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What Karnataka hijab ban is really about


Another day, another scene of intimidation for the hundreds of Muslim girls and women across Karnataka who find themselves locked out of schools and colleges, threatened, isolated, and even segregated into classrooms. They face a challenging route in the courtroom as well, with the Karnataka High Court placing an interim stay on all religious clothing in classrooms. The court has effectively suspended the fundamental rights of a group of citizens, ensuring that until the case is resolved, the girls must choose to remain at home or step into classrooms without what they believe is an essential part of faith and modesty.

Is the question here of religious freedom; or of the hijab, of “uniformity” or of uniforms? Is it about the fact that coastal Karnataka is a heavily polarised region, where organisations like the Bajrang Dal and VHP have played off communities against each other while sowing the seeds for Hindutva majoritarianism? Right-wing supporters argue that the hijab violates uniform, and consequently, uniformity. The Karnataka government order says that students cannot wear clothes that violate public law, order and integrity. Can a tilak, Sikh turban or hijab violate public order? As one of the girls from Kundapura asked: Does my hijab make any noise?

The advocate for the students of a Kundapura college in the Karnataka HC case pointed out that religious symbols have always been a part of public life in India, alluding to the Indian model of positive secularism rather than the European model of negating religion from public life. Most fundamentally, on grounds of Articles 14, 21, 25 and the promise of the Right to Education enshrined in the Constitution, denying access to Muslim girls merely because they wear a headscarf is patently unconstitutional and illegal. Several judgments have defended the right to wear religious symbols in educational institutions, and the essentiality of hijab in Islam has been proven in courts.

With exams in two months, it appears that the entire burden of maintaining “public order” and defusing “polarisation” has fallen on young Muslim women. The state has failed to maintain public order, allowing young men to heckle these girls, harass them and physically corner them as they try to enter their schools. The dispute has been projected as a “controversy” or a “row” of competing protests. But the Muslim girls have been observing hijab and attending school and college for years. They have not protested their classmates wearing saffron scarves, or the BJP leaders who wear religious symbols in Parliament. All they seek to do is enter their classrooms.

Some commentators and BJP lawmakers in the state have begun to argue that the girls are mere “pawns” in the hands of some organisations. This is an age-old argument. Muslim women, in particular, are seen as incapable of choosing for themselves — whether it was in the case of the Shaheen Bagh protests, where it was alleged without any proof that the residents of the area were being paid Rs 500 each to sit there; or Hadiya, the homeopathy doctor in Kerala who embraced Islam and was put under house arrest. The urge to rescue Muslim women, often from Muslim men, who are portrayed as oppressive and violently orthodox, is dominant in Hindutva discourse. But Muslim women who enter higher education and speak for themselves are a double threat; impossible to “rescue” and difficult to silence.

So, perhaps, it is not about the hijab, or about public order. Perhaps, it is the rising anxiety over Muslims and other minorities in the public sphere, who are fighting their way into educational institutions and jobs.

In 1960, a six-year-old Black girl, Ruby Bridges, became the first girl from her community to enter an all-white school in New Orleans, US. To be able to do so, she needed field marshals to defend her. Do we wish that Muslim women in hijab be heckled, attacked and humiliated as they enter schools and colleges? All because they follow their faith, a right enshrined in the Constitution.

This column first appeared in the print edition on February 17, 2022 under the title ‘The girls at the college gate’. The writer is a researcher at JNU in law and governance.

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