With saffron flags and matching scarves, the men sing loudly in chorus while mocking their targets: Muslim women in hijab who remain huddled in one corner of the street.
What started in January as a peaceful demonstration of six Muslim students protesting for the right to wear the hijab in their state-run school has turned into a major movement defined by gender, religion and dress. And the arrival, weeks later, of counter-protesters dressed in saffron is a sign of the blurred lines between the Indian state and religion.
The orange-yellow hue, seen as a symbol of divinity in Hinduism, has been bravely adopted by the far-right Hindutva movement and in recent years increasingly politicized. The movement seeks to homogenize Indian culture around Hindu values.
“I started covering my head three years ago as a protest against crimes against Muslims,” 23-year-old Muslim activist Afreen Fatima said in a telephone interview. She had demonstrated in her hometown of Allahabad in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
“But now it has become a spiritual obligation for me. It is an assertion of my identity. I am an Indian Muslim and I am not going anywhere.”
A symbol of resistance
The hijab, an Islamic headscarf, is worn by millions of Muslim women around the world as a sign of modesty and privacy. But in some countries, clothing has proven to be controversial, and critics have portrayed it as a symbol of oppression or claiming it to be incompatible with secular values.
In India, however, the hijab is neither forbidden nor restricted in public space, and the right to practice one’s faith is guaranteed under the country’s secular constitution. But like elsewhere in the world, Muslim women can be subjected to backlash and discrimination when they choose to wear one.
According to Indian poet and activist Nabiya Khan, Muslim women are “imagined in an Islamic veil and seen as submissive” because they do not “fit the feminist elite’s feminist narrative.”
“I wear the hijab because I want to,” she said via WhatsApp. “It serves me a religious and spiritual significance. It brings me closer to my god.”
Muslim students leave their school in Udupi, Karnataka, after being denied entry on February 16, 2022. Credit: Stringer / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images
The conflict in Karnataka began after a small group of hijabi students were denied access to their classrooms in the coastal city of Udupi, according to the petition they later filed in the state Supreme Court. In early January, the girls staged a protest outside their government-run school, demanding that they come inside. But their teachers refused.
Their demonstration sparked rival protests from right-wing Hindus wearing saffron scarves and flags (such as those captured in the aforementioned video) and singing a religious Hindu slogan in support of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and demands that the girls remove their headgear.
The clashes spread through Karnataka, where the state ordered a three-day closure of all high schools and colleges in early February. Authorities in the state capital, Bengaluru, also banned protests outside schools for two weeks.
Karnataka Education Minister BC Nagesh said he supported a ban on hijab in educational institutions. Referring to the state’s mandate on religious attire, CNN-affiliated CNN News-18 states that the Karnataka government “is very adamant that the school is not a platform for practicing dharma (religion).”
The BJP did not respond to CNN’s request for comment or to allegations that it supports Hindu nationalism and uses the hijab series for political gain. When asked about the hijab controversy during a meeting with journalists in February, India’s finance minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, told CNN that the matter was up to the Karnataka government to handle.
Muslim women in Mumbai protest against Karnataka government on 13 February 2022. Credit: Praful Gangurde / Hindustan Times / Getty Images
Karnataka has already passed legislation which, according to critics, is rooted in the Hindutva ideology. Last year, the state banned the sale and slaughter of cows, an animal considered sacred to Hindus. It also introduced a controversial anti-conversion bill that makes it harder for interfaith couples to marry or for people to convert to Islam or Christianity.
For Fatima, the hijacking is just the latest step by the authorities to curb Muslim voices.
“This movement is us who are fighting for our faith, identity and religious freedom,” she said. “By wearing our hijab and taking this stand, we are telling Hindus that we will not go back.”
They pay tribute to her and demand that she take off her hijab. But instead of complying, Khan shouts back “Allahu Akbar” – which means “God is great” in Arabic – and blows her fist.
Her raised fist has become an icon in spite. In an act of solidarity, dozens of Muslim women have changed their Twitter profile photos to a silhouette of Khan’s raised fist, while her resemblance has appeared on posters and posters at demonstrations.
Ashish Bagchi is one of many designers and artists who have shared illustrations inspired by Khan on social media. His image shows her walking with her head held high while saffron-colored arms – representatives of the Hindu right wing – intrude on her.
Ashish Bagchi’s illustration depicts saffron-colored arms around Muskan Khan, which has become a symbol of opposition to the proposed hijab ban. Credit: Ashish Bagchi
Bagchi’s personal political works, which appear on his Instagram and Twitter, present a tale of India’s shrinking freedoms.
“What really touched me was the way she stood,” he said. “What stood out to me were the men shouting and waving at her with their saffron chairs. Unfortunately, the saffron color now symbolizes a particular political ideology.”
The politicization of colors
The color saffron has roots in Hinduism – one of the world’s oldest religions – and represents peace. About 80% of India’s 1.3 billion people are Hindus, and the color is seen draped on idols in the temples, tied around the necks of the cows and used as street decorations during festivals.
Hindu holy men take a dip in the Ganges River during the religious Kumbh Mela festival in Haridwar on April 12, 2021. Credit: MONEY SHARMA / AFP / Getty Images
But ever since the BJP came to power with a Hindu nationalist agenda in 2014, the color has become more and more politicized. Modi and his countrymen are often seen wearing saffron-colored clothing and accessories at election rallies, while supporters wave the party’s flag (which is primarily saffron) or other similarly colored ones.
“The acquisition of saffron is a way of signaling that the party is not just political, but deeply rooted in religion,” Gilles Verniers, assistant professor of political science at Ashoka University of India, said in a telephone interview.
A crowd at a meeting of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on April 3, 2019 in Kolkata, India. Credit: Atul Loke / Getty Images
“The color serves the purpose of a ‘uniform’ and gives BJP supporters a sense of unity and community.”
Yogi Adityanath at the inauguration of Awadh Shilpgram Cultural Center and Marketplace in Lucknow, India, on March 19, 2021. Credit: T. Narayan / Bloomberg / Getty Images
“The religious symbolism used by the Hindu right wing today is a complete reversal of what Indian culture is. They have given color a different meaning,” Mukherjee said.
“That is not what the Hindu religion stands for. And it is certainly not an organic feeling that comes from many Hindu Indians.
“It is a very frightening moment for India,” he added, referring to how extremists have carried out violent attacks on Muslims.
It is perhaps symbolic that as saffron becomes an increasingly common sight in public life, the status of the hijab in India has now been questioned. Karnataka’s High Court has finished considering whether schools can ban headscarves or not, and a decision is expected soon. Meanwhile, its temporary ordinance banning all religious clothing in educational institutions with an existing dress code or uniform still stands.
For activist Fatima, removing the hijab is “like asking our women to strip.”
“It is understandably disturbing. It is unethical,” she said, adding that she will not be “silenced” by the growing Hindu right wing.
“The opportunities we as Muslims have to demand justice are very few. Muslim women are worse off. We do not have the privilege of remaining silent. We want to assert our identity even more.”
Top caption: Students and activists hold banners while shouting slogans during a demonstration in Karnataka after Muslim students were asked not to wear the hijab in schools.
In today’s India, clothing choices signal a deeper religious divide
Source link In today’s India, clothing choices signal a deeper religious divide