The row over the hijab in schools and colleges has raised concerns as to whether not allowing the item of clothing will impede the education of Muslim girls. What do you make of the situation and why has the issue come up?
This is nothing but an attempt to put a Talibani tala (lock) on the education and progress of Muslim women. This was not called for as there is enough room to respect all beliefs in our country. But our common text, our shared religion, is the Constitution. India has more than three lakh registered mosques, then there are other religious shrines. There are more than 50,000 madrassas as well. Now, after Narendra Modiji became prime minister, our pledge for inclusive development has redefined certain longstanding concepts. It is about development with dignity, empowerment without appeasement. His promise of development is not premised on any ‘deal’ votes. All sections have got equal opportunities. No one has been able to allege that Modiji has discriminated against any group in the matter of development. This accusation has never been levelled. False narratives on so-called intolerance and award wapsi have not changed this. The Government has addressed the need for reforms to counter social evils, whether it is triple talaq or allowing women to go on Hajj unaccompanied.
These measures have been appreciated by Muslim women and now, in the middle of elections, this hijab row happens. We see Rahul Gandhi spreading misinformation on the issue of uniforms in educational institutions. Priyanka Gandhi takes it one step further. Then Pakistan gets into the act and influences the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to issue statements. This is the same Pakistan that has seen its minorities reduced to a couple of percent. Then the role of the Popular Front of India (PFI) and its other fronts, also sponsored for a purpose, is detected. The idea is to defame India. The Modi-bashing brigade is now a Bharat-bashing brigade. But instead, the prime minister is well regarded in nations like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
But there have been several such issues raised from time to time.
Yes, like cases of lynching which were criminal acts but presented as communal acts. The agitation against the amendments in the Citizenship Act that had nothing to do with Indian Muslims. The effort was to present India as unsafe for minorities. But most people, including most minorities, have not fallen for this. They wonder at the people who claim to speak on their behalf and about how Pakistan seeks to interfere in such matters.
It has been argued that the hijab is an essential part of Islamic practice. How do you respond?
I am not an Islamic scholar. But I can tell you that the hijab is not part of religion. It is a practice. Is ghunghat written in a dharmic text? We are not a religious state. We are democratic and secular. Every college or institution has a dress code, discipline and decorum. We will have to accept this. If you do not like it, you can choose a different institution. There is a conspiracy behind making some girls the so-called icons of this ‘hijabi hurdang (row)’, to prevent girls from accessing mainstream education.
How is this being done?
The point is that enrolment rates have gone up, dropout rates are falling. The Government has worked hard to assist the poor in Muslim society. The result is that girls have benefitted. What used to happen, in a family with, say, two girls, is that they would be educated till around Class 2 or 3. After that, the family would say they had to think about these girls being married off at some stage and it would be best for them to stay at home and learn some minor skills. Government schemes are changing this. There has been a big section against mainstream education for girls. This is the truth. There were always fatwas issued against allowing girls to attend schools or access modern education. Our Government paid attention to all this and there was a disgruntled murmur about girls going to school. The outcry against the move to raise the age of marriage is part of this. Why did some people say get girls married at 12 or they will become awara (out of control)? They are the same set now raising the hijab issue.
How does this relate to the hijab?
There are several high court rulings setting out the rules and norms on uniforms and dress codes. There are Islamic institutions, as in Keraka, which do not insist on the hijab. It’s the same in several Islamic countries. The point is that you use a hijab in a market or on the street but when you attend an institution, its rules, as supported by court rulings and the law, must be followed.
In this and other cases, the Government is accused of being anti-Islam.
What is our guiding principle? The Constitution. There are rights and duties. The followers of all major religions are here; there are people who are irreligious too. That is evidence of this nation’s commitment to tolerance and coexistence.
On another issue, it has been a few years since the passage of the law banning triple talaq. Has acceptance of the law improved?
I think so. So many families have been saved from breaking up. There is an 80 per cent reduction in cases. More importantly, many disputes are being resolved by compromise. This was a social ill. Congress undid a progressive ruling by the Supreme Court in the Shah Bano case. Modiji brought a law to implement as a Supreme Court ruling. This is the difference. Today, parties like the Samajwadi Party are instigating Muslim women not to show Ids and allow visual identification for voting. This is nothing but another way of preventing them from voting.