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Friday, March 1, 2024
PHILADELPHIA, Apr 22 2022 (IPS) - The Karnataka court’s verdict to uphold the hijab ban has intensified the protest in the state. The row has been typically perceived by many as manufactured by the politicians pointing to the culture of politics in the state. While the jury is still out there on this, evidence on how state’s local culture constructs and deconstructs religious identity allows drawing conclusions with some definitiveness. The culture of state’s politics is one side of the coin. Considering its flip side – politics of culture, particularly of the religious cultural identity, is just as relevant.
Interestingly, Muslims used the same description of munda and hinda except from a different perspective: “we muslims are munda to make use of government provided resources”, a Muslim household member remarked, “but we are forced to be ahead because Hindus have pushed us hinda (behind) in accessing the higher quality resources.”
While such dissonance with sharing of valued-resources with a group that was religiously distinct was telling, it was around the dress code – wearing of the hijab, burqa and niqab wearing that the binary distinction – hinda and munda, sharpened.
The remark of a Hindu woman summed up such an ethos: “how can we access health insurance when large number of Muslim women in their long hijabs and long burqas are always in the queue ahead of us? The burqas certainly help them to hide their faces but the dress also makes them hypervisible to the hospital staff and that is how they end up being ahead of us using up all the time and space at the hospital. The burqas may hide their faces but they also make us invisible to the doctors and nurses because we get hidden behind their large burqas, and thus get left behind.”
Burqa ban isn’t unique to Karnataka. Many countries in the west have banned these articles of clothing and the justification for the ban globally ranges from concern about national security, integration into the mainstream society and feminist arguments such as, promoting women’s liberation. However, the cultural contexts in which bans operate are certainly unique and need to be explored. In Karnataka, the ban has surfaced in the colleges and in the education sphere at large but, as the evidence on reaction to the availing of health services indicates, the dissonance is much more deep-seated and widespread. While officially the ban is justified on grounds of need for uniformity and wearing of hijab is not seen as necessary to religious practice, such top-down rationale needs to be understood within the context of everyday local, cultural perception that Muslims are a threat to fair share of valued resources, including education and health of the country. Burqa and hijab are identity markers serving as reminders of presence of minorities, and even as the presence of the “other” who are being out of their place if they are spotted accessing valued resources. There exists a cognitive dissonance with the idea, practice and sight of burqa population in spaces where valued resources are available. It is politics of cultural identity of Muslims – the scepticism and sometimes intolerance for them as beneficiaries. The need for uniformity, social integration and women’s liberation as the top-down narrative (culture of politics) while serving as some explanation for the hijab ban, is at best a partial one. It is an intricate interaction on the ground between development and cultural perception of inclusion (or exclusion) of certain populations in the developkment process (politics of culture) that provides important clues to Karnataka’s hijab row. The latter narrative is made significant by its absence. I fear an unintended consequence of the hijab ban maybe deepening the schism between Hindus and Muslims.
Vani S. Kulkarni, Department of Sociology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, USA
IPS UN Bureau
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