Book: The Hijab: Islam, Women and the Politics of Clothing
Edited by: P.K. Yasser Arafath and G. Arunima
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
The year, 2022, witnessed the insertion of a new dynamic in India’s ongoing negotiations with secularism and minority rights — that of students donning the hijab in educational spaces. The contention raised around Muslim women wearing the hijab remains limitedly engaged with, given the baseline argument of the hijab being an oppressive entity which forward-looking, young, Muslim women have a moral responsibility to reject. This edited volume developed in response to these socio-political churnings holds a stimulating collection of essays delving into the multifaceted roles and functions the hijab plays — situating it in a complex web of interpersonal, social and political relations, culminating in Noor Zaheer’s haunting fictional piece.
Over the course of four sections, The Hijab sets up and explores the nuances within this divisive debate, familiarising the reader with threads overlooked in newsroom discourse and raising the bar for such conversations to be had. It contextualises the phases of saffronisation, the new route being charted in light of the events in Karnataka, and the “normalisation of hyper masculine Hindutva politics.” It highlights the role the garment plays in the lives of Muslim women who choose to wear it or not; how the reasons themselves are never static, instead responding to factors determined by political, patriarchal and religious institutions. Symbolically, this is a piece of clothing where the public and the private intersect.
The final section situates the hijab in the larger web of movements, ideologies and means of resistance, with the hijab no longer just a reflection of “religious oppression” and “Muslim sexual fetishism”. The rationale of hijabing continues to evolve, transforming something meant to denote submission into a medium of visibility and defiance. The book’s contents become all the more valuable when one reads into it the context of not just Karnataka but also Kashmir, Shaheen Bagh, Kerala and, even further, in the fights raging on in Iran, Afghanistan, Algeria and the rest of the world where Muslim women’s sartorial choices are raised to question.
Most enduring are perhaps the essays written by Muslim women themselves who attest to how the hijab row was an absurd, concocted scheme solely to mobilise students along the lines of “communal polarization and bigotry”. Replete with anecdotes and sartorial debates from their inner circles, the book is refreshing in the sense it centres the hijab among the very people it concerns, shedding light on the personal manifestations of the political. The personal narratives of hijabi and non-hijabi Muslim women recounted in the book invoke the need for a greater awareness and active engagement with the Constitution — the hijab row violates the rights to education, religious practice and dissent.
These debates and themes are not exhaustive; the text simply offers a standpoint from where we may begin to explore the political economy of this particular garment. It attempts to return dignity to a discourse flagellated by the crass and narrow-mindedness of the patriarchal and religious agents of the State — majoritarian cultural nationalism strives for a homogenous society built upon unmarking the bodies of minorities whose “socio-psychological balance” seeks to be destroyed.