India court upholds Karnataka state’s ban on hijab in class

Court upholds ban in BJP-ruled state, a ruling that could set a precedent for the rest of the country, home to 200 million Muslims.

A Muslim woman holds a placard as she takes part in a protest organised by All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMM) against the recent hijab ban in few colleges of Karnataka state, at Shaheen Bagh in New Delhi, India
A Muslim woman in Shaheen Bagh, New Delhi, holds a placard as she protests against a hijab ban in colleges in Karnataka state [File: Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters]

An Indian court has upheld a ban on the hijab in class in the southern state of Karnataka, governed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

“We are of the considered opinion that wearing of hijab by Muslim women does not form a part of essential religious practice,” Chief Justice Ritu Raj Awasthi of the Karnataka High Court said in a judgement on Tuesday.

He said the government had the power to prescribe uniform guidelines, dismissing various petitions challenging the order.

Students who had challenged the ban in court had said wearing the hijab was a fundamental right guaranteed under India’s constitution and an essential practice of Islam.

Lawyer Anas Tanwir, who said he will represent the girls now planning to move the Supreme Court, called the Karnataka court’s ruling “disappointing” and “erroneous”.

“I believe it is a wrong interpretation of the law,” he told Al Jazeera.

“As far as essential religious practice is concerned, [that] should not have been the question. The question should have been whether the [authorities] had the power to pass such orders.”

Tuesday’s ruling could set a precedent for the rest of the country, home to more than 200 million Muslims who make up about 14 percent of India’s 1.35 billion population.

Currently, there is no central law or rule on school uniforms across the country, but the Karnataka ruling could prompt more states to issue such guidelines.

Verdict ‘judicially sanctions apartheid’

Afreen Fatima, student activist with Fraternity Movement, a Muslim group, said the court’s verdict is “very disturbing”.

“It judicially sanctions apartheid. It is going to set a worrying precedent and further push Muslim women out of educational spaces. Its implications are are going to be felt across all states. It will embolden the Hindu extremists to demean Muslim women in public spaces,” she told Al Jazeera.

Karnataka’s hijab dispute began in January when a government-run school in the state’s Udupi district barred students wearing hijabs from entering classrooms, triggering protests by Muslims and counter-protests by Hindu students.

More schools and colleges in the state followed with similar bans and the state’s top court disallowed students from wearing the hijab until it delivered a verdict.

In India, the hijab has historically been neither banned nor limited in public spheres.

Many in Karnataka say Muslim girls have worn the hijab in schools and colleges for decades, just as Hindus, Sikhs and Christians have done with symbols of their respective symbols.

Syed Sarfraz, the Karnataka state secretary of the Campus Front of India, a Muslim students’ group, said the court’s decision was “unconstitutional”.

The legal fight against the hijab ban will continue,” he told Al Jazeera.

“We are shocked by the court declaring that hijab is not an essential Islamic practice. This is not for them to decide. The hijab has a clear mandate in Quran.”

Viral picture of girls sitting on the stairs
The photo of girls sitting on the stairs of a college in Udupi after they were denied entry into classroom that went viral on social media [Al Jazeera]

The hijab dispute has led to criticism that India’s Muslims are being further marginalised.

Ahead of the verdict, Karnataka authorities announced closures of schools and colleges, and imposed restrictions on public gatherings in some parts of the state to prevent potential trouble.

Last month, federal Home Minister Amit Shah said he preferred students sticking to school uniforms instead of any religious attire.

Karnataka’s ban had led to protests in some other parts of the country too and drew criticism from the United States and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

At Karnataka’s Kundapura town in Udupi district, 16-year-old Aysha Nourin, a student of RN Shetty PU College, said the court verdict is “not acceptable” to her and that she will not compromise on “our hijab”.

“For more than a month, I and around 50 other girls from my college have not attended classes, and some have missed examinations,” she told Al Jazeera.

“What we want to wear should be our decision. They cannot decide what we should wear or not wear.”

(With inputs from Rushda Fathima Khan in Bengaluru and Zafar Aafaq in New Delhi)

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies