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

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Illustration by Sidra Ali

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

The difference is due to social and economic discrimination. Study respondents and Pracham’s committees’ work with young Muslims reveal a sense of disillusionment, distrust of the state, and nepotistic hiring practices. Discrimination in the workplace includes stigma around women wearing the hijab and prejudices about food and holidays. Political discussions often portray Muslims as Pakistanis, terrorists and troublemakers, causing great discomfort in the workplace.

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Muslims are often subjected to gaslighting and taunts through derogatory jokes portraying 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 young Muslims live with when speaking about their experiences.

In another groundbreaking study conducted by the Bebak Collective, social activist and researcher Hasina Khan, along with co-authors Sudeeti GM and Umara Zainab, sheds light on the profound impact of community polarization on the mental health and well-being of Indian Muslims. The research, which spanned over six months and included 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 ongoing experiences of 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 experienced by Palestinians, and Indian Muslims alike, is not limited to a single event, but rather manifests itself 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.

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The report also delves into the role of the law in systematically isolating and alienating Indian Muslims, perpetuating a majority imagination and grassroots efforts that reinforce the notion of India as a “Hindu” nation. He points out 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 security and belonging.

The research also sheds light on the experiences of women who were confined during an uprising in Khamaria, Madhya Pradesh. The ongoing trauma faced by these women not only impacts 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 helplessness in the face of a hostile environment further aggravate their struggles.

Adding to the trajectory is now the hijab ban which is forcing Muslim women to choose between attending college in a uniform that does not allow hijab or their religious beliefs to practice the same.

I may very well add to these reports from my own personal practice, as a faith-based counselor, I have seen alarming and worrying signs and symptoms among my Muslim clients since the hijab ban was introduced. Many of the teenagers who come or are brought to me for counseling show signs of social anxiety disorder and a persistent sense of PTSD that appears to be rooted in a fear of being singled out because of their religious attire.

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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/university 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 don’t want to be subjugated to choose between my faith and my education, the first word that was revealed in the Quran was Iqraa, read, how do I choose between two obligations?, another one, who he is 18 and he just cleared his PU with excellent grades he said, I might opt ​​for distance education or some online courses, and if I join these colleges, I invest all my time and energy and the day of exam they refuse me the right to write my exam with hijab? I don’t have the bandwidth to suffer this kind of indiscrimination and treatment.

And what I often fail to notice is that these girls are so full of dreams and the desire to serve and give back to the nation and humanity in terms of service to uplift the downtrodden. Sadly, due to the current situation, many of them are now afraid to leave their homes and attend work-related or educational events, as they feel 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 vital that we address this issue and work towards creating a more inclusive and welcoming society for all individuals, regardless of their religious beliefs. I also urge the mental health fraternity to come forward and raise concerns. Additionally, affected girls and their families seek support and guidance from mental health professionals. Counselors, therapists, and other mental health professionals can help provide coping strategies and techniques to relieve anxiety and stress related to this issue.

In the long run, we must work to create 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 between different cultures and faiths.

It is also important for lawmakers and policy makers to reconsider the implications of such bans and their impact on minority communities. By recognizing the harm such policies can cause and working to eliminate them, we can take a step towards creating a more equal 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 just mitigating its effects. Mental health, as currently practiced, often fails to investigate the systemic violence experienced by marginalized communities, inadvertently reinforcing a sense of resistance rather than true healing and justice. As mental health counselors and professionals, it is our responsibility to raise awareness of the mental health implications of such policies and to provide support and guidance to those affected by them. Through our collective efforts, we can work to create a more inclusive and welcoming society for all individuals, regardless of their background or beliefs.

The fraternity needs a redefinition of mental health practices to understand 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 community polarization and help advocate a more inclusive and holistic approach to mental health support for marginalized communities.

Zulekha Shakoor Rajani is a Bangalore-based counselor and educator. She holds BA in Psychology, Literature and Journalism from Mount Carmel College, Bangalore, another BA in Education (B.Ed.), K-Set Qualification (Psychology), a Masters in Psychology and a Postgraduate Diploma . in Orientation and Counseling. She practices DBT therapy with clients and is a freelance school counselor/trainer.


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