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Religious Tensions High in India Over Wearing of Hijab

Indian Muslim woman holds placards during a protest against banning Muslim girls wearing hijab from attending classes at some schools in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, in Hyderabad, India, Feb. 11, 2022.

The question of whether female students can wear hijabs in educational institutions has become a flashpoint in India’s southern Karnataka state, after a college barred six Muslim students from attending classes while wearing a headscarf, saying it violated the dress code.

The controversy has turned the spotlight on what critics say are policies by the state’s Hindu nationalist government that discriminate against minorities.

Five students from Udupi district petitioned the state’s High Court last month, saying that wearing the head scarf was their fundamental right and an essential practice of Islam. They study in a government-run pre-university college that is equivalent to a high school.

After several government-run educational institutions also imposed similar bans, tensions over religious clothing spiraled in the state. While Muslim students protested for their right to wear hijabs at college gates, groups of Hindu activists and students donned saffron shawls, the symbolic color associated with Hindu nationalist groups in counterprotests.

Experts say that the coastal region of Karnataka, where the controversy first erupted, is a stronghold of Hindu right-wing organizations.

A 19-year-old Muslim woman came to be seen as the face of resistance for young Indian Muslim women after a video went viral showing her being heckled by the men wearing saffron scarves as she made her way across her college campus. While the youths, shouting “Jai Shri Ram” or “Victory to God Rama,” demand that she take off her face covering, Muskaan Khan, raising her hands, shouts back "Allahu Akbar" or “God is great.”

Khan later told reporters that “Every religion has freedom to follow their culture. We will follow our culture.”

Schools in the state were closed this week amid protests and incidents of stone-throwing but will reopen Monday for classes up to grade 10.

The state government, which is controlled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, has defended the right of educational institutions to enforce a dress code and issued an order in support of the hijab ban.

"Just as rules are followed in the military, the same is to be done here [in educational institutions] as well. Options are open for those who are not willing to follow it," Karnataka education minister B.C. Nagesh told reporters this week.

The government has also said that if a uniform is not selected by authorities, “clothes which disturb equality, integrity and public law and order should not be worn.”

A three-judge bench of the Karnataka High Court Thursday called on students not to wear any religious garments to school until it delivers a verdict. The hearing will continue Monday.

But the issue is snowballing – protests have been held this week in cities such as Kolkata, Chennai and Hyderabad supporting a right to wear headscarves.

Indian policewomen detain an activist of a student organization during a protest against barring Muslim girls wearing hijab from attending classes at some schools in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, in New Delhi, India, Feb. 10, 2022.
Indian policewomen detain an activist of a student organization during a protest against barring Muslim girls wearing hijab from attending classes at some schools in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, in New Delhi, India, Feb. 10, 2022.

Muslim women’s rights activists have thrown their weight behind the students in Karnataka and questioned the new rule, pointing out that they wore the hijab in classrooms earlier.

“Even if the hijab is not an essential practice of Islam, it is the woman’s right to decide what she wants to wear,” said Zakia Soman, founder of a Muslim women’s group Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan. “It’s unfair and discriminatory to single out these girls. It is a clearcut case of double standards. We have a chief minister in Uttar Pradesh and union ministers in parliament who are clad in saffron clothes, so what is the hue and cry over these school girls wearing the hijab? It is singling out and targeting a community.”

The ban on students wearing hijabs from entering classes in Karnataka also gained international attention with Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai asking Indian leaders in a tweet to “stop the marginalization of Muslim women.”

"Refusing to let girls go to school in their hijabs is horrifying. Objectification of women persists, for wearing less or more,” the 24-year-old activist tweeted on Wednesday.

Political analysts warn that such issues could deepen religious fault lines in India, where Muslims make up about 14% of the population and where critics say there has been a rise in hate speech targeting minorities.

“I see the hijab ban as a consistent attempt by the Hindu majoritarian forces to invisibilize the Muslims in the country. For example, for the last several months there has been a very concerted campaign in North Indian towns against Muslims holding Friday prayers in open grounds,” said independent political analyst Nilanjan Mukopadhyay. “This will lead to further stratification in society and will eventually lead to a much deeper alienation.”

The Karnataka state government has 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 conversions and could make it more difficult for interfaith couples to marry or for people to convert to Islam or Christianity.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not directly referred to the controversy over hijab wearing, but while holding a rally in Uttar Pradesh state on Thursday he said that people were finding new ways to block the rights and development of Muslim women but “we stand with every Muslim woman.”

Activists like Soman however express concern at what they call the “active politics of religious divide being played by the BJP.”

“The social harmony and peace of the country is getting threatened and I am afraid that this issue will contribute to further polarization of our society,” she said.

Suhasini Sood contributed to this story.