No hijabs for now, Indian court tells Muslim students

Muslim women attend a protest after educational institutes in Karnataka, India, denied entry to students for wearing hijabs, in Bangalore on 7 February 2022 (Photo: AFP)
UDUPI, India — An Indian court has said that students in the southern state of Karnataka should stop wearing religious garments in class until it makes a final ruling on whether a school there can ban Muslim headscarves, an issue that has stoked weeks of protests and violence and led the authorities to close schools across the state.اضافة اعلان

Muslim student organizations reacted with dismay to the statement issued late Thursday by the Karnataka High Court in Bangalore, the state capital. One said that students were being asked to “suspend their faith.”

The ban on wearing the hijab, imposed by a school for girls in the city of Udupi, has become a flash point for the battle over minority rights in India. In January, the parents of five students petitioned the court to overturn the ban, arguing that it violated the girls’ right to an education and the free practice of their religion.

Last week, the government of Karnataka issued an order in support of the school’s hijab ban. The Karnataka government is controlled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist whose eight years in power have been marked by a rise in hate speech and religiously motivated violence.

Karnataka’s chief minister, who closed schools this week because of the unrest, has said that ninth- and 10th-graders would return to class on Monday, with a decision to be made later about 11th- and 12th-graders.

The court’s final ruling on the ban could be days or weeks away. “We think it’s really unfair to ask Muslim women to suspend their faith for a few days while the court completes its hearing,” Fawaz Shaheen, national secretary of the Students Islamic Organization of India, a Delhi-based group with over 9,000 members, said of the court’s Thursday statement.

The conflict began in September at a college preparatory institution for girls in Udupi, a city in southwestern Karnataka. When several Muslim students showed up in hijabs, some teachers whose class they tried to attend turned them away and marked them absent for the day, according to the petition. In prior years, wearing headscarves at the school had not been an issue, according to one of the petitioners.

The students’ parents encouraged their daughters to stand their ground, according to their lawyer, Mohammed Tahir. They continued to wear the hijab after the school, Government Women’s PU, moved in January to ban it on campus, saying it violated the school’s dress code. The school issued the prohibition after meeting with a local lawmaker from Modi’s party.

“Then the issue started blowing up,” Tahir said. “Whenever students would go in hijab, they wouldn’t be allowed inside the compound, too, let alone the classroom.”

In recent weeks, the students have been routinely met at the campus gates by scores of boys and men wearing saffron — the color most associated with Hinduism, often worn by supporters of Hindu nationalism — and shouting slogans such as “Hail Lord Ram,” referring to the Hindu god.

The unrest also spread to at least a dozen other school campuses in the state. On Tuesday, officials ordered schools to close for three days as the police struggled to respond to intensified demonstrations.

At one campus, a boy climbed up a flagpole, hoisting a saffron flag as others in saffron scarves cheered below, according to video from local TV news reports. At an engineering school, video showed, a girl arriving in a hijab and robe was met by a large group of boys shouting Hindu slogans. She shook her fist at them and shouted “allahu akbar,” or “God is great.”

As the formerly fringe view that India should become a more explicitly Hindu state has found a mainstream advocate in Modi, Amnesty International and other human rights watchdogs have warned that religious animosity could spiral out of control, perhaps even emboldening Hindu extremists to commit genocide against India’s Muslims, who make up about 15% of the country, and 13% in Karnataka.

Secularism is a cornerstone of India’s Constitution, but the line between the state and religion has blurred in recent years, with a saffron-robed Hindu monk at the helm of the government in the state of Uttar Pradesh, and the prime minister frequently seen on television performing Hindu rituals and prayers, observers said.

“What does the government think secularism is in general in public space? This is what must also be argued in court,” said Karuna Nundy, a constitutional lawyer.

“If the government wants to take a stand against public displays of religion, it has to take that stand in all cases,” she added. “Otherwise it is just naked persecution of minor girls and playing out religious politics on girls’ bodies and denying them education.”

India’s Constitution protects religious practice unless it interferes with morality, health or public order. The BJP-controlled state government said in its February order that the students’ hijabs did just that.

“Clothes which disturb equality, integrity and public law and order should not be worn,” the government said.

After the parents appealed the decision to the High Court, a single-judge bench considered which right had primacy: the students’ right to religious expression or the government’s right to check it when it says law and order has been affected.

The judge, Justice Krishna S. Dixit, consulted the Quran and the Hadith to determine whether the hijab could be viewed as an essential religious garment in Islam, and considered the turbans of followers of the Sikh religion, who are exempt from law that requires motorcycle riders wear helmets.

Devadutt Kamat, a lawyer representing the students’ parents and a Hindu, noted that his own son wears a Hindu religious mark on his forehead in school.

The issue of wearing the hijab in school has come up before in India. In 2018, a High Court judge in the southernmost state of Kerala decided that a private Christian school had the right to bar its students from wearing headscarves.

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