The minority factor aggravates the problem to an extent that Justice Hemant Gupta of the Supreme Court appears not to have noticed
To beat Internet restrictions in Iran, America provided the “Liberation Technology” movement of the Obama years to the anti-hijab protesters. Secretary of state Anthony Blinken announced it at a media briefing in Washington three weeks ago, where India’s external affairs minister S. Jaishankar was also present.
What does the hijab controversy have to do with the 1973 Yom Kippur war? The quadrupling of oil prices by the Arab sheikhs had caused an upheaval then. Hoardings in Arabic came up on London’s Oxford Street. Rooms at the Dorchester and Savoy were sold out to sheikhs who came to see the rain. But the Cold War stood in the way of the West clobbering the sheikhs.
Meanwhile, petro-dollars were attracting Indian labour, initially from Kerala’s Malabar. These blue-collar workers earned enough in a short time to build the garish “Dubai” houses in Kerala which intruded on the traditional skyline. As Kerala Muslims were among the first in quest of the GCC El Dorado, resentment was tinged by inter-religious jealousy.
At the other end in London, publishers were gauging the market for saleable books. An obvious theme offered itself. This is the time when exceptionally generous advances were made for books like Among the Believers by V.S. Naipaul (1981) and The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie (1988). Both expose Islam to satirical scrutiny.
The larger-than-life focus on Islam, assisted by the media and the book industry, gradually transformed Islam into Islamism. This very Islamism got a further boost with the success of Iran’s Islamic Revolution.
Since Ayatollah Khomeini projected himself as the leader of the Muslim world, there was deep consternation in Riyadh which considered itself the Islamic world’s central pole. It controlled Mecca and Medina, the two holy places. Its “control” of the holy shrines came up for questioning after the dramatic occupation of the Mecca mosque by the Akhwan ul Muslimeen, or Muslim Brotherhood. This incident traumatised the Muslim world.
The Mecca mosque occupation and Iran’s Islamic revolution coincided. Both pronounced Saudi Arabia’s institution of monarchy anti-Islamic. With anxious alacrity, the House of Saud declared themselves “keepers of the holy shrines”, toning down the royalty. Even so, fierce competition ensued between Tehran and Riyadh on who was purveying true Islam. Since one of the items on the ayatollahs’ agenda was to erase all traces of North Tehran fashion patronised by the Shah, the hijab acquired a very high priority. To this day, all hotels in Tehran have a plaque at the entrance requesting women guests to “respect Iranian culture and wear a hijab in public places”.
The Arab mullah was not going to allow the ayatollahs to walk away with the trophy of Islamism and its manifestations. It is difficult to explain to friends who haven’t travelled to Beirut, Baghdad, Cairo or Damascus in the peaceful years of the Cold War that these cities once defined gracious living.
Why go that far back? I was seated with ambassador Rajan Abhyankar, who knows Syria like the back of his hand, at a popular wayside shwarma joint in Damascus at the start of the recent troubles when he suddenly spun around and pointed to three young women wearing white hijabs. “You see, this is the result of the Iranian revolution.” The hijab was a rare sight in the Damascus he knew.
Syria, after all, is the land of Comrade Michel Aflaq, founder of the Arab Ba’athism which took roots in Syria and Iraq. In their aversion to Islamic rituals, not the faith, they were not very different from Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Pasha a generation earlier.
The rapid expansion of the hijab is in direct proportion to the televised Islamophobia which burst on the scene in 1991, the first post-Soviet military expedition called Operation Desert Storm. Peter Arnett of CNN inaugurated from the terrace of Baghdad’s Al Rashid hotel a new era of the global media. For the first time in history, a war was brought live into our drawing rooms. One telecast divided the world into two antithetical sets of audiences -- the victorious West and the Muslim world, angry and humiliated. This continued through the post 9/11 wars, that accelerated the wearing of the hijab. The Indian media followed in their steps.
The missile strikes against Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, launched on October 18, 2001, coincided with the arrival of Narendra Modi in Ahmedabad to take over as chief minister. The Ahmedabad pogrom of 2002 was in the shadow of the American fireworks. Hindu-Muslim ill- will was apace with galloping Islamophobia globally.
The hijab in India is tangled in the threads mentioned here, but it is also an expression of choked anger against the perceived Hindutva excesses against the world’s largest minority. It’s not about adherence to Islam but an assertion of identity.
The minority factor aggravates the problem to an extent that Justice Hemant Gupta of the Supreme Court appears not to have noticed. The anti-hijab protests in Iran are a self-confident assertion by women aware of their rich heritage. The girls of South Kannada and Udipi belong to a minority under unspeakable pressure.
There is no hijab problem in Pakistan or Bangladesh because the state neither opposes it nor has any need to promote it.
Trust the late Khushwant Singh to have put his finger on the nub of the matter. The festive atmosphere of the India-Pakistan cricket match at Lahore in 2003 was enhanced by Pakistani women turning up in formidable fashion -- dark glasses, tinted hair and blazing colours. The only lady in the VIP enclosure draped in the hijab happened to be Irfan Pathan’s mother.