India court upholds hijab ban in schools as religious tensions continue in Karnataka

Kevin J. Jones   By Kevin J. Jones for CNA


null / paula sierra/Shutterstock.

Denver Newsroom, Mar 15, 2022 / 16:00 pm (CNA).

The state of Karnataka may ban Muslim girls from wearing head scarves in schools, the state’s highest court has ruled, contending that wearing the hijab is not essential for the practice of Islam.

Muslim students had filed petitions against the hijab ban, the Associated Press reports. Anas Tanwir, the lawyer representing the girls, said they have decided to appeal to India’s highest court.

Prabhuling Navadgi, a lawyer who represented the Karnataka government, argued that a ban on the hijab did not violate religious freedom protections in India’s constitution. He said in court that schools have the right to set a dress code.

Aiman Mohiuddin, a student barred from wearing her hijab at her school in the city of Mandya, said the ban made her feel as if someone were chopping off a part of her body.

The controversy began in September last year at a government-run college preparatory school for girls in the southwestern Karnataka city of Udupi. The school banned students who wore hijabs from classrooms. Muslims protested that this violated their rights to education and religion, and some girls intentionally defied the ban as a protest.

Some Hindu boys counter-protested at the girls’ school campus and wore saffron shawls, the New York Times reports. Saffron is associated with Hinduism and is a color preferred by Hindu nationalists.

Some schools and colleges have applied a similar ban, leading to unrest and violence. Officials closed schools for days. Karnataka’s highest court then barred students from wearing the hijab and any religious clothing, including saffron shawls, until it could rule on the question.

The people of India are predominantly Hindu but 200 million are Muslims, out of a total population of almost 1.4 billion. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party governs both India and Karnataka state.

Hindus make up 84% of Karnataka’s people, while about 13% are Muslim and fewer than 2% are Christian.

Pralhad Joshi, a federal minister of parliamentary affairs, welcomed the ban on the hijab in school. He told the Indian news agency ANI, “everyone has to maintain peace by accepting the order of the high court.”

Some Muslim women wearing hijabs report social pressure like shops refusing them entrance or harassment on public transportation. There has also been a rise in violence against Muslims.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a columnist for The Indian Express, wrote that the hijab controversy is not a test of freedom or equality. Rather, “it is coming when there is an attempt to visibly erase Muslims from India’s public culture.”

Article 25 of India’s constitution guarantees “the right freely to profess, practice, and propagate religion.” However, the ability to guarantee those rights is contested.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom listed India as a “country of particular concern” for religious freedom in 2020 for the first time in more than a decade.

In recent years, Christians in India have decried an apparent rise in anti-Christian violence and Hindu extremism. Hindu mobs — often fueled by false accusations of forced conversions — have attacked Christians, destroyed churches, and disrupted religious worship services.

Some Hindu radical lynch mobs have systematically targeted Muslims in for slaughtering or eating beef– a practice that Hindus consider to be a religious offense.

Karnataka legislators have been deliberating whether to pass an anti-conversion law similar to that of eight other Indian states. Christians and others say the laws are abused by extremists.

Due to the hijab ban controversy, some state lawmakers had reservations about proceeding. The legislative leadership of the BJP, which now controls 37 of 75 seats in the Karnataka legislative council, voiced confidence that the bill would have support to pass, the Times of India reported in February.

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