Hijab Controversy – A Monk’s Perspective

By Vraja Bihari Das - 16.8 2023

“That knowledge by which one undivided spiritual nature is seen in all living entities, though they are divided into innumerable forms, you should understand to be in the mode of goodness.” (Bhagavad Gita- 18.20)

“You are a monk, and you always wear the orange robes”, said Ahmed, an old friend whom I met recently. “I am sure you’d support the young girls wanting to wear the Hijab to school. It’s after all an individual’s choice.”

I nodded but didn’t say a word. He then showed me a video of a teenage girl wailing piteously at being refused admission to a school for wearing a Hijab. “Isn’t this demoniac to deprive education to a young girl?” He appealed to my emotions.

India is witnessing yet another religious-political controversy after young girls were refused admission to a college for violating the dress code because they wore a hijab. Other colleges also witnessed this demand and many non-Muslims protested when the Muslim girls demanded entry with their burqa. Stone-throwing and police intervention, and with news channels feasting on their rising TRP– the real issues are lost to the public vision.

Heart-wrenching as it is, I refused to endorse or criticize the hijab ban. After all, I could smell dirty politics raising its hood each time religious issues surface in India.

But I do have a stand! And I see this issue at three levels – a typical monk’s perspective.

Immediate- Future- Eternal – the three realities of any issue

A child may demand chocolate or ice cream during every meal, even as her parents refuse to pamper. They know better; for they see what’s good for the child, both in the present and future. And if the parent is spiritually evolved, she’d ensure her daughter is cared for even beyond this life. A spiritual parent would ensure her child’s soul has eternal benefits by experiencing God’s presence in her daily life. Thus, most religious and spiritually minded parents balance all three aspects when raising a child.

Most news channels report events from the immediate perspective. It’s childish and highly emotional coverage of events. People get swayed by the immediate benefits and pain of all issues – the annual budget, hijab ban, elections in five states, and the list is endless.

A futuristic leader or a mature news channel would also see the long-run benefits of a policy or scheme launched. “It’s my right to wear what I want” a young Muslim girl may demand, even as an opportunistic politician, with eyes on wooing the community members, said that girls could wear even bikini if they want!

But a true ‘parent’, seeking the welfare of the girls would ask about the future. If the girls wear the hijab all the time, tomorrow when they go to work, what would happen? In a secular world, would the girls insist on wearing a burqa as they enter different career fields? Would they feel discriminated if an employer preferred a more ‘agreeably’ dressed person for the same job? Do these issues matter or is the present politics overwhelming our minds that we can’t think of a better future for our girls?

As religious fanatics and their media cohorts champion freedom of dress, quoting various constitutional rights, it is interesting to note what the Muslim Educational society has done in India. In all their 150 plus educational institutions, they banned wearing the Hijab and anything ‘unacceptable to the mainstream society.’ Yet, in a secular college, the girls, used as pawns by the more divisive forces, cry foul. Do they even consider their future in a secular society? Do they know they are simply cannon-fodder for their more aggressive brethren who want to destroy the very peaceful fabric on which the Indian society is built?

Then there is the ‘soul’ of the protesters that is neither a man nor a woman; the soul is neither Hindu nor Muslim. When you are dead, it doesn’t matter what you wore when you were alive. And when we see the soul’s eternal relationship with God, we’d treat the issue and the persons agitated by the issue, both with compassion.

Srila Prabhupada often challenged his audience and readers to rise above the immediate problems. During the Vietnam War in the 1960s, he challenged the American young boys and girls – and the hippies- to think beyond the immediate war. He said this war would be soon forgotten but your soul hankers to be united with God. Take care of your souls, he appealed. His spiritual master, Srila Bhakti Siddhanta Saraswati emphasized the need to practice and spread the teachings of love of God, during the peak of the Indian independence movement. “Krishna consciousness is an emergency and it can’t wait for political and social events to settle down”, he declared.

Therefore the Indian constitution (Article 30) has given a right to all minorities to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice. In such a society the girls could wear what their religion prescribes. This provision aims to let people progress spiritually and come closer to God, even in a pluralistic society.  And the government or politics won’t interfere with their spiritual aspirations. But in a non-religious college where discipline and uniformity in dress are expected, it would augur well for all students to follow the common code.

I reasoned with Ahmed that the girls could come wearing the hijab, remove it while on the college premises, and soon after class, wear it on their way back home. This way they practise well for their future professions as doctors, lawyers, or chartered accountants in an integrated society. Or perhaps, they don’t envisage such a future.

In that case, their protests are valid – for, in a Taliban state, the Hijab is the identity of a virtuous woman.

– Vraja Bihari Das