As some of you are aware, I am a Shudra intellectual and activist, working and writing to change the unequal conditions of the Dalits, Adivasis and Shudras (including the Other Backward Classes) in the Indian Brahminic Hindutva rule. My books Why I am Not a Hindu, Post-Hindu India and Buffalo Nationalism have been attacked by the Brahminic Hindutva forces and also dragged to courts, up to the Supreme Court of India. Time and again I was called an agent of Muslims and Christians. Since I worked as a professor at Maulana Azad National Urdu University from 2011 to 2017, I am accused of being a pro-Muslim and anti-national person. However, I have been doing my job without caring for the consequences.
I am writing this open letter to the Muslims and Christians of India in the context of the Hijab controversy and fundamentalist stand that Brahminic Hindutva forces and Muslims of India have taken. The Hijab issue is a part of the dress code of human beings. We, the Shudra/Dalit/Adivasis of India, have suffered in the hands of historical Brahminism on the dress code issues for a very long period. The Shudra/Dalit/Adiavsi women were not supposed to wear the upper garments– a blouse or jacket — for a long time. For instance, such oppressive practices were in vogue in Kerala till Ayyankali, a Dalit leader and Sri Narayana Guru, an OBC leader, fought against it. Women and men from oppressed castes were also not allowed to wear footwear even while toiling under the hot sun all day. Even the widowed Dwija women (belonging to the five castes –Brahmin, Bania, Kayastha, Khatri and Ksatriya), were forced by the Brahmin priestly men and also other educated pundits, to not wear blouse or jacket and their head was tonsured. Also the married Dwija women, especially from Brahmin families were subjected to perverse customs such as madi (women cooking in wet clothes as long as they were in the kitchen). The Shudra/Dalits/Adiavsis, women from all castes and some reformers from the Dwija communities as well, fought against these practices and religious sanctions. Many of such Casteist and Sexist dress code norms were obsolete now.
Women’s dress codes are generally dictated by men in all organized religions in the name of God. Whether Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Brahminism (I am deliberately not using Hinduism), Judaism, Sikhism and so on, the men who lead communities or religions dictate women what to wear and what not to; or to wear more than what is required or wear less than what they needed in seasons and times; or forced them not to wear what they want or not to wear enough even to protect themselves from sun, rain and cold. All these are done by invocation of God (those who believe in one God) or Gods (those who believe in many Gods) and spiritual books. The most sufferers in this world because of such men dictated methods of life for women and men are the Dalit/Shudra/Adiavsis. The RSS/BJP combine, which is ruling India, stands for all the historical Brahminism that we suffered. The latest barbaric spiritual interpretation of Ayyappa temple entry issue for our women between age 10 and 50, with a spiritual theory of women’s menstrual blood impurity, is also constructed by men pundits of Brahmanism.
When we are fighting against these forces for their anti-women and anti-Dalit/Adivasi/Shudra spiritual systems and practices the Muslims and Christians should not give them a scope to claim that they could liberate Muslim and Christian women from their men’s oppression. After the Triple Talaq judgement of the Supreme Court and the law passed by the BJP/RSS Government, they started claiming that Muslim women are liberated from the unjust divorce system and abandonment of the helpless children.
Now, the Hijab issue is raised in relationship to school, college education for Muslim girls. It has become another issue around which they will claim that they are liberating Muslim women from an oppressive dress code.
The Hijab, pardhah or burkha system is a form of over-dressing by completely covering a woman’s body from toe to head to guard women’s visibility in public places. This is said to guard women’s bodies from the evil eyes of men. To me, this is a very oppressive dress code. It also projects all men as possible rapists. If our women suffered from the brahminic under-dress oppression, the Muslim women are being forced to suffer from over-dress oppression, in all kinds of weather, including tormenting them in summer heat. If I go by what I see amongst Muslim women and men in India, I find that the Muslim men do not have the problem of Hijab, pardhah or burkha. Why should it be there for women alone? If one goes into Quran or courts this problem cannot be resolved. Because this issue is fundamentally related to the question of spiritual equality: whether God created man and woman equal or not! What is contemporary spiritual rationalist understanding of scholars about this question?
