Recent scenes of hijab-wearing women being shut out of colleges in the Indian state of Karnataka have been deeply disturbing for many Canadians of Muslim or Indian backgrounds, including myself, a Canadian who wears the hijab and has roots in Karnataka. The rise of anti-Muslim sentiment, discrimination and even violence in India is well-documented. The incidents in Karnataka are a reminder of the unprecedented fixation on the hijab among those trying to deny Muslims their religious freedoms.
Canadians are no strangers to anti-hijab sentiment. We have witnessed it manifest in a variety of forms ranging from an article published in a prominent medical journal, multiple cases of harassment and assault on hijab-wearing women, to hijab-banning legislation such as Quebec’s Bill 21. But these are not only Canadian issues. In our globalized world, it is not a stretch to say that hate in one place inspires and emboldens hate in others, sometimes in even worse forms.
Now we see college students in Karnataka, India, in the middle of the school year, being told that they cannot continue to pursue their education if they wear the hijab. When these Muslim students refused to remove the hijab, groups of young people marched allegedly in protest of the hijab, in some cases harassing the hijab-wearing students. In turn, Dalit students — often victims in their own right of severe caste-based discrimination in India — came out wearing blue scarves in solidarity with the hijab-wearing students. It is sad to see the hijab, a long-standing religious practice among Muslim students in the region, suddenly being exploited for the politics of “othering” certain communities.
So far, most Indian government officials have been silent, or worse, justifying the course of events. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is credited for launching an appreciable campaign titled “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” (save the girl child, educate the girl child), has been awfully silent despite the escalation of tensions and several days of students rising up against fellow students instead of collectively upholding the right to education. The courts in Karnataka, meanwhile, have temporarily shut down colleges for all students and made statements along the lines that all religious symbols should be banned in education institutions, supposedly in the interests of preserving secularism — as a Canadian Muslim, I’ve heard that one before.
Muslims in Canada are anxiously watching these events and doing what they can to educate Canadians and the world about hijab. Islamic Relief Canada recently published a report highlighting Muslims’ stories of enduring Islamophobia in the country they call home, including several that relate to hijab-centered hate. Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research has published multiple papers in recent months to offer a thorough yet clear understanding of hijab from an Islamic perspective, addressing common questions like, “Is hijab really a part of Islam or is it cultural?” But we need more voices, especially from the Canadian government, to speak up and defend the rights of hijab-wearing Muslim women in Canada, India, and elsewhere.
With communities representing virtually all major religions and more than 400 languages spoken within its borders, India is one of the most diverse and beautiful places in the world. It has a very long history of different peoples coexisting and thriving alongside one another. It is important for Canadians and the world to stand up against the insidious and divisive forces that are attempting to take that legacy away from us through, in this case, their weaponizing of the hijab.
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