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Sunanda K. Datta-Ray | Of prejudice and religion: Free choice is paramount

There is no alternative to social evolution in a free society that respects everyone’s right to choose his or her lifestyle

The young men in saffron scarves who yelled “Jai Shri Ram!” at girl students in hijabs were deliberately trying to foment serious political and religious conflict. (Representational Image/ DC File)

James Baldwin, the famous black American writer, once wrote that he would never know when the lift kept him waiting whether the white liftman was genuinely busy or prejudiced against coloured people. India’s 200 million Muslims might feel similarly bewildered about Hindu attitudes. Confusion can cut both ways as I realised on reading a 19-year-old Karnataka computer student’s comment that “I was made to realise I am a Muslim” when ordered to take off her hijab.

éSurely, it was precisely because of a heightened awareness of her religious identity and determination to be counted as a Muslim that the young lady wore a hijab in the first place. She did not sport a Sikh’s turban or iron kara. Nor did she tie a mask over her face like orthodox Jains. There was no vermillion in her hair parting or conch shell bangle on her wrist, both Hindu symbols. She did not wear a crucifix either to indicate Christianity. Instead, she wore a garment that the world -- including Muslims throughout the Ummah -- recognises as uniquely Islamic. It is sometimes said that there is no Quranic sanction for the hijab (or its full-fledged cousin, the burqa) and that the Prophet Mohammed never mentioned the veil. That is neither here nor there. What matters is that like the Karnataka student, many Muslim women regard hijabs as a token of their faith, and wearing it as making a statement. They see the ban as an attack on their religion and identity.

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