Women and education and the intersection thereof are topics that are eternally of significance in the world we live in. Amidst the laws of culture and propriety, education often is given the backseat when it comes to women. Now more than ever, it seems significant to talk about women’s rights, and their necessity to be educated.
Historically speaking, education has always been the realm of the privileged. Be it the upper caste, or upper class, or men, or Caucasians, in any part of the world, withholding education has been used as a tool for subjugation. When you keep this in mind, it does not come as a surprise what direction we are hurtling towards. After all, the ban on the hijab in educational institutions and the terms like ‘UPSC Jihad’ are not isolated incidents, and neither are they spontaneous. It is all part of what is almost a textbook guideline towards cultural subjugation and ethnic cleansing. It is a scary reality to live in where such laws can be passed, however, they are not without consequence.
A pertinent consequence of this overt act of bigotry has been the unexpected drop in the percentage of Muslim students enrolled at government PUCs in the wake of the judgment. While it stands to reason that asking people to choose between their basic fundamental right to freedom of religious expression and their right to education could not possibly have led to positive consequences, the drop of over 50% is a reality check of appropriate proportions.
On the flip side, British Airways has decided to allow tunics and hijabs to their staff. Airline stewardship is a job notorious for its rigorous dress-coding, from having to fight to avoid high heels in the air, to the permission to wear trousers instead of nylon tights in the cold of the AC, the airlines have done quite a lot to ensure that their stewards and stewardesses present themselves a certain way. A huge part of the industry is based on appearances, and showcasing the brand. Taking this step towards inclusivity opens the horizons of the company to a whole new host of job applicants and opportunities.
People often like to minimize the importance of appearance and presentation, and while that is understandable, living in a world of commodified insecurities, it is important to remember that appearance is not just appearance. Appearance is history, appearance is culture. In slave plantations, they used their hairdos to send messages to each other, planning escapes and plotting paths. In Nazi Germany, Jewish people were branded with stars. Appearance holds stories, and the person controlling the appearance is the person who holds the power.
The matter of hijab and politicization of it is multilayered and nuanced, certainly, but that too comes down to the same thing: power.
It is an incredibly long winding road to end up in this sticky spot, where Muslim women are being targeted, and other women, other organizations dedicated towards protecting the rights of women, are turning a blind eye to this. It is true that the feminist movement gave way for women to dress as they deemed fit, with no laws of propriety determining the length of their skirt. However, modern feminists often fail to realize that incidents like the Sydney bathing suit protests were not about showing skin, but about autonomy. The idea of female liberation has become so deeply conflated with nudity that people forget that it was never about bare legs, it was about autonomy. The bathing suit protests, the protests regarding Roe vs. Wade and the protests against the hijab have the same thought: you cannot place your laws on my body.
In a frankly revolutionary move in India, Cochin University of Science and Technology has made the decision to grant menstrual leave to all their students who menstruate. In a country where an overwhelming percentage of young girls drop out of school upon attaining menarche, it seems surreal to have menstruation not only acknowledged in an academic space, but also validated. The act of accommodating menstruation and all its trials is a step towards creating a more gender balanced space in the world of academics. However, governments should also continue make the campuses themselves accessible and friendly so that women can find it easy to attend classes and pursue research work during their periods if they choose to.
Accessibility and inclusivity are the key phrases to take away from these incidents. To be inclusive is to ensure that you are allowing everyone to be present at the table, while accessibility is about ensuring that everyone is able to be present. While the hijab ban makes Muslim women feel unwelcome in these academic spaces, British Allowing hijabs is a public announcement that they welcome Muslim employees. That is inclusivity. Allowing people leaves of absence for menstruation ensures that the women in college do not have to fall behind or suffer consequences for needing time off for a basic biological process. That is accessibility.
There is, obviously, a lot further we must go to ensure accessibility and inclusivity in the domain of intersectionality, but celebrating each win is just as important. Too often, battling the massive weight of the patriarchy feels like a sisyphean ordeal, and celebrating these wins reminds us that progress is taking place. Amidst the hate, amidst the injustice, at whatever glacial pace we move, we are still moving.