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A Word of Caution to 'the Uniformist' and 'the Reformist'

Ariba Zaidi

Assistant Professor, Department of Philosophy, Zakir Husain Delhi College

Feb 22, 2022

This article is part of the series of responses from philosophers on the hijab row.

Through this piece of writing, my endeavour is to present my arguments to the Uniformist and the Reformist demonstrating that their attempts to get the practice of hijab banned are misplaced even if they have come to believe that their hearts are not. The term ‘Reformist’ here refers to the set of people who believe the practice of hijab or its imposition to be a regressive socio-cultural practice and therefore are calling for a prohibition by way of imposition. The term ‘Uniformist’, on the other hand, refers to the section that believes the practice to be incompatible with the various symbols of uniformity (uniforms in the current context) that are instituted to promote equality and fraternity, and through them, arguably, unity in a diverse society such as ours.

Why the uniformist insistence on the hijab ban is untenable

Given the current context and the likely grave implications that may follow, I would like to draw the attention of the Uniformist first. What does the symbol of uniformity represent? One may not disagree that the intent is to bring uniformity, but uniformity in itself doesn’t represent any merit in most societies unless it is a means to attain other social values, which are 'equality' and 'fraternity' and through such ideals 'unity' that binds the social fabric. My argument is– the spirit of uniformity is what gives meaning to the symbols of uniformity. Further, if a society is not able to appreciate what the spirit of uniformity means or what its significance is, and to what extent it can be pursued, the likely-hood of self-sabotaging the ends, i.e., equality, fraternity and unity for which such symbols of uniformity were instituted in the first place can’t be discounted.

The spirit of uniformity is often mistaken to be seeking uniformity in all the spheres of social life. The error lies in not recognizing that not all domains of social life are equally amenable to a quest for uniformity. There are some domains where the quest for uniformity is a just and a meaningful pursuit, but there are also provinces where it cannot be accorded a justifiable place. Social, economic and political spheres are such domains where the quest for uniformity is arguably a legitimate pursuit. More so in the context of our society where economic and social hierarchies are deep-rooted, but regardless of the realities of a society, to have uniform basic minimum standards of dignified living, and absence of social hierarchies ought to be one of the prime objectives for any progressive society. Thus, the spirit of uniformity is a requisite quest in the foregoing domains.

However, society is a union of more than these three stated sets. This brings me to the sphere of culture. Can we seek uniformity in the domain of culture, which in our society is composed of many diverse elements? Culture is a slightly different set than others, where each element (cultural element) of the set often happens to be the assumed identity of the ones who belong to that particular culture. For instance, should we seek uniformity in languages or dialects, in religion or its sub-sects, in rituals, customs and traditions etc.? Each of these elements can be a part of someone’s assumed identity. Any short-sighted attempt to dilute the integrity of such identities, as history indicates, are fraught with danger, often with detrimental effects to some of the goals for which the uniformity is sought in the first place, i.e., fraternity and through it unity in the society. Alternatively stated, uniformity becomes the instrument of sabotaging the same very goals to pursue which it was instituted in the first place. Thus, while instituting the symbols of uniformity such as uniforms, one ought to be guided by the spirit of uniformity, which is to strive for uniformity within the socio-politico-economic domains without undermining the diversity in the cultural domain. I am, therefore, urging all the Uniformists, who are in concurrence with the call for a hijab ban, to be guided by the spirit of uniformity. Otherwise, knowingly or unknowingly, they are grossly undervaluing the goals for which uniformity is sought.

Why the Reformist insistence on the hijab ban is untenable

The following sets of arguments are addressed to the Reformists, who, as I stated earlier, are those set of people who believe the practice of hijab or its imposition to be a regressive socio-cultural practice and therefore are calling for a prohibition by way of imposition. I don’t intend to keep the willful (autonomous) practice of hijab, with or without any justification, within the same bracket as the imposed or culturally-conditioned practice of it (even if some of the members fall within the intersection of the culturally-conditioned class and the autonomous class). The question is: Does the imposition of hijab or similar regressive practices regardless of their religious or cultural affiliation deserve a top-down imposition of ban or any other form of restriction?

I agree with the Reformists that our society is a simmering ground of many regressive practices and arguably there is no religion that doesn’t contribute to it. It is significant for us, therefore, as a collective, to arrive at a generalization or a guiding framework to address such regressive issues and choose wisely when it comes to opting for a path to bring reforms. My attempt, through the following, is to demonstrate to the Reformists that a well-recognized framework already exists in most of the thriving democratic societies, and inference from such a framework doesn’t justify a top-down imposition of ban on hijab or similar practices.

When it comes to socio-cultural reforms, one can immediately think of two preferred modes by most societies worldwide to carry out reforms viz., the consensus-based approach and the top-down impositions. One is likely to associate a consensus-based approach with a thriving democracy, but a top-down imposition isn’t entirely incompatible within a democratic political structure either. Of course, a consensus-based approach has to be the norm, but exceptions can be cited that often warrant a quick decision making, where waiting for consensus may prove to be debilitating. We have the instances of child marriage abolition, abolition of untouchability, the PNDT act, abolition of slavery in the US etc., where waiting for consensus would have proven self-defeating. I am inclined to keep abolition of sati too in this category although it was imposed by an imperialist regime. The question to be asked is what is the basis to determine whether a case for reform fits the consensus-based approach or the top-down imposition.

