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Hijab Row: Indian Students Fight For Freedom Of Expression

As they have lost major ground against India’s working class in the farmer’s struggle, the right-wing BJP is now making young women’s bodies a battleground. The “Hijab Row” began in the southern city of Bangalore, Karnataka but protests have erupted all across the country in support of these women’s religious rights. In cities like Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad, and others, young women and girls have been at the front of the movement, demanding that the BJP-led government respect the right of women to wear the hijab in public schools.

This protest began when students were barred from entering the campus due to their wearing of the hijab in Kandapur PU College, a college where students had been wearing hijabs for decades. After many students refused, not only did the state government step in to enforce this unconstitutional act by a government institution, but Hindutva groups encouraged mass intimidation of Muslim students and protestors, appearing with saffron shawls and yelling “Jai Shri Ram” while attempting to bar hijabi girls from entering campus. Similar bans have not been enacted on bindis, turbans, crosses, etc. Even in the Indian Army, Sikhs for example are allowed to keep their turbans. Despite the argument that this ban is “protecting secularism”, it’s a transparent attack on the Muslim community, which is taking place in a context marked by a sharp spike in communal attacks against religious minorities under the BJP rule — and against Muslims most particularly.

These attacks have escalated to the point where youth protesters are under investigation and arrests have been made. The BJP and other Hindutva groups have no shame in using the power of the state to arrest young girls who want to go to school. Their only aim is to disrupt and promote disorder.

Attacks On Women Nothing New In BJP’s Crusade

In order to understand the context of this newest struggle, it’s important to know that this is not the first time the BJP has used women as pawns to promote their Hindu supremacist agenda. In Karnataka, this follows a new “anti-conversion” bill which is designed not only to criminalize the freedom of marriage and religious expression, but also incentivize people to claim victimhood falsely for financial gain as the “perpetrator” may be sued in court for up to five lakh (1 lakh = 100,000) rupees. Of course, this and other similar laws around the country (such as in Uttar Pradesh where false accusations of “love jihad” led to a young couple being wrongly arrested and the bride having a miscarriage while in jail) have no basis in the public interest, or “safety” for women, but in fact are intended to undermine safety and public order by encouraging communalism and enshrining segregation in law.

The purpose of these restrictions is manifold: one purpose is to outrage the community and encourage an escalation of the situation to violence which would play into the hands of the BJP. As well, these restrictions aim to intimidate Muslims, especially young women, away from participating in Indian society. The BJP has seen that through such egregious violations of civil rights, they can energize right-wing mobs to finish the job for them even when their unconstitutional laws are struck down in court as they were in Gujarat High Court last year. By energizing their base and encouraging escalation to the point of mob violence, they seek to de facto disenfranchise non-Hindus from Indian society while promoting pluralism on paper. No doubt they intend to continue this trend as the unconstitutional hijab ban has already spread to Madhya Pradesh where a government college has also banned hijabs just this week. As those imposed by several other capitalist governments in the past under various forms, the ban of the hijabs is also meant to divert attention away from the real problems facing millions of working-class and poor people, such as the staggering growths in inequality, prices of basic goods, unemployment and poverty — problems which are likely to resurface in India in the context of the ongoing assembly polls taking place in five states.

No Freedom Of Choice

Whether a woman wants to bare her skin or cover her hair, it is up to her to decide how to administer her own body. No student should have to choose between her hijab and her education. While the Hindutva bigots proclaim that they are “liberating” girls from being “forced” to wear hijab, they are in fact the ones who are doing the forcing. Many women and girls wear the hijab because it gives them a sense of security and confidence in a society where sexism is rife. BJP MP’s have no interest in protecting womens’ safety as they make such bold and open lies as to claim (as Pragya Thakur recently stated) that Hindu men “worship women” and “don’t see them with evil eyes”, making the ridiculous implication that only Muslim men commit sex crimes!

At the same time, women who are sexually assaulted are constantly victim-blamed for their clothing rather than listened to, leaving them left between a rock and a hard place. The sickening hypocrisy of the ruling party was on full display when BJP local MP Renukacharya, political secretary to the Chief Minister, recently claimed that rape cases are increasing as some dresses worn by women “excite” men. In other words, women are both too covered, and not covered enough — it is always their fault. This shows how hellbent the ruling party is in policing women’s bodies, even if that means defending one thing and its opposite.

We’ve also seen some on the “pro-hijab” side make these same claims, such as Congress MP Zameer Ahmad who stated “the rate of rape in India is one of the highest… because the women are not in Hijab.” This is not a defense of women, but simply victim-blaming in the name of “modesty”. This kind of “support” is misguided and misses the point that the decision to wear or not wear a hijab should be dictated neither by government, husband, or family, but rather by a woman’s personal preference.

Building a feminist and secular India does not mean imposing prescriptive and oppressive mandates around women’s bodies, but rather ensuring freedom of choice and freedom of privacy for all. It means breaking down the barriers to education access for women regardless of religion, caste, or income. A socialist India would not only ensure freedom of religion for all, but also provide free education and guaranteed jobs for women, breaking the economic and societal chains that bind women. In the struggle for women’s freedom, we demand more investment in public education. Our taxes should not be paying for the government to arrest young girls for trying to go to school!

Attempts To Divide Prove We Need To Stand Together

In encouraging attacks on women’s sovereignty over their bodies, their religion, and their marital status, the right-wing demonstrates they understand how to make use of the multiple layers of oppression to its own advantage. Women, who already face so much difficulty in India no matter what community, due to astronomical levels of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and sex discrimination, again face another form of oppression with this gender-specific religious discrimination. Yet the ruling class, while subject to the same prejudices as the rest of us, nevertheless understands that its own class solidarity is the prime driver of their position in society. By driving a wedge between the vulnerable parts of society, they want to pit us against each other, the classic strategy of divide and conquer.

However, it is not the job of socialists to simply sweep women’s issues under the rug in favor of a class-only approach. As our record shows, International Socialist Alternative stands behind a woman’s right to choose what to wear, how much to wear, who to marry, whether to marry, or whether to have an abortion. We don’t just abstractly “support” these struggles with words. We actively participate and organize feminist action around the world, with such projects as Campaign ROSA. Such freedoms however are not just granted by a benevolent ruling class. They must be fought for and taken by a united working class as part of a larger program of socialist change. If you feel that rather than ban hijab, we should fight for more education access for girls of all religions, join ISA India today!

Down with the Hijab Ban! Education for all women!

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