Islamophobia and the Hijab Ban in India: Q&A with Afreen Fatima

The following is a transcript of a Traversing Tradition Q&A with Afreen Fatima about the rising injustices against Muslims in India and the hijab ban protests in Karnataka. The transcriber’s comments are in brackets, and she has condensed and edited for flow. The Q&A is also available to watch here.

Afreen Fatima is a student leader from Allahabad, UP. She is a prominent Muslim voice against the anti-Muslim policies of the Indian government.

She just finished MA in Linguistics at JNU, where she also served as an elected councillor in the students’ union 2019-20 from the School of Language, Literature, and Culture Studies. As a candidate from Fraternity-BAPSA alliance, she strengthed the call of “unity of the oppressed” and raised issues of representation, discrimination, and identity assertion.

Formerly, she has been the elected president of Women’s College Students’ Union in the Aligarh Muslim University 2018-19. She organised the first Women Leadership Summit 2019 which was managed solely by the female undergraduate students of AMU with no corporate sponsorships with a focus on themes such has activism and democracy, resistance literature and journalism, art as a means of social change and voicing female opinions.

She is known to have actively participated in the Anti-CAA protests that started in 2019. She faced a several days long media trail after a small part of her speech was tweeted by BJP’s Sambit Patra.

We’re holding this live event in light of the past few days. People across the world have seen the video of Muskan saying Allahu Akbar as a group of men wearing saffron scarves heckle her. Around the world we have been impressed by the bravery of the women standing up to injustice as well as horrified by the injustices happening. InshaAllah with have Afreen Fatima with us today to speak more about it. For viewers who are not familiar with what has been happening over the last few weeks, could you briefly explain what has happened and what it looks like on the ground?

I believe that with the BJP government there has been a rise in Islamophobia and anti-Muslim violence. It has been [picked] up even by international human rights organizations. What has happened is that for the past one month, Muslim women in Karnataka, in the district of Udupi, have been protesting for their rights to wear hijab to school. They used to wear hijab to school and there was no problem. In fact, the school rules said that if their hijab matches with the color of their dupatta – the dupatta is part of the uniform, like a stole – then they can wear it inside the college and inside their classrooms. 

But all of a sudden, mid semester, the administration says you cannot enter the class anymore. They protested and talked with the administration several times, their parents talked to the administration several times, but the administration was adamant that they cannot allow hijab inside classrooms or inside their colleges. We also got to know that this had happened because there was some pressure from the ABVP (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad), which is the student wing of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), a militant Hindu supremacist organization. It takes its cue from Hitler’s nazi party .

These girls had been protesting for the past one month. Now, what has happened is that some Hindu students have started wearing saffron stoles to intimidate these girls and to harass them publicly. With the way Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiments are in India, we all know that these people who actively propagate violence against Muslims enjoy impunity. This is what we saw in that video with Muskan as well, that when she went to submit her assignment to her school, she was stopped and heckled by more than hundreds of Hindu students. Muskan even said that half of them she didn’t even recognize [as] from her school. There were even students and men from outside of the school who tried to stop, heckle, and harass her.

The situation right now is that the High Court of Karnataka has given an interim order which says that until further order, no student can wear hijab, any religious requirement to their school. In a way they have equated the hijab with the saffron shawl, a symbol of hate and anti-Muslim bigoty. 

A ban like this effectively prevents Muslim women from attending schools. It’s interesting that [they] use the language of religious symbols which we see in Quebec, in France, and in other countries. Do you think that this is simply a pretext to target hijab specifically even though [the order is for] all religious symbols?

I believe that this is a preview of what the verdict might look like. In a way, they’re trying to make the Muslim community be at peace with the verdict not coming in their favor. Right now in India, the media, the left/liberal allies are all discussing if hijab is an obligatory part of the Islamic faith. They’re discussing whether Muslim women should or should not wear [it] while we should be discussing there is majoritarianism in India, there is anti-Muslim violence and Islamophobia, who or what has radicalized these young students of Class 11 and 12 who don saffron shawls and try to intimidate their classmates. 

Could you speak a little bit about how people are trying to challenge this ban? Is it unconstitutional? 

The Indian constitution enshrines in itself the rights to freedom of religion. It also goes on to say that people who believe in a religion can profess/propagate their religion. 

The hijab is an obligatory part of the Islamic faith. What has happened in India is that people see hijab as the exception – the norm is non-hijab wearing Muslim women. While most of the Muslim women who are in India, who identify themselves as Muslims, do wear the hijab. So the majority is hijabis but still the norm has deliberately been created as the non-hijabi. 

The hijab is constitutional. [The ban] is a violation of the constitutional right. It is also a violation to the right to education which is also enshrined in the constitution of India. 

