The choice of clothing in contemporary India signals a deepening religious division.

IN video which has since gone viral on social media, a group of men gather on a dusty street in the southern Indian state of Karnataka.

Carrying saffron-colored flags and matching scarves, the men sing loudly in unison, taunting their targets: hijab-clad Muslim women who stay crowded into one corner of the street.

The visual confrontation between their black and blue Islamic robes and the raging sea of ​​saffron, a color closely associated with Hinduism, symbolizes the country’s deepening rift, fueled in part by the rise of Hindu nationalism.

What began in January as a peaceful demonstration by six Muslim students protesting the right to wear hijabs in their public school has evolved into a broader movement defined by gender, religion and dress. And the arrival a few weeks later of counter-demonstrators dressed in saffron robes testifies to the blurring of the boundaries between the Indian state and religion.

Considered a symbol of divinity in Hinduism, the orange-yellow hue has been brazenly adopted by the far-right Hindutva movement and has been increasingly politicized in recent years. The movement seeks to homogenize Indian culture around Hindu values.

Meanwhile, for Indian Muslims, the hijab has become a symbol of resistance to the wave of Islamophobia sweeping the country as women wearing religious robes protest in various cities in support of students.

“I started covering my head three years ago to protest crimes against Muslims,” Afrin Fatima, a 23-year-old Muslim activist, said in a telephone interview. She participated in a demonstration in her hometown of Allahabad in northern Uttar Pradesh.

“But now it has become a spiritual duty for me. This is a statement of my identity. I am an Indian Muslim and will not go anywhere.”

Symbol of Resistance

The hijab, the Islamic headscarf, is worn by millions of Muslim women around the world as a sign of modesty and privacy. But in some countries, these clothes have caused controversy: critics portrayed them as a symbol of oppression or argued that they were incompatible with secular values.

In 2004, the French government banned religious clothing, including the hijab, from public schools. Seven years later, France became the first country in Europe to ban all face coverings in public places, a move that politicians called a matter of national identity and security.
Since then, other European countries have followed suit with similar restrictions, although the types of veils allowed and where they can be worn vary.

However, in India, wearing the hijab is not prohibited or restricted in public places, and the right to practice one’s faith is guaranteed by the country’s secular constitution. But, as elsewhere in the world, Muslim women can face backlash and discrimination in their choice of clothing.

According to Indian poet and activist Nabia Khan, Muslim women are “imagined wearing an Islamic veil and seen as submissive” because they “do not fit the feminist narrative of the liberal elite”.

“I wear (a) hijab because I want to,” she said via WhatsApp. “It serves me with religious and spiritual significance. It brings me closer to my god.”

Muslim students leave a school in Udupi, Karnataka, after they were denied entry on February 16, 2022. Credit: Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The conflict in Karnataka began after a small group of hijab-wearing students were denied entry to their classrooms in the coastal city of Udupi, according to a petition they later filed with the state’s highest court. In early January, the girls staged a protest outside their public school, demanding to be allowed inside. But their teachers refused.

Their demonstration sparked rival protests from right-wing Hindus who carried saffron scarves and flags (such as those in the above video) while chanting a religious Hindu slogan. in support of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and requiring the girls to remove their hats.

Clashes spread across Karnataka, and in early February the state ordered all high schools and colleges to close for three days. Authorities in the state capital of Bangalore also banned protests outside schools for two weeks.

Minister of Education of Karnataka State B.S. Nagesh has said he supports a ban on the hijab in educational institutions. Referring to the state’s religious dress ordinance, CNN News-18, an affiliate of CNN, stated that the government of Karnataka is “very strongly of the opinion that the school is not a platform for the practice of dharma (religion)”.

But activists say the hijab controversy has a deeper meaning than just the dress code, arguing that it’s just the latest development in India’s wider persecution of India’s Muslim minority since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP came to power almost eight years ago. years ago.

The BJP did not respond to CNN’s request for comment or claims that it advocates Hindu nationalism and uses the hijab controversy for political gain. Asked about the hijab controversy during a meeting with reporters In February, Indian Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman told CNN that the issue should be handled by the government of Karnataka.

Muslim women in Mumbai protest against the government of Karnataka on February 13, 2022.

Muslim women in Mumbai protest against the government of Karnataka on February 13, 2022. Credit: Praful Gangurde/Hindustan Times/Getty Images

Karnataka has already passed a law that critics say is rooted in Hindutva ideology. Last year, the state banned the sale and slaughter of cows, animals considered sacred to Hindus. He also introduced a controversial anti-conversion bill that makes it harder for interfaith couples to marry or convert people to Islam or Christianity.

For Fatima, the hijab scandal is just the latest move by the authorities to silence Muslim voices.

