Hijab Ban- Denying Education to Students



In India, Muslim women are at the center of a controversy involving hijabs. Right-wing politicians are using the garb of secularism to interfere in their lives and prevent them from wearing the hijab. The first target has been Indian school students who have been barred from getting an education only because they wear hijabs. Let’s look at why this issue has caused fractures in a religiously diverse country.

The Hijab Ban Controversy

Earlier this year, a row erupted in the southern state of Karnataka. In a district called Udupi, schools started to bar students who wore a hijab from entering the classroom. Later on, they were stopped from writing exams. This led to protests by the students and members of the Muslim community on the count that students were being deprived of their right to receive an education. In addition, it interfered with their religious freedoms.

On the other side, there were Hindutva activists who had decided to adopt a saffron shawl as their symbol. They led counter-protests that involved harassing and targeting Muslim students.

As the row deepened, the State Government started to impose restrictions on large gatherings. It passed other measures to maintain public order. However, the only effect of these measures was that efforts by the Muslim community and sympathizers to protest and organize were crippled. On the other hand, saffron elements still went about their business.    

Despite multiple pleas by the Muslim community leaders and even the students themselves, the State government and the local administration refused to take any action. Aggrieved by the state of affairs, a writ petition was filed before the High Court in Karnataka. In India, a writ petition is filed by citizens when their lives are impacted by laws or regulations.

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Before the High Court, the argument was made that the hijab was worn by Muslim women to maintain modesty, and it was mandated by their faith. In addition, the government couldn’t impair a student’s right to receive an education by barring them from the classroom.

In a strange judgment, the Karnataka High Court came to the conclusion that wearing a hijab was not an essential practice in Islam. So it didn’t interfere with the hijab ban.

What Is Indian Secularism?

So, India is not a country like France where the concept of strict secularism is practised. India follows the principle of positive secularism, which includes the freedom to practice one’s religion. It cannot be compared with France, which is a country where all religious symbols are banned. In addition, France has the concept of a strict separation between the church (read religion) and state. India, on the other hand, recognizes the fact that religion is an integral part of a citizen’s life and allows them to wear and display religious symbols. One example would be how Sikhs wear their turbans, and the state has no issue with it. So in the context of Indian secularism, the Hijab ban is troubling.

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Kavita Krishnan, who is the secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association stated in an interview that “The attack on the hijab is a political attempt to replace India’s plurality with Hindu-supremacist uniformity. That is why it is so disturbing that the Karnataka High Court judgment has invoked uniformity as one of the reasons for upholding the decision of colleges to disallow hijabs.”

What Is The Essential Religious Practice Test?

So the reason the Karnataka High Court refused to interfere with the State Government’s actions was that it found that wearing the hijab was not an essential part of Islam. This analysis is questionable. Religion is not solely defined by what is codified in scriptures or holy books. There is more to it. It includes practices that are followed by the religious community. After all, it is up to the Muslim community to define what constitutes Islam.

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In fact, the Supreme Court of India, in a previous judgment, opined that it could not be up to the Courts to take a call on what constitutes an essential practice of religion.

Let’s also consider another issue. Many states in India have laws that prohibit the slaughter of cattle and the sale of food items like beef. These legislations have been enacted keeping in mind the sensibilities and concerns of the Hindu community. Similarly, during Hindu religious festivals in many parts of India, the local administration passes orders banning the sale of poultry and meat. 

Not The Same Rules For Everyone

From a neutral perspective, these prohibitions are unnecessary intrusions by the government into an Indian citizen’s life and diet. Restricting people from eating meat or poultry is not an essential practice of Hinduism. This is evident from the fact that many Hindu communities have historically consumed poultry and meat. Yet these prohibitions are the law of the land. 

So the question remains – why doesn’t the government show a similar level of understanding to the concerns of the Muslim community. The agitation against the Hijab ban was led by a student who was affected by the ban. To her and other women involved, the hijab was an essential part of their religion and life.

In India, many Muslim women don’t wear the hijab, and there are others who wear it. In a democracy like India, one would have to look at the views of the community and then come to a conclusion as to what constitutes an essential practice of religion. 

India is a multi-cultural democracy. There are parts of India that are conservative and liberal. The government has to consider and respect the religious sensibilities of the Muslim community, just like how the Hindu community’s wishes are respected. One also has to consider whether the cause of secularism had been advanced at all. Why does the government action under the garb of secularism only in terms of measures that affect the Muslim community? Why are decisions that are unpopular among Muslims vociferously defended by the government?

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Final Thoughts

These are issues that are of deep importance to India. It could also mean that the idea of secularism is being distorted and used just to disadvantage Muslim women. What is even more concerning is the fact that BJP leaders have now made publicly stated that they would look for a complete ban on Hijabs throughout the country. At present, this important issue now lies before the Supreme Court, we can only wait and see which way the Supreme Court rules.   


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