The discussion and debate around banning the hijab in schools because it is “religious clothing” that cannot be allowed in secular educational institutions compels Muslim women wearing the hijab to explain their piety to a public that fundamentally distrusts “religiousness”. and unanimously identifies as “secular.”
Among this secular audience, most marvel that Muslim women choose to participate in their subjection by wearing the hijab (the ultimate symbol of oppression) and, as the vanguard of liberalism, they “support their choice’ to wear it in the name of ‘agency and free will.’
The implicit demand is that hijabi women explain themselves as religious subjects in ‘secular’ India. But has India really been “secular”? Or have the practices of Hinduism been secularized in the name of “Indian” under the category of “culture”?
Religion is the culture is the nation
Almost all “cultural events” in schools begin with the illumination ceremony of the “auspicious” diya to ward off the darkness of ignorance and to welcome wisdom through Goddess Rajeshwari (meaning Gyana , wisdom), accompanied by “Gayatri Mantra” (a famous Rig Mantra Veda dedicated to the Vedic deity Savitri) chanted for peace and harmony.
Bankimchandra’s ‘Vande Matram’ (greetings to mother), which celebrates India as a homeland radiant with the power of the goddesses Durga, Laxmi and Saraswati, is the ‘national song’, popular at school ceremonies.
In the same school system, Muslim women cannot wear the hijab because school is not a place for “religion”.
This is not to point out the hypocrisy of educational institutions that privilege one religion over another. It is rather a question of stopping and questioning what is called religion or who is seen as religious in the discourse of Indian secularism, which disavows upper caste Hinduism and claims it as “Indian culture”. which is “national” (Indian) in its moorings, so that there are no “Hindu Indians”, only “Indians”, who belong to the upper caste. In the secular claims of India as a nation, there is no ‘religion’, only the ‘culture of India’.
When Karnataka’s Minister of Education warns educational institutions that have arrested Hindu students for wearing tilak, kumkum, bindi, sindoor and explains how these constitute the “cultural identity” of Hindus, it should be taken seriously. He does not echo the right-wing argument of the supremacy of the Hindu religion, he does not say that these are “religious symbols” but invokes the secular argument of “it is not religion, but culture”.
He speaks this language of a large part of the intellectuals who identify themselves as secular-liberal, who celebrate the “Durga puja” as a “cultural festival”; constantly recount Hindu customs and rituals as “Indian”; relentlessly criticize India’s Hindutva-enforced “cultural deprivation” and lament the loss of the “syncretic culture” of the Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb, practiced by the upper class, often upper-caste, Hindus and Muslims of the northern India.
Only religious minorities are identified as ‘religious’, with the religion of the majority interpreted as ‘national’.
In order not to undermine or minimize the exceptional violence of the current political regime, it is nevertheless crucial to understand what underlies this creeping, often absurd, but feverishly blatant project of dehumanization of Muslims in contests of nation and religion. . If the exemplary violence that permeates the lives of Muslims – lynchings, pogroms, incarcerations, police brutality, hate speech, online auctions – is trivialized under the current regime, its symbolic origins nevertheless lie in the fabric of secularism where Hinduism has not only ceased to remain a religion but has emerged as a cultural identity which has come to replace a “national identity”; Muslims, as a “religious” community, have failed to become part of the national imaginary (like Dalits, Adivasis, women).
The favorite liberal secular phrase around nation and religion challenges has been how they see “everyone as Indian” or how “they’re Indian, first!” It’s no surprise, then, that when women wearing the hijab held the national flag, sang the national anthem and swore by the constitution during anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests, they were hailed as those who “saved the the dying spirit of Indian secularism. The same women wearing the hijab in the absence of national proclamations are portrayed as those who jeopardize Indian secularism. Outside of the secular imagination, hijabi women “appear” as religious subjects, which cannot fit into the discourse of secularism, which has nationalized Hinduism as a culture, but which is distractedly anxious, almost phobic, of Islam.
For how can the subordinate speak?
Absent the shadow of ‘nation’, Muslim hijabi women remain truly subordinate. Their subalternity has nothing to do with their ability to express themselves, which they have repeatedly and unflinchingly demonstrated, often in dire circumstances – through anti-CAA protests, during police brutality in Jamia and in the ongoing hijab debates as well.
It is secular discourse that identifies Muslim hijabi women as subordinate because it cannot to imagine as “subject agents” or “subject volunteers” of Islam, able to navigate and negotiate practices of piety, and to forge themselves as ethical subjects. It invariably falls back on jaded liberal conceptions of choice and free will – as if “secular” women really are able to “choose” marriage, life partners, sexuality, motherhood and careers.
Indian feminist discourse has remained equally committed to secular ideals and, confusing religion and patriarchy, has repeatedly returned to “save Muslim women” by shifting the debate from religion to education. There is a real struggle within secular feminist discourse to understand why young Muslim hijab women would refuse to give up their hijab or their right to an education. This refusal – to choose – has no meaning in the context where the hijab is perceived as an oppressive choice.
Instead of asking what it means for Muslim women to wear the hijab and making it their responsibility to explain their faith to a secular audience skeptical of religion, perhaps secularism needs to reflect of her own making and be somewhat prepared to find her own religious self disavowed. . Or commit to denying it.
What is deeply ironic in the discourse of secularism is that it finds its ideal in Gandhi, someone who has always recognized himself as a religious subject. Confronted with his death, Gandhi’s “Hey Ram” is immortalized, but a hijabi student, chased by a crowd chanting “Jai Shree Ram!” cannot respond with “Allahu Akbar!” He is advised to have said, “Jai Hind!” because it would be more appropriate for Muslims to be less religious and more secular (national). But wasn’t ‘Hind’ a living, throbbing entity when Gandhi was struck down? Yet no one objects to the “Hey Ram!” of Gandhi.
Ultimately, it’s not whether secularism can tolerate religion, but what religion is it willing to tolerate as “religion”. The continued harassment of veiled Muslim women tells us that while Gandhi’s religiosity will be tolerated in the name of the secular nation, Muskan’s piety will be challenged in the name of the same secular nation.
Zehra Mehdi is a psychoanalytic therapist and doctoral candidate at Columbia University in the Department of Religion. She thanks Safwan Amir, Adil Hossain, Shweta Radhakrishnan and Aparna Vaidik for their valuable comments..