Kedar Anil Gadgil recommends we follow Periyar’s excellent advice for calibrating our moral compass and focus on oppression being the enemy and standing with the oppressed, whoever and wherever in the world they may be.
I stand with the oppressed.
In the hijabi girl vs her school, where the school wants to enforce a dress code on her, I stand with the girl.
In the hijabi girl vs her family/religion, where the family/religion wants to enforce a dress code on her, I stand with the girl.
The crucial point for me is not the hijab. It is the freedom of the individual and the pressure of oppression to confirm that the individual must be given the strength (by us, the lovers of freedom and liberty) to resist.
If I were her friend, I’d first stand with her against the school authorities and the mob of bigots she has to face at the gate.
Then, and only after that battle has been fought and won, I’d speak to her about the oppressive clothing her religion and her family has conditioned her to wear.
Unfortunately, the second is best done from within the community, even if people who are not Muslims or ex-Muslims, who have no dog in the fight, can opine on it. I have always believed that the oppressed, if they wish to change the circumstances they were born into, have to fight their own fight. We outsiders can at best be allies.
Hindus needed a Raja Ram Mohun Roy, Gopal Ganesh Agarkar, Dhondo Keshav Karve, Jyotiba Phule, and a Bhimrao Ambedkar to kick-start their reforms (with the word ‘kick’ being quite literal in some cases). Despite their best efforts and numerous laws and impositions, neither the Muslim Mughals nor the Christian British could really change society. It needed people from the inside to see the problem, decide to do something about it, and actually make it happen (even to the extent of denouncing and leaving their religion).
Do the Muslims need reforms? For sure.
Is the hijab a symbol of patriarchal oppression? Yes.
Do we need a movement that removes this ill from society? Of course.
All I say is that it must come from within. Anything we impose from outside will be opposed purely because it is imposed, no matter its intrinsic value. I am, of course, not speaking of barbaric practices like FGM and child marriages. Those must be legislated. But even for that, the opposition to such practices must start from within the community. No one has, since the Roman Empire collapsed, managed to change the religious or cultural beliefs of an entire population from outside and by fiat, and even then, it took about 400 years and much violence before the needle moved.
So, what can we do?
We can follow Periyar’s excellent advice for calibrating our moral compass and focus on oppression being the enemy and standing with the oppressed, whoever and wherever in the world they may be. You will get clarity in thought and all other issues will melt away once you adopt this perspective.