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Muslim women’s clothing choices used as political weapons

Misogyny, Majoritarianism And Bigotry Are Closely Enmeshed With Patriarchy

Cultural traditions have been exploited by patriarchal regimes. Photo: Getty Images

Muslim women’s clothing choices continue to be weaponized and policed by patriarchal states around the world. From India to France, Afghanistan to Iran, Muslim women are being used as cannon fodder for political purposes by male-dominated states. Only the justifications and political end-goals differ. But the playbook remains in essence the same.

In India’s Karnataka state, university administrations have suddenly realized that the hijab, a scarf worn to cover the hair and neck, violates the official dress code. As a result, hijab-wearing Muslim women have been unable to attend classes.

This controversy is entirely manufactured. Karnataka is ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

To demonstrate that the new dress code applies to all religious communities, universities have also forbidden saffron-scarf-wearing Hindu students from attending classes (the color saffron is associated with Hinduism). This misses the point – Muslim women have argued that, like the Jewish kippa or Sikh turban, the hijab is intrinsic to their faith, unlike a saffron scarf, which is not inherent to the Hindu faith.

There are several underlying reasons that this needless controversy has erupted now – first, it is to keep the communal cauldron on the boil, particularly as the BJP’s electoral fortunes in ongoing state elections in northern India seem to be faltering.

The second is to provoke India’s ostensibly secular opposition and liberal intelligentsia into a loud protest. The BJP will be able to portray them as pseudo-secular and interested only in appeasing Muslims. This will help the party corral the fence-sitters among Hindu voters behind the party.

Last is to paint the Muslim community as hesitant participants in building a monochromatic nation at odds with the foundational idea of the Indian republic – pluralism and secularism equidistant to and accommodative of all religions.

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Unfortunately, though, India is hardly unique in this instance.

The French Senate voted early this year to ban the hijab and other “ostensible religious symbols” from sports. While the bill, which is not yet law, aims to keep religion out of sports, it is silent on the widespread practice of male soccer players making the cross sign while stepping on to the field.

Religious symbols are already banned in public schools in France. The brunt of this law is borne by Muslim women. While Christian crosses can be worn beneath one’s shirt, the Jewish kippa is rarely seen in French public schools, as Orthodox Jews in France have access to a significant number of private Jewish schools.

In the run-up to presidential elections in April, French politics is gripped by intense competition over who can appear most paternalistic toward French Muslims in general and women from the community in particular.  

Eric Zemmour, a far-right presidential candidate, sparked controversy last year when he appeared in a video “persuading” a Muslim woman to remove her hijab to demonstrate that she was free.

This can be ignored as the machinations of a fringe politician. However, the hijab has become so heavily weaponized in French politics that President Emmanuel Macron’s party, La Republique en Marche (LRM), dropped a female candidate in local elections last year for appearing on a flier while wearing a hijab.

Macron’s recent comments to “reshape Islam” in France smacks of a nanny-state approach that will reduce French Muslim women to wards of the state rather than afford them dignity as equal citizens of the republic.

It seems, however, that head coverings are beside the point. Instead, it is the wearer of the veil that is in the crosshairs of the patriarchal state.  

In Afghanistan, for instance, most women have always worn the hijab. However, upon taking power last year, the Taliban decreed a face-covering niqab and full-length, loose-fitting black robe for all female university students.

Since then, the Taliban have gone much further than women’s sartorial choices. The new regime has attempted to make women invisible from public spaces altogether. In this way, the hijab becomes moot. The Taliban’s real aim is to control women’s agency; by erasing them from public spaces, the Taliban aim to demonstrate their power in visually reconfiguring Afghan society.

Nothing exemplifies powerful men seeking to justify their amoral hold on power more than Afghanistan’s neighbor Iran. It is often said that the regime in Tehran would more likely make peace with Israel than drop its policy of compulsory head coverings for women. However, mandatory headscarves, often enforced through state violence, are the least of Iranian women’s concerns.  

Iranian women have been at the receiving end of far more insidious state policies that have sought to reduce them to the category of second-class citizens. Yet the mandatory veiling policy enforced by a male-dominated state is emblematic of the fact that the Iranian regime and the men in charge of it have sought legitimacy by limiting women’s freedom.

They have done so as a way of distracting Iranians from the regime’s colossal failure in delivering to them the freedom and dignity that was the promise of the Islamic Revolution.

Misogyny, majoritarianism and bigotry are closely enmeshed with patriarchy. To patriarchy, it matters little what women wear or don’t wear. To a patriarchal political elite, the sole objective has always been to deny women freedom so as to seek legitimacy for themselves and reinforce their hold on power.

This becomes more convenient when those women carry other specific identity markers – of religion, tribe, or race.