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India hijab row escalates after court upholds ban decision

Murali Krishnan New Delhi
March 17, 2022

A court decision banning headscarves worn by Muslim girls in schools has ignited a debate over whether a court can decide what constitutes religious practice. Judges ruled the scarves aren't an "essential" part of Islam.

Women in Kolkata protest the hijab ban
The ban on the hijab in schools in Karnataka state unleashed nationwide protestsImage: Rupak De Chowdhuri/REUTERS

On Tuesday, a high court in the southern Indian state of Karnataka upheld a government orderthat had banned headscarves in classrooms, ruling that wearing them is not an integral part of religious practice in Islam.

The court's decision and the hijab controversy are part of a volatile cultural debate in India over the place of Islam in a political environment that is becoming more and more dominated by Hindu nationalism.

The controversy over headscarves in Karnataka began in January after six female Muslim students at a college in the city of Udupi said they had been barred from attending classes because they were wearing hijabs.

On February 5, the Karnataka government issued an order banning clothes that "disturb equality, integrity and public order" in educational institutions. Several schools and colleges used this order to deny entry to Muslim girls wearing the hijab.

Karnataka then became the stage for a series of protests by Muslim students and counterprotests by Hindu students and activists. As demonstrations intensified and spread to other colleges and districts, schools were forced to temporarily close.

A group of female Muslim students eventually took the case to the state's high court, seeking to overturn the government's ruling.

'Reasonable restriction' on freedom of expression

After the high court rejected their appeal, the young women spearheading the hijab protests vowed to continue fighting their case in India's Supreme Court.

Some of them have said they will not attend classes if they are not allowed to wear a hijab, even if it jeopardizes their education.

"The court has let us down and disappointed so many of us. The court is wrong in stating that the hijab isn't essential to Islam," a student from the city of Shimoga told DW.

In explaining its decision, the Karnataka high court said that the freedom of religion under India's constitution is subject to certain limitations.

"We are of the considered opinion that wearing of the hijab by Muslim women does not make up an essential religious practice in Islamic faith," the court ruled.

It added that the state has the right to require school uniforms, which amounts to a "reasonable restriction" on constitutional rights.

Legal scholars say the case has now taken on a larger dimension with the high court ruling over freedom of expression in India, where wearing religious symbols is widespread.

Although there is no central law regulating school uniforms in India, the Karnataka court ruling has raised fears over a precedent being set to prompt more states to issue similar restrictive dress codes for students.

What's behind tensions in India's Karnataka?

Mihira Sood, a professor at Delhi's National Law University, said the court's decision did not provide guidelines for how the law can equally uphold principles of secularism enshrined in India's constitution, which would apply to any religion.

"Students of other religions wear symbols that are not part of the uniform like turbans and tilaks [the mark worn by Hindus on the forehead]," Sood told DW.

She added the situation in Karnataka was linked to the Hindu-nationalist agenda of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has a governing majority in the state.

"We have already seen reports of similar restrictions in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere, and this will likely have an effect in several states. This is just the beginning," Sood added.

BJP spokesperson Shazia Ilmi said the hijab was not part of religion, and that the party was doing a lot for empowerment of the Muslim women.

"The court verdict is in sync with the constitution. The Quran does not mandate wearing of hijab or headgear for Muslim women," Ilmi told DW.

Is Indian law singling out Muslims?

Some activists say tensions over headscarves are part of a wider trend in India cracking down on its minority Muslim population since the Hindu-nationalist BJP came to power nearly eight years ago.

"This is a clear case of interference with the girls' religious and fundamental rights. Issues like the hijab ban are very easy to polarize the entire community," lawyer Mohammed Tahir, who is representing one group of petitioners in court, told DW.

Author and activist Farah Naqvi told DW that the hijab ruling is part of a wider agenda to drive away our Muslim culture.

"This is not a gender debate or about headscarves and veils … so many fundamental rights are at stake. All this could have been easily resolved if the schools had made a simple adjustment," she said.

A woman wearing a hijab holds a sign
Muslim women say India's secular constitution protects their right to wear a hijabImage: Indranil Aditya/imago images/NurPhoto

Mehbooba Mufti, the former chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir, said the court decision upholding the hijab ban is deeply disappointing.

"On one hand we talk about empowering women, yet we are denying them the right to a simple choice. It isn't just about religion but the freedom to choose," she said on Twitter.

In 1986, India's Supreme Court upheld the right of three school children to remain silent while the Indian national anthem was sung. The children belonged to the Jehovah's Witness, a Christian sect, and said singing the anthem was against their faith.

Their school expelled them, and the family filed an appeal, saying the expulsion was in violation of freedom of expression and freedom of religion.

India's Supreme Court famously ruled that the school must readmit the children, arguing that their choice not to sing did not affect anyone else.

The girls affected by the hijab ruling now have said they will take their case to the Supreme Court and asked for an early hearing so a decision can be made in time for their exams.

India's school hijab controversy

Edited by: Wesley Rahn