hijab. It appears to be particularly concerning to impose them on young girls in educational institutions. As a result, it’s easy to understand why educational authorities in Karnataka want to outlaw the hijab, even though the hijab’s head covering is far less restrictive than a full burqa or ghunghat. When it comes to cultural shifts, however, external initiatives often have the opposite effect.
The Indian opposition to the colonial Age of Consent Bill, which set the minimum age for girls to marry at 12 years old, best exemplifies this problem. “We have often pointed out that we are not against the particular change demanded,” Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who was immensely progressive in his personal life, summed up his crusade against this statute in an 1891 editorial. Individually, we would be willing to go above and beyond what the government recommends. Nonetheless, we are not prepared to impose our beliefs on the vast majority of orthodox people. We are confident that most of the reforms now being espoused will be gradually embraced over time.”
Veiling under the pretense of modesty is unlikely to go away until women actively demand it. Haryana is arguably the most striking demonstration. A quiet revolution began a few years ago in a state noted for its steadfast adherence to ghunghat when Manju Yadav, a schoolteacher, started a campaign to get women leaders together to cast off their ghunghats. When one of the largest khaps, the Malik Gathwala Khap, encouraged women to stop wearing ghunghat, the campaign gathered traction.
In the Muslim community, however, mobilizing to protest veiling is difficult. Sania Mirza has received a lot of backlash from fellow Muslims for refusing to play tennis while fully clothed. Clerics instructed Shabana Azmi to stick to singing and dancing if she wanted to discuss whether facial covering was commanded by the Quran.
Gender, however, appears to be a key battleground in the culture wars, resulting in unusual bedfellows and scenarios that make oppressed people complicit in their oppression. External forces that drive women to choose between their gendered interests and banding together to safeguard their communities must be removed to demand emancipation from restrictive gender norms.
Women’s ability to overcome repressive gender stereotypes is greatly aided by education. Data suggests that education is linked to a lesser prevalence of purdah or ghunghat, whether Hindus or Muslims. Ghunghat or purdah is practiced by 67 percent of women with less than a Class V education, compared to 38 percent of women with a college education. Requiring women to remove their headscarf to attend school, on the other hand, puts the cart before the horse. This is a concerning issue for Muslim women. According to the National Statistical Office, Muslim women have a gross attendance ratio of 43% in secondary school, compared to 63% for all Indian women. Rather than erecting barriers, education systems should do all possible to encourage Muslim girls to participate.
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