Friday, May 24, 2024

Exploring the link between hijab ban, social anxiety disorder, persistent PTSD cases

Art by Sidra Ali

The mental health of Indian Muslims is at risk due to systemic discrimination, which includes vilification, threats of citizenship loss, and a history of oppression. These factors contribute to economic, employment, and health-related challenges that exacerbate mental health concerns. According to a study by Parcham, only 8% of Muslim workers in urban areas are employed in the formal sector as compared to the national average of 21%, and a high proportion of educated urban Muslim youth are unemployed.

The difference is traced to social and economic discrimination. Respondents from the study and the Pracham committee’s own work with Muslim youth reveal a sense of disillusionment, distrust of the state, and nepotistic hiring practices. Discrimination in workplaces includes stigma against hijab-clad women and bias around food and holidays. Political discussions often paint Muslims as Pakistanis, terrorists, and troublemakers, causing great discomfort in their workplaces.

Muslims are frequently subjected to gaslighting and provocation through derogatory jokes that depict them as polygamous individuals who consume biryani every day and cause trouble.  Muslim youth reported feelings of anger, humiliation, and physical illness, leading some to avoid confrontation and quit their jobs. The study highlights the immense fear Muslim youth live with when speaking out about their experiences. 

In another ground-breaking study conducted by the Bebaak Collective, social activist and researcher Hasina Khan, along with co-authors Sudeeti G.M and Umara Zainab, sheds light on the profound impact of communal polarization on the mental health and well-being of Indian Muslims. The research, spanning over six months and encompassing individuals from diverse backgrounds, aimed to redefine the understanding of mental health, selfhood, resilience, and survival within the Muslim community.

The study highlights that the experiences of ongoing violence, discrimination, and humiliation faced by Indian Muslims cannot be adequately captured by conventional clinical terms such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Unlike a soldier returning from war, the trauma endured by Palestinians, and similarly Indian Muslims, is not confined to a single event but rather manifests as repetitive and continuous cycles of trauma. This perpetual threat affects their daily lives, shaping their interactions with the world and intensifying their religious identity.

The report also delves into the role of law in systematically isolating and alienating Indian Muslims, perpetuating a majoritarian imagination and grassroots efforts that reinforce the notion of India as a ‘Hindu’ nation. It highlights how specific laws, such as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, have been used indiscriminately against Muslim community leaders, activists, and journalists. The resulting fear and anxiety have a profound impact on individuals and families, eroding their sense of safety and belonging.

The research also sheds light on the experiences of women who were confined during a riot in Khamaria, Madhya Pradesh. The continuous trauma faced by these women not only affects their daily lives but also shapes their decisions regarding travel, social interactions, and personal safety. The loss of community support and the overwhelming sense of powerlessness in the face of a hostile environment further compounds their struggles.

Adding to the trajectory is now the Hijab ban that is making Muslim women choose either between attending college in a uniform that doesn’t allow hijab or their religious belief of practising the same.

I very well can add to these reports from my personal practice, as a faith-based counsellor, I have been seeing alarming and concerning signs and symptoms among my Muslim clients since the hijab ban was introduced. Many of the teenagers that are coming or are brought to me for counselling are displaying signs of social anxiety disorder and a sense of persistent PTSD which appears to be rooted in the fear of being targeted due to their religious attire.

Social anxiety disorder (SAD) is a mental health condition characterized by intense fear, nervousness, and discomfort in social situations. People with SAD may avoid social situations altogether, experience panic attacks, and have difficulty forming and maintaining relationships. This condition can have a significant impact on a person’s daily life, affecting their ability to work, attend school/college, and engage in other social activities. Social anxiety disorder can be triggered, especially after experiencing a traumatic or embarrassing social event. It can also be triggered by significant life changes. 

One of my clients said, “I do not want to be subjugated to choose between my faith and education, the first word to have been revealed in the Qur’an was  Iqraa, “read”, how do I choose between two obligations?”, one other, who is 18 and just cleared her PU with great marks said, “ I may opt for distance education or some online courses, what if I join these colleges, invest all my time and energy and they on the day of exam decline me the right to write my exam in hijab? I don’t have the bandwidth to go through this kind of indiscrimination and treatment”. 

And what I often don’t fail to notice is that these girls are so full of dreams and a desire to serve and give back to the nation and humanity in terms of service to uplift the downtrodden. Sadly, due to the situation now many of them are now afraid to leave their homes and attend educational or job-related events, as they feel that they may be singled out or treated unfairly because of their hijab.

The mental health implications of this ban are significant and cannot be ignored. It is critical that we address this issue and work towards creating a more inclusive and accepting society for all individuals, regardless of their religious beliefs. I also urge the mental health fraternity to come forward and raise concerns. Also, the girls and their families that are affected seek support and guidance from mental health professionals. Counsellors, therapists, and other mental health practitioners can help provide coping strategies and techniques to help alleviate anxiety and stress related to this issue.

In the long term, we need to work towards creating a more inclusive and tolerant society that values diversity and recognizes the importance of individual beliefs and practices. This may involve educating the public about the importance of religious freedom and promoting tolerance and understanding across different cultures and faiths.

It is also important for lawmakers and policymakers to reconsider the implications of such bans and their impact on minority communities. By recognizing the harm that such policies can cause and working to eliminate them, we can take a step towards creating a more equitable and just society for all individuals, regardless of their religious beliefs or practices.

There is a huge need to address the root causes of violence rather than merely mitigating its effects. Mental health, as currently practised, often fails to investigate the systemic violence endured by marginalized communities, inadvertently reinforcing a sense of endurance rather than genuine healing and justice. As counsellors and mental health professionals, it is our responsibility to raise awareness about the mental health implications of such policies and to provide support and guidance to those who are affected. Through our collective efforts, we can work towards creating a more inclusive and accepting society for all individuals, regardless of their background or beliefs.

The fraternity needs a redefinition of mental health practices to encompass the ongoing trauma, resilience, and survival strategies employed by the community. There is an urgent need to address the systemic injustices and oppressive ideologies that perpetuate communal polarization and help in advocating a more inclusive and holistic approach to mental health support for marginalized communities.

Zulekha Shakoor Rajani is a counsellor and educator based out of Bangalore. She has a bachelor’s degree in Psychology, Literature, and Journalism from Mount Carmel College, Bangalore, another bachelor’s degree in Education (B.Ed.), K-Set qualified (Psychology), a Master’s degree in Psychology, and a Post Graduate Diploma in Guidance and Counselling. She practices DBT therapy with clients and is a freelance school counsellor/ trainer.

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