Karnataka Hijab Row: Get your hands off women

Every woman must fight against what is happening in Karnataka’s colleges today and stand in solidarity with the students whose education is at stake because of majoritarian politics.

hijab order

I was once invited to speak at a literary event organised in a panchayat place near Kundapura, Karnataka. I reached the location with barely enough time to change my clothes and go to the function. So I chose to wear a chudidar kurta instead of a sari.

When I walked out of the room, the organiser, a woman, asked me why I was not wearing a dupatta on the kurta-chudidar. I said, my dress was fully buttoned-up and didn’t need a dupatta as I was covered up to the neck.

She was not convinced. “People here don’t wear a kurta without a dupatta,” she said. I knew that. Though I did not grow up in Dakshina Kannada or Udupi, my parents’ hometowns were located in these districts. My grandparents lived there all their lives. I visited every year and studied in Manipal for two years to be closer to them. So I was fully aware of the dress codes followed in the region.

When my mother and aunts were growing up there, the kurta churidar known as punjabi dress was almost as forbidden for women as trousers and pants. It was north Indian, alien to local culture. Half-saris, saris, skirts and frocks were the norm. But no pyjamas, chudidars and pants.

Growing up in Delhi, Mysore and Bangalore, I wasn’t allowed to wear pants, trousers or jeans. It was only when I reached Class 10, that I managed to win the argument and allowed to wear jeans. My first pair of jeans-pant was bought when we were living in Delhi. They were men’s and hung on me even after being altered. When I look at those photos of me wearing them, I am reminded of the battles I and countless other women have fought to gain autonomy over our bodies and minds.

But here I was, in my mid-30s in my parents’ ‘native place’, being told my dupatta-free dress was not appropriate. Even if I was fully covered. The unspoken message was that the shape of my upper body could be seen without a dupatta.

It did not shock me that I was being lectured even at this age. I had grown up being listening to others’ opinions of what I could or couldn’t wear. The message was clear: hide the shape of your body, follow our tradition and only wear what we tell you to. I was constantly reminded I couldn’t wear pants, sleeveless tops, plunging neck lines, shorts, or even three-quarter pants (“Was there a shortage of cloth at the store?”).

One would think that being fully covered would shut everyone up. No. Apparently, covering the head is too much cover, but not wearing a dupatta is too less of cover. Look at the situation of the students being locked out of their college in Kundapur for wearing the hijab.

When there is no type of women’s clothing that doesn’t have patriarchy’s paws over it, how can we accept singling out hijab and punishing young women who wear it?

To support Hindu patriarchy’s assertion that its brand of patriarchy is better than Muslim patriarchy, is damaging to all women. Every woman must fight against what is happening in Karnataka’s colleges today and stand in solidarity with the students whose education is at stake because of majoritarian politics.

Too many women in our country can go to college only because they wear the clothes their families and immediate societies find acceptable – whether it is the hijab, burqa, dupatta, salwaar kameez, saris or langa-dhavani. The imposition of one religious group’s idea of what girls should wear is not just a violation of their rights, but it sets a dangerous precedent for women’s rights in the rest of the country.

Whether it is the kurta chudidar or hijab, whether the policing of women’s bodies is done at home or in colleges, they are all ways of controlling women. And women’s bodies become weapons in the hands of men who seek to establish the power of patriarchy, caste, ethnicity or religion.

But women have the right to their bodies and their beliefs. No woman should allow her body to be used in any way without her consent. And no man should have the right to tell her how to dress and how to live.

Views are personal. 


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April 2024


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