“LIBERAL” IS A fungible term. Its contours are shape-shifting because it is context-dependent. Take, for example, the case of an item of clothing—the hijab—and the manner in which liberal opinion is sharply divergent over it on either side of the Andaman Sea.
In India, liberals are appalled by the ban on wearing the headscarf by many schools and colleges in Karnataka, on the grounds that it forces Muslim women to choose between their religious beliefs and their right to an education. But in maritime neighbour Indonesia, it is the opposite phenomenon—educational institutions forcing girls to wear headscarves—that is at the centre of liberal protests.
However, despite the seemingly opposite goals, there is an underlying commonality of concerns between the two: the protection of minorities and the disapproval of discrimination in access to educational institutions by way of the policing of girls’ clothes.
Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim country and its third largest democracy. Around 210 of its 242 million citizens identify as Muslim. And yet, the popularity of the hijab or jilbab, as it is locally called, is a relatively new phenomenon. Historically, headscarves tended to be worn by older women who had completed the hajj pilgrimage. Moreover, these scarves, called “kerudung”, were loose and gauzy, unlike the opaque, ear and neck-covering, scalp-fitting jilbab that is now common.
Under the dictatorship of General Suharto (1967-98), increased state control over religious symbols resulted in a jilbab-ban in educational institutions during the 1980s. The ban wasn’t inspired by any feminist feelings Suharto harboured but by the fact that he saw Islamic groups as a potential challenge to his continued rule.
Since the downfall of his regime in 1998, jilbab-wearing has spiked. According to the Jakarta-based Alvara Research Center, 75 per cent of Muslim women and children in Indonesia today wear a headscarf.
It is a complex story whose significance is difficult to unpick. On the one hand, the jilbab is associated with the end of an authoritarian regime; with the flowering of democracy and choice. A large jilbab fashion industry has also sprung up, so that for many women, headscarves and sexiness are not antithetical.
On the other hand, the jilbab is an import from the Middle East without indigenous cultural roots. And the Islamic headscarf is not just another outfit, like a skirt or a blouse. Encouraging the wearing of it is a conservative move that reduces the self-determination of women and can be the starting point for more restrictive practices on their behaviour. Can ‘choices’ that result from social and religious pressure be properly termed thus?
Moreover, there is increasingly a thin line between encouraging and enforcing when it comes to the jilbab in Indonesia. According to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, 32 local administrations in the archipelago now require the headscarf to be worn in state schools and government offices.
This trend has seen an uptick since a 2014 central government regulation on school uniforms which, while ambiguously worded, was interpreted by local authorities as a requirement for all Muslim girls attending state schools to wear headscarves. If a girl from a Muslim family wishes to be exempt from the rule, she usually needs to declare herself as a non-Muslim to the school authorities. But, in fact, the vast majority of girls who don’t want to wear jilbabs nonetheless identify as Muslims. In practice, most give in and cover their hair. Those who don’t can face expulsion.
There are even reports of Christians and other religious minorities being coerced into the jilbab as a requisite to attending certain schools. The Human Rights Watch report also listed examples of female civil servants who have either lost their jobs or resigned to escape pressure from bosses and colleagues to cover their hair.
In India, the context is different, but equally complex. The headscarf ban that some educational institutes in Karnataka has begun to enforce needs to be set within the wider background of attacks by Hindu nationalists on the nation’s minority Muslim community. Muslims are increasingly fearful of moves to impose cultural homogeneity in diet and dress on them that would bring them in line with the Hindu majority.
Supporters of the ban claim that centres of education should be free of religious symbols. This might be true were India a nation like France with its cherished concept of laïcité wherein the public sphere is bleached of religion. But India’s concept of secularism is more about securing an equal space for all religions.
The hijab row is more difficult for liberals in India to negotiate than their counterparts in Indonesia. In the latter case, the liberal values of feminism and equal opportunity education mesh more easily. But in India, fighting for the right of female students to wear a headscarf sits uncomfortably with the fact that the hijab is conceptually related to patriarchy
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In the school I attended in New Delhi in the 1980s, for example, we celebrated the religious festivals of all communities. And while a school uniform was adhered to, Sikh boys wore patkas—a visible symbol of their religious identity—to class, without censure or remark.
Hindu cultural symbols dominate the Indian landscape today, more than ever before, both physically and ideologically. Those who support a hijab ban tend to be entirely comfortable with this phenomenon. It is disingenuous, therefore, for them to cherry-pick markers of minority Muslim identity as problematic on the grounds of secularism.
Ironically, those who protest the ban are more likely to be secular in their personal lives than its defenders. In fact, the hijab row is more difficult for liberals in India to negotiate than their counterparts in Indonesia. In the latter case, the liberal values of feminism and equal opportunity education mesh more easily.
But in India, fighting for the right of female students to wear a headscarf sits uncomfortably with the fact that the hijab is conceptually related to patriarchy. Many of the girls clamouring to be allowed to wear it are possibly under pressure from their families to do so.
However, denying girls the chance to get an education and further their life opportunities ranks higher on the long list of regressive behaviours in India than wearing the hijab. Liberals here argue that they are opposing the greater problem, even if it means ignoring the smaller one. But it has them walking an uncomfortably slim tightrope.
There is arguably no other item of dress that has been as polyphonic as the hijab. It has stood for choice and identity as often as it has for oppression and coercion. It has been weaponised by democracies and autocracies, conservatives and liberals.
The voices of the women that the hijab directly concerns have often been absent in the debates swirling around the headscarf, but not always. There have been eloquent female voices both defending it as a choice and decrying it as an imposition.
Ultimately, abstracting principles, as much as clothing, from their situated reality can help win a college debate, but it is empty of substance. Fighting against the imposition of the hijab in schools in one context can be as valid as standing up against its ban in another. This may be confusing to those of us who like neatness, but the truth is rarely singular and never tidy.
An award-winning foreign correspondent, Pallavi Aiyar has spent the last two decades reporting from China, Europe, Indonesia and Japan. Her most recent book is Orienting: An Indian in Japan. She currently lives in Madrid where she’s learning to dance flamenco in the pauses between photographing storks perched on church steeples