“This movement is our fight for our faith, identity and religious freedom,” she said. “By wearing the hijab and taking this position, we are telling the Hindus that we are not going to back down.”

In one of the highlights of the February standoff, hijab-clad Muslim student Muskan Khan does just that. In another video that also went popularKhan is approached by men as she gets off her scooter to turn in her school assignment.

They interrupt her, demanding to take off her hijab. But instead of obeying, Khan yells back “Allahu Akbar” – which means “God is great” in Arabic – and punches the air with his fist.

Her raised fist became a symbol of defiance. In solidarity, scores of Muslim women changed their Twitter photos to a silhouette of Khan’s raised fist, and her image appeared on placards and posters during demonstrations.

Ashish Bagchi is one of many designers and artists who have shared Khan-inspired illustrations on social media. In his image, she walks with her head held high, and saffron-painted hands – a representative of right-wing Hinduism – encroach on her.

Ashish Bagchi's illustration shows saffron colored hands surrounding Muskan Khan, who has become a symbol of resistance to the proposed hijab ban.

Ashish Bagchi’s illustration shows saffron colored hands surrounding Muskan Khan, who has become a symbol of resistance to the proposed hijab ban. Credit: Ashish Bagchi

Bagchi’s personal political writings, which appear on his Instagram and Twitter, are a story about the restriction of India’s freedom.

“What really touched me was the way she stood her ground,” he said. “What stood out to me were those men who were shouting and brandishing her with their saffron stoles. Unfortunately, the saffron color now symbolizes a certain political ideology.”

Politicization of color

The color of saffron is rooted in Hinduism – one of the world’s oldest religions – and symbolizes peace. Around 80% of India’s 1.3 billion people are Hindu, and the color can be seen on idols in temples, on the necks of cows, and as street decorations during festivals.

Hindu saints bathe in the Ganges River during the Kumbh Mela religious festival in Haridwar, April 12, 2021.

Hindu saints bathe in the Ganges River during the Kumbh Mela religious festival in Haridwar, April 12, 2021. Credit: MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images

But since the BJP came to power with a Hindu nationalist agenda in 2014, the color has become increasingly politicized. Modi and his compatriots are often seen wearing saffron-colored clothing and accessories at campaign rallies, while supporters wave the party flag (mostly saffron) or another similarly colored flag.

“Appropriation of saffron is a way to show that the party is not only political, but also has deep religious roots,” Gilles Vernier, an assistant professor of political science at India’s Ashoka University, said in a telephone interview.

A crowd at a rally in support of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on April 3, 2019 in Kolkata, India.

A crowd at a rally in support of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on April 3, 2019 in Kolkata, India. Credit: Atul Loke/Getty Images

“Color serves the purpose of ‘uniform’ and gives BJP supporters a sense of unity and community.”

Yogi Adityanath of the BJP, chief minister of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, is one of the high-ranking figures who can almost always be seen dressed head to toe in this colour. Perhaps one of the most controversial figures in Indian politics, Adityanath, a former Hindu priest, is known for his provocative rhetoric against Muslims.
Yogi Adityanath at the opening of the Awad Shilpgram Cultural Center and Market in Lucknow, India on March 19, 2021.

Yogi Adityanath at the opening of the Awad Shilpgram Cultural Center and Market in Lucknow, India on March 19, 2021. Credit: T. Narayan/Bloomberg/Getty Images

And while not every Hindu wearing the color supports Hindu nationalism, when saffron-clad politicians make statements against national minorities, it encourages far-right groups to do the same, according to historian Aditya Mukherjee.

“The religious symbolism used by right-wing Hindus today is a complete inversion of what Indian culture is all about. They gave the color a different meaning,” Mukherjee said.

“This is not what the Hindu religion stands for. And certainly not the organic feeling emanating from many Hindu Indians.

“This is a very scary moment for India,” he added, referring to extremist brutal attacks on Muslims.

Perhaps symbolically, as saffron becomes more common in public life, the status of the hijab in India is now in question. The High Court of Karnataka has concluded deliberations on whether schools can ban the hijab or not, and a decision is expected soon. In the meantime, his temporary order to ban all religious clothing in schools with an existing dress code or uniform remains in place.

For activist Fatima, taking off her hijab is “like asking our women to undress.”

“It’s extremely disturbing. It’s unethical,” she said, adding that she would not be “silenced” by the rising Hindu right.

“The options that we Muslims have to demand justice are very few. Muslim women are worse off. We do not have the privilege of remaining silent.

Top image caption: Students and activists hold banners and shout slogans during a demonstration in the state of Karnataka after Muslim students were banned from wearing hijabs in schools.

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