The events surrounding a school in Udupi imposing sanctions on six female Muslim students wearing hijabs (headscarves) have raised several issues, which need to be considered beyond religious identity and allegiance.
In a society where the dichotomy between “freedom of choice” and “religion-based restrictions on women’s liberty” has existed for centuries, it must be remembered that intergroup tensions created by certain forces cannot be treated either as isolated incidents, nor as they should be dismissed as region-specific responses to the undercurrents of intolerance circulating in socio-political life.
A sensitive examination of the trajectory of events following the Udupi school incident highlights the fact that some fundamental issues that should have been raised and discussed have been set aside.
Notwithstanding that the secular fabric of our society is under threat, new unsuspecting groups, including schoolchildren, youth groups and many others who do not even know what is really going on, are being drawn into a trap created by the hidden “divisive” agenda of groups whose main objective is to reinforce patriarchal power hierarchies.
In the euphoria created by the forces that use religion as a framework for polarization, the interplay of factors surrounding the gendered lives of girls and women is not getting the kind of attention it deserves.
The whole issue is projected either as a clash between two religious groups or as a “culture war” in which certain forces within each group try to argue that in order to protect its culture, “dress codes” and “exclusion space” must be applied to women and girls.
Both of these views are not based on facts. What is true is that throughout patriarchal history women’s bodies have been used as a locus of control by men, and beyond religious identities, notions and practices of purity and pollution have been imposed on them.
Dual standards of morality determine what women and girls should or should not wear, and with whom they can or cannot interact. Male-centered values have drawn limits on women’s physical and social mobility, as the female body is seen as vulnerable to sexual abuse.
In her work entitled “Two Bodies”, Mary Douglas speaks of a “social body” which imposes restrictions on the perceptions of the “physical body”. Clothing isn’t always a matter of choice and it’s not what girls or women want and feel comfortable in that determines what they can wear, but it’s “body”. social” rooted in a patriarchal mindset that dictates their dress habits.
School uniforms also reflect gender identity and are often designed to remind girls of their ‘femininity’. Patriarchy explicitly and implicitly establishes dress codes, which are often imposed on girls. However, the same rigidity is not found vis-à-vis men’s clothing.
Preventing girls, regardless of the social group to which they belong, from pursuing their educational aspirations, amounts to a violation of their right under Article 15 of the Indian Constitution, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.
Girls’ education has suffered a serious setback due to school closures imposed by COVID-19, leading many girls to stay away from school or marry at an inappropriate age. There are growing concerns that gender gaps in education are widening and that girls are at greater risk than boys of losing access to school, and this is particularly true for adolescent girls. .
With many schools in online mode, around 40% of girls could not afford mobile phones, and there has been a return to an uncertain state. This is especially true for many young Muslim girls, who were out of their homes for the first time and hoped that education would bring change to their lives.
It is time for all sensible people to look at the issue from a gender perspective and correct the situation.
(The author is a retired Professor, Sociology, Mysore University)