Five Muslim girl students moved the High Court in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, questioning how their hijab (headscarf) was disturbing “equality, integrity and law and order,” the basis on which the state government had banned them from wearing hijab to college.
After a two-day hearing earlier this week, the single-judge bench of Justice Krishna S. Dixit referred the matter to a larger bench since it involves “constitutional questions” of personal law. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Karnataka government had in a recent circular directed colleges to strictly enforce a uniform dress code. With the girls challenging the ban, the Court will have to decide whether wearing of the hijab is part of the “essential religious practice” of Islam and whether state interference is warranted.
On Saraswati Puja (February 5), the day dedicated to the worship of the Hindu Goddess of learning, Saraswati, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi spoke up in solidarity with these Muslim girl students and tweeted, “By letting students’ hijab come in the way of their education, we are robbing the future of the daughters of India. Ma [Mother] Saraswati gives knowledge to all. She doesn’t differentiate.”
These students from a government college in Udupi, a coastal town in Karnataka, had been sitting outside their college gates for over a month after they were denied entry for wearing the hijab to college. What started off as a “hijab ban” in one college in coastal Karnataka soon spread to five. Colleges where students had been wearing headscarves for years without any controversy suddenly barred these students from entering the premises.
These incidents cannot be viewed in isolation. They should be seen against the backdrop of the growing communalism in coastal Karnataka over the past decade, where the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the ideological mentor of the ruling BJP and its affiliate Hindutva organizations have cemented their stranglehold over the region, consistently attacking minority Muslims and Christians over food choices, dress, festivals, livelihood, land, and social and religious practices. Coastal Karnataka is the third most important center for the Sangh Parivar after Nagpur and Pune. The Sangh Parivar is a family of Hindu right-wing organizations of which the BJP and RSS are a part.
The hijab ban coincides with five states going to polls this month; polarizing Hindus and Muslims has unfailingly helped the BJP in the past. Many perceive these efforts by the local BJP leaders to foment trouble as a springboard for the party as it prepares for elections in Karnataka state next year.
Earlier this week, in Mandya, 100 km from the “Silicon Valley of India” Bengaluru, 50-odd male students sporting the saffron scarf (associated with the Hindutva right wing) heckled a lone girl student wearing a burkha when she entered her college. The student, Muskan, responded defiantly, shouting “Allah hu Akbar” (God is great) after the boys menacingly chanted “Jai Shri Ram” (Victory to Ram).
The incident sparked widespread outrage. Soon students in an adjoining district hoisted the saffron Hindutva flag at their college premises. The reactions across the state have forced Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai to shut down all educational institutions in the state for three days. This, after schools had just reopened from the two-year shutdown due to the pandemic.
Muskan, a second year student pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in commerce, later told news channel NDTV: “For a piece of cloth, they are ruining our education.” Asserting that the hijab was an integral “part of being a Muslim girl,” she said her education was her priority as well and she would continue to fight for her right to wear the hijab.
Muslim women have consistently argued that wearing the hijab is guaranteed to them under Article 25 of the Indian Constitution, which allows “freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion.” The issue also pertains to constitutional rights to the freedom of speech and expression, as guaranteed by Article 19.
However, Karnataka’s BJP government has dug in its heels. State education minister B.C. Nagesh categorically stated that “those unwilling to follow uniform dress code can explore other options.” The BJP and Hindutva outfits claim to be liberating Muslim women from the hijab. The hollowness of that claim was proved with the BJP’s state unit president, parliamentarian Nalin Kumar Kateel, stating that the BJP would not allow “Talibanization of education.”
While Kateel ironically described schools as “temples of Saraswati,” he said that “bringing religion there [into schools] is not right.” Therefore, he claimed, “there is no room for hijab.”
Interestingly the BJP chooses to maintain a strategic silence on the issue of Sikh male students wearing turbans to school; the turban is an integral symbol of the Sikh faith.
With Karnataka on the boil, parliamentarians from opposition parties led by the Congress walked out in protest in Parliament after the Narendra Modi government refused to make a statement on this critical issue.
People are taking to social media to point out that while the BJP government prides itself on the “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” (save the girl child, educate the girl child) flagship scheme, its position on the hijab will exclude Muslim girls from accessing education.
Feminists too have attacked the BJP’s claims of “liberating” women from the hijab “enforced by patriarchy.” Seema Mustafa, president of the Editors Guild of India, has hailed the “women power” displayed by the girls in hijab in Karnataka and described them as the “epitome of true feminism.” Asserting that the issue is one of choice, where some Muslim girls opt to wear the hijab while others choose not to, women activists have lashed out at the BJP for obfuscating the issue.
Priyanka Gandhi, the Congress leader in charge of Uttar Pradesh, has made women empowerment her theme for the ongoing state elections and is campaigning on the “Ladki hoon, Lad sakti hoon” (I am a girl, I can fight for my rights) plank. She tweeted: “Whether it is a bikini, a ghoonghat [veil], a pair of jeans, or a hijab, it is a woman’s right to decide what she wants to wear. This right is GUARANTEED by the Indian constitution. Stop harassing women.”
Taking a cue from Karnataka, the BJP ruled states of Haryana and Madhya Pradesh are also mulling the enforcement of a hijab ban.
The ripples of the controversy have spread outside India’s borders. Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai has urged Indian leaders to ”stop the marginalisation of Muslim women.” Lashing out at how “Objectification of women persists — for wearing less or more,” she observed that “refusing to let girls go to school in their hijabs is horrifying.”
It is no surprise that Hindutva supporters started trending #UniformCivilCode on Twitter, demanding the imposition of the contentious Uniform Civil Code in the country.
In a constitutionally-enshrined “secular” country where Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath wears saffron robes and Prime Minister Narendra Modi performs a havan, an elaborate Hindu religious ritual, to lay the foundation of the new Parliament complex in New Delhi, how does wearing the hijab to college become tantamount to bringing religion into classrooms?