Who is afraid of a headscarf? Most recently, that fear has struck the invigilators of the All India Pre-Medical Test, who believe that women in hijab and nuns in their habits pose a security risk in examination halls. That logic now has the sanction of the Supreme Court, which last week dismissed a plea that challenged the CBSE’s directions barring students from wearing certain garments and accessories to discourage cheating in tests. Even if faith impels a few candidates to cover their heads or their arms, relaxing their beliefs “for one day” harms no one, the court held. With due respect, the honourable court is wrong.
It harms, first of all, the large number of women affected by the order. The choice of wearing the hijab or the dupatta is often a complicated transaction between the individual and the community. In some cases, it is worn out of belief in a religion or respect for the culture one has grown up in. In others, it is the concession women in conservative societies need to make, when they step out into the world to study or work. By marking out examination halls as spaces where such negotiations do not hold, by asking a Muslim woman to choose between the hijab and her chance at education, the court is coming down on the side of unfreedom. One also wonders if that restriction applies equally to Sikh men, for instance, who wear turbans because their religion asks them to — or is it that only the bodies of Muslim and Christian women are to be subject to such policing?
The court order, at its heart, encroaches on the right to practise one’s customs and beliefs. Unlike countries such as France, where the suspicion of the hijab and the turban borders on racism, India revels in the plural nature of social identity. To make some forms of attire less acceptable than others is to damage that sense of equality. It might be argued that the CBSE’s orders were motivated by a reasonable need to seal examination halls against unfair practices. But it ignores the fact that the students agreed to be frisked if the board was willing to bend its rules — or that it failed to come up with other ways of cheatproofing its mechanisms. The demands of “pragmatism” cannot overrule the fundamental freedoms the Constitution guarantees all Indians. And that includes the freedom to wear any kind of headgear.