Hijabs, Turbans and the Secular

1. Let us suppose that some school or another in India also prescribes uniform to its students. A Sikh boy and a Muslim girl enrol. They wear the colours of the school, including the right coloured turban (or, if the Sikh kid is too young, his hair tied up in a knot) and the right-coloured head scarf. From what I know of the Indian schools, most schools (including the fellow-students) would let the situation stand. Assume that some school makes an issue about this. The parents do not have many choices: either the Sikh family shaves the boy (unlikely), or step to the courts (more likely today than yesterday) or look for another school (most likely) if persuading the school authorities fails. If we look at the tolerance of the school authorities, it appears to me that the following can be said: in all probability, it does not occur to them that, in keeping the turban or the head scarf on, the kids are marking themselves off or that there is discrimination involved in allowing this. The question is: how do they look at the turban (or the tied knot of hair) or at the scarf?

2. To the extent they insist that the colours of these headgears also reflect the colours of the school, only to that extent are they looking at them as dresses. Where they do not make even this into an issue, there, I suspect, something more than a “pagan indifference” is at play. In such cases, people do not see either the turban (or the knot) or the scarf as part of the dress code. That is, they are not indifferent to what these students wear or how they look (including how the hair has to be trimmed); instead, I think, they do not see either the turban (or the knot of hair) or the head scarf as dresses. To them, it has the same status as the different coloured bindis or the kaajal that other girls wear. Neither of these two is seen to belong to the dresses: instead, it is seen as an expression of a way of life.  The school does not have the authority to interfere with the way students choose to express their tradition, so long as the latter indicate that, in doing so, they are not rebelling against the rules of the school. (This attitude tells us something about how most Indians have understood the notion of a “neutral” sphere: one that does not interfere with the expressions of traditions. This issue will have to be left aside for the moment.) The life at the school is continuous with the life one leads outside its precincts.

3. If this sketch is even approximately true, we need to notice two things here. (a) Some apparels are not seen as parts of the dress code because one knows that they are more than that; (b) the lives that children lead elsewhere is continuous with the lives at school. The first is a result of knowing that the turbans (or a hair knot) and scarves are deemed important by those who wear them even if one does not know what their importance is. In short, what most Indian schools do is the following: they are not indifferent (in any sense of the term) to what their students wear (that is why they have uniforms) but they are willing to consider these headgears as more than being mere pieces of clothing (for those involved). They do not see the need to (or feel incapable of) change the ways of life of their students: education, then, does not involve creating a gulf between their daily lives and their lives at school. In some senses, this attitude stands to reason: education should help you live your life better and you do not teach them this by creating a separate bubble.

4. The recurring element in the present discussion involves treating headscarves primarily as part of dresses to which some or another significance is tagged on secondarily.  Divya sees it, primarily as an expression of a way of life and only secondarily as a dress code. She sees it as an expression of the subordination of women (or something akin to that) and hence her instinctive responses. Whether she is right or wrong in her perception, the point remains: she sees it the way headscarves are part of the lives of (at least some) Muslim women. As against this, you have the western way of formulating the issue: headscarf is on par with other pieces of clothing (much like, say, the other parts of the uniforms that the school children wear). Hence the discussion about the dress codes that we have had on the forum.

5. However, the terms of the debate are set by the so-called secular thinkers: the school (or the premises of a government organization) is a neutral territory of some sort and that one should not wear pieces of clothing that also have a primary religious or symbolic significance. Jakob denies the first argument on the grounds that we cannot postulate a well-founded division between the secular and the religious. His advocacy of pagan indifference, to the extent it is formulated as an indifference to pieces of clothing, however, accepts the secular framing of the issue: headscarf is a piece of clothing (for both us and the Muslims), while also being “something else”. The difference between Divya and others can be formulated thus: is the headscarf a piece of clothing besides also being a symbol, or is it a symbol besides also being a piece of clothing?

6. If it is also a piece of clothing (the position that Divya is assuming) and it is that only secondarily, then a school in the West can allow students to wear headscarves on condition that they also reflect the colours of the school. However, if it is primarily seen as a piece of clothing, then a school in the West cannot but forbid such a violation. How can a school (in the West) defend the first position, while denying any and every arbitrary statement that “non-conformists” want to make? It could consider them as religious symbols and, furthermore, also accept that different groups within the same religion have chosen to express their commitment to their practices in different ways. One cannot go to Koran or look at how the Palestinian women wore headscarves in the seventeenth-century in order to settle the issue of how some Muslim women should or should not wear headscarves.

7. This is where the problem emerges: in line with its treatment of religion as a human product, the western secular thinking reduces the wearing of headscarves and such like to human conventions. At best, it is a matter of etiquette; at worst, it is openly religious. Both are forbidden in the secular space: in the best case by invoking the dress code of the school and in the worst case by invoking the mantra of a secular sphere.

8. Divya might be wrong or right in seeing the degradation of women in hijab. However, she is not wrong when she says that an important issue is being overlooked, namely, that we know that it has some or another primary significance. To a large extent, I think, her responses could be traced back to this issue.