by Manavi Nag
Over the past two months, the state of Karnataka has grappled with a fervent debate surrounding a hijab ban for female Muslim students, sparking wide discussions in India about the role of religion within schools. In early January a pre-university college in Udupi, Karnataka imposed a ban on its female students wearing a hijab. The school said that the girls could come to school in a hijab but once in the school, they would be required to take it off. Following this, the hijab-wearing girls of this school protested resulting in them being denied entry into the school and unable to take an exam.
This protest, instead of allowing the girls to wear hijabs, provoked more schools in Karnataka to impose a hijab ban. Following this, there have been stand-offs between the young women and the school, with young men donning saffron shawls, a symbol of nationalistic Hinduism as a counter-protest. The hijab ban has been cited as a violation of secularism and Muslim women in India’s basic rights, however, it brings up important questions of whether religion has any space in schools and highlights a growing polarisation between Hindus and Muslims under India’s current nationalistic rule.
Schools and leaders have cited banning the hijab as a matter of following dress codes and ensuring that there are no religious practices or demonstrations at school. However, young girls in Karnataka and India, in general, have been wearing hijabs to school for many years, sparking the question of why now are girls being denied the right of an education because of the hijab. The sudden urge to ban hijabs in schools could be a political agenda for the ruling BJP party to cement their foothold in Karnataka during elections next year by creating a Hindu-Muslim divide. The hijab ban also coincides with five states holding elections this month. The BJP relies on this polarisation of religions, especially during preparation for elections as a way of garnering support from radical Hindus. Citing uniforms and dress codes for the hijab ban can be seen as a facade to oppress young Muslim women in India because it makes them choose between education and wearing the hijab. This type of ultimatum is unjust because nobody can be denied an education because of their clothing and (in this case) by extension their religion.
As a result of not being allowed in school, four girls filed a petition with Karnataka’s high court, asking them to overturn the hijab ban saying it is a violation of their constitutional rights to practice religion freely. The Karnataka state closed schools from February 12th to February 16th. Following this, the court has filed an interim court order requiring schools to open again and stating that students are prohibited from wearing any sort of religious clothes in classes regardless of faith.
It is no coincidence that the hijab ban comes at a time of growing tensions between Hindus and Muslims in India, exacerbated and promoted by the ruling party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP has often been accused of “eroding civil liberties and undermining the country’s secular foundations,” as Wall Street Journal journalists Philip Wen and Krishna Pokharel put it, by opposition party leaders. Many have also pointed out that other forms of religious presentations through clothing such as turbans worn by Sikh men and bindis most frequently worn by Hindu women are not being targeted as part of equalising dress codes and enforcing a uniform culture within students. Rather, Islamic displays of religion such as the hijab are being used as a tool to rid Muslim women of one of their most fundamental choices: wearing a hijab. Muslim women and especially young Muslim women who will soon be this country’s future, should not be forced to choose between practising their religion and going to school.
What may have started out as an attempt to enforce a type of dress code has now become a political debate with the BJP backing the hijab ban whilst opposition parties call them out by saying that the ban is “ “inhuman and communal” and is a means of gaining popularity for the BJP. As we have seen in the past few years, there has been a disturbing rise in the number of radical right-wing Hindus who preach nationalism and Hindu supremacy under the guise of patriotism and Indian values. Nationalism and radicalism are starkly present in the ongoing hijab ban as Karnataka has been a stronghold for the BJP and the state has experienced a rise in Hindutva groups targeting the state’s minorities religions like Islam and Christianity. When the girls protested the hijab ban, they were met with counter-protests by opposers and activists wearing saffron shawls, a colour to be associated with Hinduism. Bangalore based Journalist Samar Halarnkar told Al-Jazeera that “Hindu fundamentalist groups clearly sensed an opportunity over the hijab issue and used it to further radicalise society.”
Practising religion in schools is a controversial topic, which is why the Hijab ban has garnered so much attention, but putting young Muslim schoolgirls in a position where they have to choose between practising their religion and getting an education is inhumane and something no other religion in this country has to face. The hijab ban can be seen as a method to isolate a minority group and violate their constitutional rights but it can also be seen as the latest event in a string of events fueled by growing Hindu nationalism towards the Muslim minority in this country. The looming nationalism and marginalisation of Muslims across India are becoming growingly clear, with the hijab ban in Karnataka being just another testament to it.
Follow up: As of March 15 2022, the Karnataka High Court has given their verdict to uphold the Hijab Ban stating that “wearing of the Hijab is not essential religious practice of Islamic Faith”