Indian Court Upholds Ban on Hijab in Schools and Colleges in Southern State

In a significant judgement, an Indian court has upheld a ban imposed in the southern state of Karnataka on wearing the hijab in schools and colleges, asserting the hijab is not an essential practice of Islam.

The ruling Tuesday came in response to petition by a group of Muslim women who had challenged the ban on wearing the Muslim headscarf in classrooms in Karnataka, which is ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

The judgement could deepen religious fault lines in a country where critics say Muslims, who are India’s largest minority, face discrimination under the BJP. It could also have implications for other states where students from India’s largest minority often wear the headscarf in class.

The controversy over the hijab erupted in Karnataka when authorities in a pre-university college barred six Muslim girls from attending classes wearing the head scarf. The issue soon became a flashpoint triggering protests by Muslim students who said they were being deprived of their fundamental rights and counter protests by Hindu boys who turned up wearing saffron scarves, the color associated with Hinduism.

As religious tensions spiraled, more government-run institutions banned the hijab and the state government asserted it has the right to mandate a dress code for students.

In its ruling, the court said that guidelines on uniforms prescribed by authorities for students were a “reasonable restriction on fundamental rights.”

“We are of the considered opinion that wearing of hijab by Muslim women does not form a part of essential religious practice,” said the chief justice of the Karnataka high court, Ritu Raj Awasthi, in the judgement.

A federal minister called on people to abide by the order. “I appeal to everyone that the state and country has to go forward, everyone has to maintain peace by accepting the order of high court,” said Prahlad Joshi, federal minister for parliamentary affairs. “The basic work of students is to study. So leaving all this aside they should study and be united.”

Karnataka’s chief minister, Basavaraj Bommai, also urged female Muslim students who are staying away from classes to protest the ban to respect the judgement and return to school.

But several prominent Muslim politicians expressed disappointment at the ruling. “Regardless of what you may think about the hijab, it’s not about an item of clothing, it’s about the right of a woman to choose how she wants to dress. That the court didn’t uphold this basic right is a travesty,” said former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister, Omar Abdullah.

Ahead of the verdict, the state government had restricted large gatherings and shut educational institutions in some areas to prevent protests.

The ruling will likely be appealed to India’s Supreme Court.

Several rights activists have thrown their weight behind the students in Karnataka and questioned the ban, pointing out that there had been no objections to wearing it in classrooms earlier.

Some Muslim rights activists said that while they agreed that wearing a hijab was not an essential practice in Islam, the ban was selective and discriminatory.

“We are in a multi faith country where religion is all around us. We have members of parliament who often wear saffron robes. So if somebody believes in wearing the hijab, they should be allowed to do so,” said Zakia Soman, founder of a Muslim women’s group Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan. “This ruling could harm the Muslim community because conservative parents might make girls drop out of school. Girls’ education should continue with or without the hijab.”

She pointed out that the issue has already deepened the fault lines between the majority Hindu community and Muslims, who make up about 14 percent of the population. “The views on both sides are extremely polarized. It will only help both the right on both sides, whether it is Hindus or Muslim,” Soman said.

In the months before the controversy over the hijab erupted, the Karnataka state government also banned the sale and slaughter of cows, which Hindus consider sacred, and introduced a tough anti-conversion bill, which proposes prison terms for up to 10 years for unlawful religious conversions and could make it more difficult for interfaith couples to marry or for people to convert to Islam or Christianity.

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