Whether a woman wears a dupatta wrapped over her head, a ghunghat, ghomta or hijab as an expression of fashion, custom or faith, they should be at perfect liberty to do so. It is part of their right to equality and freedom of expression. They should not be castigated but respected for making their choice, whether they be Hindus, Christians or Muslims.
The controversy over wearing a hijab or not is a pointless storm in a global teacup. Both men and women have covered their heads for millennia, for protection from heat and cold, rain and snow. People of all faiths, whether Abrahamic or Indian have sported headgear for a variety of reasons. There is a marked resemblance between the head coverings of women in medieval Europe and even those of Christian nuns today and the Muslim hijab.
In India, our people wear pugrees or caps in a variety of styles across the country, while the women use ornis, dupattas of the aanchal/pallu of their sarees to cover their heads, both as protection from the elements and a gesture considered as of modesty.
Wearing such headgear or not is a fundamental right under the Constitution of India. No one has the right to prohibit the use of any kind of it. It is an expression of custom, fashion, an expression of faith or personal choice. Equally, no one has the right to enforce its use as a dress code.
It is not fundamental to any faith but has evolved as a social practice evolved in certain parts of the world owing to circumstances. If someone wishes to wear it - as Sikhs wear pugrees, Jews skullcaps and Muslim caps- as an expression and visible symbol of faith, they should be at perfect liberty to do so.
Whether a woman wears a dupatta wrapped over her head, a ghunghat, ghomta or hijab as an expression of fashion, custom or faith, they should be at perfect liberty to do so. It is part of their right to equality and freedom of expression. They should not be castigated but respected for making their choice, whether they be Hindus, Christians or Muslims. Do we not cover our heads when we enter a gurdwara or visit a temple?
What is objectionable in these enlightened and emancipated times is the use of coercion by certain societies or states to impose it as a fundamental necessity of their faith. European governments that seek to ban the hijab are as guilty as other enforcing states and societies of denying the woman her right to choose and define her sense of faith, community and style.
Harassment of women and denial of their choice of dress in certain countries and societies by patriarchies in power is indeed condemnable and requires global and vociferous protest and collective action to ensure the empowerment and equality of women with their male counterparts. One cannot on the one hand worship the female as the embodiment of power and victor over evil forces, as India has just done while denying real women of flesh and blood their fundamental rights of liberty, equality, fraternity and freedoms of faith and expression.
As our great Bengali poet Kazi Nazrul Islam wrote, inter alia, "I sing of equality. Whatever good has been achieved in this world, a half of it has been done by women and only half by men". The world must rise in unison to prevent exclusion, beatings and even murder of its girls, women, wives, mothers, aunts daughters and sisters by unfeeling states and societies, in India as well as in the wider world. We have suffered too many Nirbhayas, too many Mahsas and Malalas to remain indifferent to their fates. When will we realise that too many have died? The answer, as Robert Zimmerman wrote long ago, is blowing in the wind, Still.
Governments and societies must collectively be called to account, possibly through global activism and the UN Human Rights Commission, to ensure that the better half of the world takes its rightful place and is properly recognised and respected for its contribution to the betterment of this planet.
As Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young advised decades ago, we must teach our children well, to respect one another as persons of equal rights and standing, that use of force or coercion against girls is unacceptable, that female bodies are inviolate without their mature and express consent, that girls have as much right to inheritance as boys. Parents must be even-handed in love and care of their children, ensuring that male children do not feel more entitled than or superior to their sisters' Men must learn to refrain from violating their wives by force or without their consent, treating all other women on the planet with the respect and deference due to mothers and sisters. Wives, too, should be sensitive to their husbands' needs, so that both live in love and harmony.
The world must collectively unshackle the female half of its human population to realise its full potential for prosperity and the preservation of the planet. Women have proved their mettle in all fields, whether education and enterprise, governance and administration, finance and banking, healthcare and hospitality, manufacturing or services, farming, fisheries and forestry, science engineering and space research as well as on newer battlefields from Kargil to Kharkiv. There is no field in which they have not excelled.
Isn't it time then for Indians, who are again led by a lady President Draupadi Murmu, to shed their prejudices, respect and unshackle the feminine force and give them equal access to resources and opportunity to achieve the true greatness of our own Mother India?
(The writer is a former Indian ambassador. Views are personal)