A recent collective team study of the Genesis of the Bible, which both Christians, Muslims and Jews accept as a common spiritual guide, referring to the status of Adam and Eve, the first man and woman that God created said: “Notably God’s image is expressed as male and female together. There is no room for male’s superiority or domination. Most human societies have featured both ( superiority and domination of men–emphasis mine), but it was not God’s intention, and it does not reflect the most basic truth about our (human) nature”. (God’s Justice, The Holy Bible)
This understanding of God’s creation of men and women as equals was never there among the brahminic forces of India and hence they forced dress codes or even prescribed death for the wife along with the husband if he dies. Because of a lack of understanding of history, the Christians (the Catholics, Orthodox of Russia and the Protestants), the Judaists, Sikhs and Muslims forced their women to over-dress. In the case of women’s under-dress or overdress it was not of their choice. It is forced training from childhood onwards. The practice of covering face with an extra cloth also came into many non-agrarian castes, which is known as the purdah system.
Let us not go by the face value of the public declaration of women sufferers saying ‘we want to under dress or over dress’. Women publicly said in the brahminic spiritual system “we want to burn ourselves on the funeral pyre of husband and die”. When you force-feed an idea as religious and God-given from childhood onwards, self-suffering becomes a ‘hobby through lobby’.
There are Christians who say women should cover their heads with Hijab in the church or at prayer times. But that is not the rule for Christian men. Christian churches practice human untouchability within the church. Such practices would only strengthen Hindutva brahminism.
Muslim women in India are not allowed into the Masjid and pray standing side by side with men of their own family or other men. This itself gave a handle to the right-wing Hindutva forces to claim “look at us, our women; they go to temples freely either alone or with their men’. But what they try desperately to hide is the fact that the Shudra/Dalit/Adivasis are not allowed to become priests in the so-called Hindu temples (read Brahmin-controlled). Such practice is not there around the temples managed by the Shudra/Dalit/Adivasis themselves The RSS/BJP forces never open their mouths for that spiritual right of Shudra/Dalit/Adivasis who they paint as ‘Hindus’.
The RSS/BJP forces are known as conservative and fundamentalist across the world. But the Muslim women’s question of conservatism and fundamentalism is giving them a progressive posture, making our struggle for equality difficult. The Indian Muslims and Christians should understand that there is a massive struggle for reform in India now. It is not by the RSS/BJP combine, but against it. In this situation with the Muslim conservatism and fundamentalism–particularly about women’s question — all of us suffer and the national reform becomes impossible.
If the Muslims keep on insisting that their women students or employees must go in Hijab or otherwise they will not study or work as it is their essential practice of religion, the brahmanic forces can say that caste and untouchability are an essential practice of Hinduism and all caste students cannot sit together should be accepted by us, the sufferers. This is where Mahatma Phule and Ambedkar rebelled against such practices. The Shudra/Dalit/Adivasishave been fighting that. The Hindutva forces can say that caste and untouchability are essential practices of Hinduism. The Brahmin priests and pundita told to the Muslim rulers that caste and untoucability were part of their religion. Hence the Muslim rulers did not abolish caste and untouchability. But the caste system was/is against human equality and God’s idea of creation of human beings. If the Hindutva forces say that caste segregation and untouchability have to be practiced in the schools how do the courtshandle the issue? The Brahmin priests and pundits told the Muslim kings that caste and untouchability practices were essential practices of Hindu religion and they had shown Rigveda and Manu’ dharma shastra evidence. The Muslim kings obviously accepted such arguments and allowed such barbaric practice to continue, even though Islam does not have such a practice. Should we the Shudra/Dalit/Adivasis accept and sit in segregated class rooms today? Such arguments about caste and any other practice of discrimination should not be projected as essential practice of religion, if the religion needs to survive in changing times. These things cannot be settled in courts or with quotations from religious books. They are old practices, characterized by men or or by community control and oppression over women and Dalits and so on. They must be changed through laborious reforms from within. Muslims and Christians have to be part of this reform agenda in India. Otherwise all of us will suffer.
Religion and God are universal phenomena. Man-woman equality in all spheres is a God-given gift. What is not required for men is also not required for women. We, Indians, with our roots in Harappan civilization with equality of man and woman and hard physical labour and equality, while working with nature, can teach the world that we shall overcome every inequality, whatever religion or caste we belong to. Let all our women study on par with men as equals in every respect. Under the force of training if the elderly Muslim women, who are used to such over-dress, may be allowed but young ones who are going to live a long life should be allowed to overcome it. To me all religious systemic practices should be subject to the very idea that ‘God created all men and women equal’.
Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is a Political Theorist, Social Activist and Author. Many of his books, Why I am Not a Hindu, Post-Hindu India, Buffalo Nationalism, From a Shepherd Boy to An Intellectual– My Memoirs, The Weapon of The Other, God As a Political Philosopher, Untouchable God, The Shudras–Vision For a New Path and so on are meant to reform the socio-spiritual system in India