India’s hijab row leads to exploration of certain memories

By Indira Laisram
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Representational imgae. Photo by Habib Dadkhah on Unsplash

As a child, visiting my maternal village Singerband in Assam, India, during school holidays, I remember the long Barak River (we called it turen) where we spent our mornings and evenings. It was exciting accompanying my aunts who would swim effortlessly through the water, while I watched. I didn’t know how to swim and I hated the green algae that wrapped around the feet. Growing up in a Hindu household, the morning and evening dips in the river were a ritual, we had to be clean or in a purified state to be able to sit and pray.

The river held a lot of fascination for me, a combination of both awe and fear. The river also segregated two communities—the Hindus and Muslims. It was just a geographical divide but bridged by friendships. I looked forward to sitting on the boat to cross to the other side to visit my mother’s best friend, a Muslim, who was fondly called Ita. My mom would carry her home-grown vegetables to gift her friend, and, in turn, we got plenty of eggs. I remember on our side of the river nobody raised chickens, maybe it was a Hindu thing, I still don’t know. But we had cows and a long cowshed where the eggs were cooked as no non-vegetarian food was cooked in the kitchen.

Ita wore the hijab and the burqa along with a netted face covering. I was young then to develop an awareness of the differences in her culture and ours, I only knew about the warmth of a friendship that till today feels strong even in nostalgia. Every winter holidays, my family travelled to our paternal villages where we were surrounded by relatives and friends and a structure embedded in love.

The weekly village market was one lively place with children scampering around, the adults chatting, Muslims, Hindus, and the few Christians mingling together in a spirit of openness. It is a happy memory, almost Utopian, and this reality also probably instilled the native cosmopolitanism in me.

My last visit to Singerband Village a few years ago, after about two decades, shocked me. I saw how a large part of the village had been swallowed up by the swirling waters of the Barak River. It has been reported that many houses have submerged compelling villagers to move to other places. My family home, though, is still safe.

And just like how the river has changed its course, the world as an adult feels wider and divisive than how it appeared to me as a child.

In December 2019, when India passed the Citizenship (Amendment Act), a law creating a path to citizenship for immigrants of different faiths except Muslims, it saw one of the worst protests and deaths in Assam. I wondered about my village Singerband and Lakhimpur its district, and whether the friendships I had seen as a child corroded. I am told by relatives no disturbing news came out of there.

Of course, this is not the only event that has come out of India in the past 17-18 years. It is indeed deeply disturbing to read reports about Hindu-Muslim animosity as the narrative coming out of India. I tend to agree with what journalist and author Raghu Karnad said in a 2020 interview with the NewYorker that, “Communal riots have been the permanent black eye on the face of Indian democracy, and it is only because we reduce them immediately to whether more Hindus were killed or more Muslims were killed, and which community was the guilty party, that the real question that never gets enough attention is why authorities fail to act in the moment to stop those riots.”

Most recently, the polarisation between Hindu and Muslim students in the southern state of Karnataka over a ban on wearing hijabs to school, is disturbing, to say the least. The state education minister insists that the government is firm that the “school is not a platform to practise dharma (religion)’’, and that the hijab must go.

A lot has been written and discussed on the latest hijab issue. Some have called it an outright assault on the right to education of young Muslim women, guaranteed to them by the law and the Constitution of India. Others argue that students cannot defy the government’s school uniform regulations. Yet some others say there should not be any double standards as Sikh boys are allowed to wear turbans as part of their faith in educational insititutions.

From the sophisticated constraints of my life in Melbourne, I am saddened to see the digital ecosystems flooded with all kinds of hate—that people are unable to distinguish between information and misinformation.

I asked few members of the Indian diaspora their thoughts. As the world becomes more interconnected, I believe diaspora engagement is important as they become a bridge to knowledge and resources with the country of their origin, but most chose reticence, while expressing sadness.

However, one group, the Humanist Project, which describes itself as a collaborative effort to counter the growing hate and divisive agendas at work in India and abroad, called the hijab ban in classrooms and campuses “as the most recent example of Hindu supremacists attacking Muslims in India. Hindu supremacists in India continue to lynch, segregate and boycott Muslims on various pretexts: the consumption of beef, targeting Islamic religious practices, demonising clothing and othering languages such as Urdu. This call for a nation-wide hijab ban is the latest pretext to impose apartheid on and attack Muslim women.

“The Indian Constitution both implicitly and explicitly encourages plurality, protecting Indian citizens from any form of religious discrimination that we’re now seeing in action. Uniforms in schools are meant to minimise differences between students of different and unequal economic classes. They are not intended to impose cultural uniformity on a plural country. This is why Sikhs are allowed to wear turbans not only in the classroom but even in the police and Army. This is why Hindu students wear bindi/kalava/tilak/vibhuti with school and college uniforms without comment or controversy. Likewise, Muslim women should be able to wear hijabs with their uniforms,” it said.

I avoid politics, I avoid discussion of religion and what Gods pervade your homes. But my opinion is that the right to wear the hijab must be a personal choice.

I don’t want to reduce the open landscape of my childhood to the narrowness of the world now.


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