As Indian Muslim women are banned from attending classes because of their Islamic dress, western activists are largely silent
Muslim women attend a protest after educational institutes in Karnataka, India, denied entry to students for wearing hijabs, in Bangalore on 7 February 2022 (AFP)
Recent disturbing video footage showing female Muslim students in Karnataka state at their closed college gate, desperately pleading with their principal to let them enter campus, highlights the dangerous climate facing this politically besieged minority community in India.
The women were excluded from attending classes because they wear headscarves or face veils. With no support from the BJP government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the young women have turned to the media to make their case, hoping they will ultimately be able to take their exams and pursue future careers.
Their religious affiliation has become their primary identity, one used to excise them from the body politic like a virus
While there has been an upsurge in recent years of attacks and hate speech by members of India’s Hindu majority against non-Hindu communities, such violence is nothing new. Muslims are framed as a particular demographic and political threat to a Hindu rashtra (a Hindu religious supremacist state). Muslims in India have been threatened with massacres, attacked by mobs forcing them to chant Indian nationalist and Hindu religious slogans, brutally beaten and burned alive, and seen their mosques vandalised.
While Muslim men have been the conventional focus of Indian Islamophobia, under the guise of the anti-terrorism police actions and so-called “love Jihad” witch hunts, Muslim women are increasingly under attack. Hindutva networks and their foot soldiers have posted faux-auctions online, purportedly selling Muslim women and using derogatory slurs.
Many of the women had successful careers, “but to our would-be auctioneers, we were just Muslim women who needed to be shamed and silenced”, noted journalist Ismat Ara.
To her dismay, Ara discovered that the suspects in the networks were all young people, and one of them is an eighteen year-old female orphan. She wrote: “What better expresses the rot in Indian society today?”
‘Why did you stay here?’
Young Hindu men and women have taken to wearing saffron scarves on campus in protest against the hijab, turning it into a tit-for-tat and claiming that Hindu rights are violated by Muslim women wearing Islamic attire.
Muslim students, meanwhile, worry about the impact a prolonged row could have on their grades, and are stunned at how the attacks on their religious identity have escalated.
Some college authorities have said they were operating under government orders, while officials have also claimed baselessly that the hijab violates college uniform regulations. Frenzied commenters have flooded social media, suggesting that if the hijab and burqa were permitted in educational institutions, Indian Muslims would then impose “sharia law” on the country.
Mob hysteria, fostered by the country’s political leaders, has spread from Karnataka to other states. The education minister in Madhya Pradesh recently said the hijab would be banned in schools in that state. A Hindu member of parliament, Pratap Simha, suggested that Muslims who wear distinctive religious clothing should attend Islamic madrassas, adding that India was a Hindu country where Islam did not belong: “If you still insist on practising sharia, we have already given you a separate country in 1947… So why did you stay here?”
Forced into a corner
Battle lines have been drawn in educational institutions overnight, forcing Muslim women into a corner. Their religious affiliation has become their primary identity, one used to excise them from the body politic like a virus. One Karnataka official instructed women wearing the hijab to quit attending college, as they had “polluted the atmosphere“.
Muslim women’s clothing is now either a virus to be removed or a cause to be championed; it is fetishised and demonised. As one 19-year-old student wrote: “I had read on social media the discrimination that Muslims in the country face but now I have experienced it for the first time. I was made to realise that I am a Muslim. Someone who dresses differently. I have never thought about these things before.”
This week, video emerged of a lone Muslim woman in Islamic dress going to college while being pursued by a crowd of young Hindu men wearing saffron scarves and chanting menacingly towards her. Rather than flee, she chanted “Allahu akbar” (God is great). She has been admired for her courage in standing her ground.
For the most part, however, concern for India’s Muslim women has been limited to fellow Muslim communities. One wonders about western human rights and women’s activists who admire the beloved Malala Yousafzai; their silence suggests that their concern does not extend to the educational futures of Indian Muslim women. Succour seems to be offered to Muslim women only when Muslim men are the oppressors.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Shabana Mir is an associate professor and director of the Undergraduate Education at the American Islamic College, Chicago. She is author of “Muslim American Women on Campus: Undergraduate Social Life and Identity”. She tweets @ShabanaMir1