The foregoing instances of top-down impositions and other similar incidents that have not found a mention here can probably be a promising source to inductively arrive at some generalization. In my humble attempt, I find that a breach of someone’s ‘right to life’ and ‘right to live with dignity’ are two factors that provided the ground for impositions in all such instances. One may wish to keep disruption of peace and public order in this category, but it is also arguably one of the most misused basis by most governments to impose sanctions on our liberties. Thus, in my opinion, the breach of ‘right to life’ and ‘right to live with dignity’ seems to be the only basis for a top-down imposition in a democratic polity in most cases if not all. In all other contexts, a consensus-based approach should be the norm for any democracy to be meaningful to its citizenry. Now, the question is can school/college going hijab-wearing girls be seen as breaching any of these inalienable rights that warrant a top-down imposition. I am sure that our Reformist zeal is not blinded enough to see it that way, but there may be some who would still want to point that women forced to be behind the veil are living a less dignified life, and the situation according to the chosen parameters warrants imposition of the ban. I would like to argue that by forcing the issue of the hijab ban, it is the Reformist who is stealing the chance of a Muslim woman to live a dignified life. By forcing the issue, they are preparing a ground for many Muslim orthodox parents to not let their daughters see the corridors of schools and colleges and pushing the women who have autonomously adopted the practice to avoid such spaces. The Reformist enthusiasm of the hijab ban advocates is most likely to end up stealing a girl child’s right to education, her probably only chance to get out of this vicious trap in which her parents are trapped, her only chance to question her socio-cultural conditioning and associated cognitive biases, her only chance to make a decision for herself whether she wants to be behind the veil or not. Thus, at least to me, the Reformist demand for a ban on hijab and similar practices is unjust and uncalled for, and consensus mode seems to be the way forward.

Consensus mode appears to be the way forward, but…

Thus, the Reformists, if they are honest in their attempt to bring reforms, ought to pay more attention to devise ways to bring consensus amongst all the stakeholders. The essence of following this path lies in understanding what is central to building consensus. Central to any consensus building attempt, it can be argued, lies our ability to forge a constructive dialogue around the issues that require consensus. Any dialogue, as we all know, is composed of arguments, a logic-driven structure where claims are supported by premises. Likewise, the strength of the argument lies in its validity and soundness, where the truth of the premises plays a significant part. The question is where do these premises come from? In a society where education is still struggling to penetrate and expand its reach, it’s unreasonable to assume that their premises are likely to represent facts or truth by empirical standards. Most likely, socio-cultural conditionings, various forms of custom and tradition enforced beliefs or some form of authority are the general sources of many of their premises. What makes matters further complex is that almost all the sections of our society, in varying degrees, subscribe to such premises where each of these sections has its own sets of customs, traditions, social-conditioning, and authorities. A dialogue is probably difficult to conceive in a situation where participating members or sections of society appeal to different grounds of truth for many of their premises in the arguments advanced by them. Thus, what we get is a stalemate in return, and our Reformist zeal, instead of recognizing the true nemesis and finding a solution to it, pushes for the quick fixes, often in the form of top-down insensitive impositions as it can be witnessed in the context of the call for hijab ban.

What a Reformist needs to do instead is to find a way to push through this stalemate and ensure that the dialogue happens, but how can they do it? The stumbling block in the dialogues seems to be ‘the different grounds for truth’ of their premises, but can we ensure uniformity in it. My preferred criteria would be empirical facts for obvious reasons, but can we push for it? I think we should not. Then what should be done? My take is that we ought to focus on the prospective participants in the dialogue, i.e. children and in them inculcate the skill of reflectivity. From reflectivity what I mean is the ability to challenge one’s own beliefs and those of others, the ability to seek justification for such beliefs and keep such justifications under constant scrutiny, the ability to identify fallacies and cognitive biases and the ability to overcome the conditionings enforced by the accident of birth. Given the fact that they are able to question themselves with the same intensity that they question others, participants of this kind in a dialogue are more likely to come up with some agreeable common grounds of truth for their premises and make their dialogue and consequently reforms more successful. One may ask why children alone? I am not pessimistic in this regard, but I have come to understand that, barring a few exceptions, the grown-up population is way too conditioned (even the educated ones) to give upon their rigidities. Efforts can nevertheless be made in this direction.

What is it that the Reformists should do to actualise the foregoing? Considering that they are true in their intent to reform the society, and want to put an end to regressive practices without causing much of a social discord and discontentment, they should spend their energies in creating and shaping an education system that promotes reflectivity of the kind stated above in the students at the grass-root level. I am not implying here that all our social and cultural problems will be resolved once our citizenry is educated in the stated manner. It would be naïve to think so given the complexities at play, and I don’t intend to underappreciate the human tenacity to abandon reason when it suits them, but with all that could be there to impede dialogue, by adopting this course, surely we will give ourselves the best chance to reform our society without inciting social discord.

These are my well-considered views, but I can be naïve in such considerations.


Read other articles in this series:

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