Hijab ban in Indian state violates religious freedom: US official

US ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom slams hijab ban by the southern Indian state, drawing a sharp response from India.

The row over hijab erupted after a college in Karnataka told students to take off their headscarves inside the classroom [File: Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters]
The dispute over hijab erupted last month when a college in Karnataka barred hijab-wearing students from attending classes [File: Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters]

A US official has voiced concerns about the controversial banning of the headscarf at schools and colleges in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, prompting a strongly worded rebuttal from New Delhi.

Rashad Hussain, the US ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom, said in a tweet on Friday that the hijab ban would stigmatise and marginalise women and girls.

“Religious freedom includes the ability to choose one’s religious attire,” Hussain tweeted.

“The Indian state of Karnataka should not determine permissibility of religious clothing. Hijab bans in schools violate religious freedom and stigmatize and marginalize women and girls.”

On Saturday, India’s external affairs ministry hit back at what it called “motivated comments” on its internal issues, adding that the case was under judicial examination.

“Our constitutional framework and mechanisms, as well as our democratic ethos and polity, are the context in which issues are considered and resolved. … Motivated comments on our internal issues are not welcome,” said ministry spokesman  Arindam Bagchi.

The dispute erupted last month, when a group of Muslim students protested after they were barred from entering their college because they were wearing hijab – a headscarf that many Muslim women wear. Since then several other colleges have seen protests both for and against the hijab ban, with Hindu right-wing groups wearing saffron shawls holding protests against hijab.

International reaction

On Tuesday a hijab-wearing Muslim student was heckled by a Hindu far-right mob at a college in Karnataka state, causing outrage.

The news prompted Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai to urge Indian leaders to stop the marginalisation of Muslim women. “College is forcing us to choose between studies and the hijab,” she tweeted on Tuesday.

Manchester United and French international Paul Pogba also expressed concern for Muslim women in Karnataka, sharing a video on Instagram with the caption “Hindutva mobs continue to harass Muslim girls wearing hijab to college in India”. Hindutva is the Hindu supremacist ideology that inspires the governing BJP in India.

Last February, New Delhi reacted sharply to tweets by singer Rihanna and climate change activist Greta Thunberg in solidarity with protesting farmers, saying the celebrities needed “a proper understanding of the issues”. The farmers’ protests lasted for a year until the Modi government repealed three farm laws – the main demands of farmers.

On February 5, the southern state government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) banned clothes that “disturb equality, integrity and public order”.

The Karnataka high court on Thursday deferred its decision in response to a petition filed by a group of Muslim women against the hijab ban.

A three-judge panel will hear the case again on Monday to decide if schools and colleges can order students not to wear the hijab in classrooms. The court, meanwhile, has asked students not to wear hijab in colleges.

Activists have said the hijab ban is part of the BJP’s anti-Muslim agenda and contravened India’s constitution, which guarantees the right to religion to every citizen. Since Modi came to power, attacks against minorities, particularly Muslims, have gone up.

Muslim students earlier told Al Jazeera that the college decision was shocking as they were allowed to attend colleges with their hijab until very recently. They argued the constitution allowed Indians to wear clothes of their choice and display religious symbols.

Activists and opposition leaders have also criticised the Karnataka state for passing anti-conversion law and anti-cow slaughter law last year, which they say is aimed at targeting Christians and Muslims.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies