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The Curious Case Of The Head Dress

By Bobby Kunhu

27 May, 2010

I was slightly piqued at the discussions that was unleashed in the
Kerala media following the unceremonious dismissal of a young girl
from her school following her refusal to adhere to the proposed new
uniform – in other words following her refusal to give up the “mafta”
or “hijab”

Now, there seems to be a universal obsession with the head dress often
leading to conflicts, particularly with school authorities and their
notions of uniform from France to the humid backwaters of Kerala. This
is especially so when the wearing of the head dress involves religious
sentiments or diktat. The most visible victims at the receiving end of
this conflict from South Asia in the west would be the Sikh male
pagadi and the Muslim female hijab.

I have often wondered how the skull cap has to some extent escaped the
cultural scanner, particularly in Europe and North America. It is just
a conjecture, but I suppose it has to do with the fact that it is a
male head dress acknowledged across the entire spectrum of
Judeo-semitic religions – and of course, also the collective guilt of
White Europe with respect to the holocaust.

Well, with respect to the pagadi, at least within South Asia, it seems
to be part of the mainstream, enough, to be accepted and incorporated
within the most uniformed part of the society, the armed forces and
the Police. So much so, that all Indian cities exempt Sikhs from
wearing the helmet while riding a two-wheeler. Unfortunately or
fortunately, for Muslim women who believe in wearing the hijab, there
is no Muslim Women regiment that would place the hijab in the

Now, coming back to the curious case of Nebala’s mafta – this girl was
apparently one of the best students of the school and the Transfer
Certificate cites that she was being thrown out for her refusal to
adhere to a future dress code that the school was envisaging – in
other words – her refusal to give up the mafta.

What irked me about the discourse that followed was that almost the
entire debate revolved around the mafta and the larger and nobler
questions of religious tolerance in public (read school) spaces and
the role of a secular society. Almost everyone involved in the debate
seemed to go with the presumption that the notion of the uniform in
schools is a given. The state authorities who mediated, the school
management, the advocates for Nebala, the social and media
commentators all of them seem to have missed the boat.

Somehow there seemed to be no challenge to this colonial farce that
seem to have evolved and sustained through a perverted military
aesthetic or a weird inability to tolerate visual diversity or an
equally weird obsession with the vague term “discipline. The reason
most often, that was thrown at people who oppose school uniforms in
support of uniforms in schools was that it obliterated class and
cultural differences.

There are two problems with the above argument. One is that, at least
in India, in most of the schools, there is largely a similarity of
class amongst the students who attend a particular school. Even where
there are class differences, it does get embellished with or without
uniform in the social situation of a class room. In so far as cultural
differences are concerned, urban India has markers other than dress
including names, food preferences etc. Again, classroom social
situations and children are not as naïve as the advocates of school
uniforms would like us to believe.

Somehow, what was missing in the entire debate was the number of
constitutional rights of the student that was violated in this
incident. Fundamentally, this is a case where her right to education
has been violated because she chose to exercise her right to practice
a religion of her choice and chose to wear a dress that she is most
comfortable in (which also is a fundamental right) – regardless of the
values that the larger society, the school management or her own
community might attach to each one of these. On the other hand –
schools as a corporate entity have absolutely no “right” to impose any
such conditionality. Even if they have an option or duty enforce a
uniform under a bye-law that led to their creation or any other legal
domain – including government orders etc. – these are directly in
conflict with the above mentioned fundamental rights.

Here, I need to clarify I am not even touching upon the arguments with
respect to the need for uniforms as markers of authority, like the
police or armed forces or as a tool for professional demarcation like
lawyers or nurses. Education cannot be equated with professional
choices that one has the freedom to make is the only argument that I
need to make in this context.

Given the pluralistic nature of the Kerala society and polity, I feel
that an opportunity was lost in the Nebala case to take a lead in
locating the mafta/hijab debate within the domain of the right to
education and redefining (even if not radically) the notion of uniform
within the school system. Imagine the social outrage that would be
unleashed if any Muslim institution that offers secular education
proscribes the mafta/hijab as a compulsory part of the uniform for all
the students regardless of their religious orientation!!!!!