I took to heart a lesson in feminist activism that I learned a few years ago. I was invited to speak to students who were part of an outreach programme in Batticaloa. The day after the event, I met the organiser for a meal. She told me then that something I had said, about the possibilities if not the necessity of rejecting the institution of marriage, was not relevant to the youth I had spoken to. She was right. On the one hand, offering a perspective led by example may have impacted or interested a few. On the other, if I had paused to think about it, I would have recognised that that perspective could not be applied to most of the people present. The truth is that real change is slow, and that even as we create art, manifestos and more that present desired outcomes – we must work with ground realities not ideals.
This is why it is not just irrelevant, but also obfuscating, to say that many people are forced into wearing the hijab or that it is an unfeminist garment. What is important is that to force them out of schools or colleges because they wear it – as is happening in Karnataka now – is an injustice. This enforcement will not come from their communities, but from authorities and bigots.
It helps to recall that historically, the right to dress as per one’s own choices, as per cultural norms, or like those with structural power do, has always been politically loaded. The Kingdom of Travancore imposed a “breast tax” on women from marginalised castes who wanted to cover their upper bodies until 1859. Dalit men who sport moustaches are murdered even today in parts of India. Hijab-wearing Muslims in Karnataka and beyond are the latest minority to be punished using the rhetoric and semiotics of appearance.
In a brutal case that no one should forget, a 17-year old student at a college in Nokha, Rajasthan, was raped and murdered in 2017. She had been the first Dalit girl from her village to go to university, and the ripple effect in the community was reportedly that families had begun to doubt again whether they should give their daughters tertiary educations. Those humiliating videos now all over social media of teachers being forced to remove their hijabs and other religious attire before entering their institutions are of people who are able, but not necessarily willing, to make a compromise. That compromise is not only forced, but is also something not everyone can make. The desired consequence of this move is ultimately to confine more people to their homes, depriving them of independence as well as education.
It helps to recall also that the liberation of women was one of the justifications that both conservative and liberal people used when the USA began bombing Afghanistan and other Muslim countries after 9/11. The war crimes that followed cannot be justified. Those truly concerned with the liberation of women will be concerned only with how an education will empower them throughout their lives, and is indeed a fundamental right – not what they wear as they gain that education.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in February 2022. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.