One thing you mentioned was the focus on whether the hijab is obligatory or not, and of course it is obligatory. Somehow people have made it out to be a patriarchal or feminist issue, an issue of gender oppression, rather than state-sanctioned oppression of Muslims. Would you say these are the types of arguments you’re hearing and how is this impacting the lives of Muslim women there? 

All in all, these are the kinds of narratives, debates, and arguments coming up. I believe that even those standing in solidarity they’re also coming up to say “we believe the hijab is very regressive and I don’t understand why a woman would choose to wear it, but I do support her choice.” They’ve made it all about choice, which it is, but right now it is not about choice. What we see in India right now is an attempt to curtail religious freedoms. There have been attempts to ban the adhan [call to prayer]. There have been attempts to stop Muslim men preforming Friday jumu’ah prayers. Mosques have been demolished. All physical embodiments of the Islamic faith are being targeted. So it should be seen in line with what’s happening in India. All sorts of religious freedoms of Muslims are being targeted. 

There have even been reports where people have said that “oh but how bad their parents can be, not allowing their girls to remove their hijab for education”, spinning it on the parents “see how regressive the Muslim parent is”. How orthodox, how regressive, wanting to keep their children in. So all these types of things are coming up. As of now I haven’t seen much genuine and unconditional solidarity coming from our so-called callies. 

You participated in a protest yesterday in your hometown. How was the turnout? Is there support from communities of other faiths? 

Alhamdullilah it was amazing. I was not expecting such a large turnout. More than 300 Muslim women joined our protest. It was just started by 25 of us. All of us were constantly talking with each other, sitting with each other, praying for the verdict to come in our favor and for our sisters in Karnataka. 

There was I believe one person from another community, the rest was solely Muslims. This is the problem in India: issues that are about Muslims and deal with the Islamic faith and Muslim rights, they don’t recieve much support from other communities. The sikh and dalit do come out in our support, but the majority of communities are always silently watching, just letting what is happening go. They would never bat an eye, never actively try to stop the violence. 

Has this always been the case or is this something that’s happened in recent years because of the political conditions? 

Muslims in India have experienced Islamophobia since I believe forever. But what has happened post 2015, post Modi, is that it is has become more pronounced and more outright. The people who do commit these violences, they enjoy impunity at the hands of the government and law enforcement. It has become a direct attack that we see right in front of us. But earlier also, there were these kinds of things happening like the demolition of Babri, and so many anti-Muslim pogroms where Muslims were butchered on the streets. These things have happened, but right now there’s this macho Hindu nationalism that is making the Hindu majority even more away from the Muslim community. The majority community has always overlooked atrocities and persecution of Muslims in India. 

Are people in the media asking these types of questions? Like what is leading to this kind of behavior and radicalization there? 

Sadly not. There have been reports about that also, how the BJP government has compromised the media as well. Media channels right now, except a few that can be counted on our fingertips, every single news channel especially the TV channels are filled with chest-thumping news of Hindu nationalism and how great Modi-ji is, even though he has wrecked this entire country – not just because of the violence and persection that the Muslim community’s facing but also education, economy, everything is going down. But right now all the community is made to look at is how Modi is making Muslims know what their place is in this democracy. 

For Muslims outside of India – and non-Muslims too – what can we do to support the Muslims in India and to support these women in their plight in trying to get their education and abide by their religion? 

I believe the international community needs to raise the issue of what is happening in India. I would not be exaggerating that a genocide is to follow. The Genocide Watch has already said that India is on the eighth stage of genocide. Rights organizations are putting up alerts again and again [as to] how dangerous the situation in India is right now. 

What people can do and what we would really appreciate them doing is that they raise these issues in their governments, they raise their issues in their media channels, and make the world aware of what is happening India, that they treat our messages and calls to them as SOS messages, because we don’t a Rwanda to happen again, or the Holocaust to happen again. If the world continues to look the other way, it will happen and it’s on its way. 

May Allah protect the Muslims of India. Are there any other points you would like to add? 

JazakAllahu khair for having me. I just want to say that it is as serious as can be. There is a government report, the Sachar Committee report. I’d like people to read it. It is old, and it does not have data from the last I think 5-10 years, but it will paint a good picture of what the condition of Muslims in India is.

At the same time intervene in whatever way possible. The Indian state needs to know that the world stands with the Muslims of India. Right now they believe that they can do whatever they want and get away with it. That is why all this happened. We’ve seen how Modi planned the 2002 Gujarat pogrom and he will have a national level pogrom like this. We really hope that people start to realize the situation is very serious. People are naysayers, [they] will say it’s not that bad, but we’re living it and we know how bad it is. Please listen to us.

Photo Credits: Afreen Fatima, taken at the protest.

This Q&A was generously transcribed by Heraa Hashmi.

Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.

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