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Explainer: The Hijab Controversy

A group of students from the Government PU College in Udupi, Karnataka, were prohibited from entering the college on January 1st because they wore the hijab (a headscarf covering the head, neck and shoulders as mandated by the religious teachings of Islam). The situation quickly escalated into a debate when the college claimed that wearing the hijab violated the Uniform Code of Conduct, while students filed petitions in the Karnataka High Court challenging the prohibition. Since then, the matter has become politicised, with both pro-and anti-decision protests erupting in the South Indian state.

Image Credits: The Daily Guardian

What is Hijab? 

Hijab is a headscarf worn by Muslim women in order to cover their heads. It’s of shoulder length and can be of any colour. It is a religious Islamic practice however, whether it is a mandatory practice mentioned in Quran or not is still contentious. 

Moving on, Muslim women wear different types of pieces of clothes to cover themselves few of them is- Burqa (full length, covering Head to toe, black in colour) and Naqab (covers from head to toe, also covers the face). 

What do the stakeholders say? 

As the state was gripped by protests, the Karnataka government issued an order on February 5th, invoking the Karnataka Education Act 1983 and instructing students to follow the norms set forth by their various educational institutions. The administration also stated that wearing the headscarf was making it more difficult to maintain “state law and order.” Female Muslim students stated that the restriction on wearing the hijab violated their fundamental right to practise their religion in public, and this became a point of conflict. Another group of students, allegedly backed by powerful people held rallies by donning saffron shawls in opposition to those who demanded the Hijab.

Since then, the subject has grown divisive, with Education Minister BC Nagesh declaring, “Ours is not a Pakistani culture.” These protesting girls are unfamiliar with school rules and customs; they will learn later. They were seated on the side of the road, preparing to mount a demonstration… They won’t be permitted into schools with hijab unless they follow the law of the land.” The Muslim women who are protesting allege that the college has never had a problem with them wearing the hijab in the past.

Image Credits: The Independent

What has the court said? 

In Karnataka, female Muslim students have launched a case to remove a ban on hijab in some colleges. The matter was heard by a panel comprising of Chief Justice Ritu Raj Awasthi, Justices Krishna S Dixit and JM Khazi, who issued an interim decision forbidding students from wearing hijab, saffron shawls (bhagwa), or religious flags while attending courses in Karnataka colleges having a mandated uniform. Wearing the headscarf, according to the state administration, is not one of Islam’s core religious practises. It also claimed before the High Court that the hijab is not a significant Islamic religious practice. According to a government order, banning the hijab (headscarf) would not violate Article 25 of the Constitution, which protects people’s religious liberty.

What does the constitution say?

Article 25 of the Indian Constitution provides citizens’ freedom of conscience and the right to freely practise and profess religion, subject to public decency and order. Advocate Devdatt Kamat presented his arguments to the Court on the basis of Article 25th. Wearing the hijab, according to Advocate Kamat, seems to be an “innocent practise of faith” that falls under the umbrella of freedom of speech and expression. The Indian Constitution also proposes The Doctrine of Essentiality, which allows for exceptions to required religious expression, whereas the Government of Karnataka has decided that wearing the hijab is not really an “essential practice in Islam.”

Speculations behind these clashes? 

The state will go for assembly elections next year. The whole controversy and its timing are being viewed from a lens of speculation. The opposition party of Congress in the state is accusing the ruling BJP (Bhartiya Janata Party) of polarising the Hindu votes which are 84% in Karnataka. Whereas BJP is blaming Congress for minority appeasement which makes up 12.4% of Karnataka’s total population.

Discourse in the Public domain 

Apart from the political uproar, the matter has also started a social/feminist debate in the country. Where one section of feminists are viewing Hijab as oppressive patriarchal practice and on the other hand other section of feminists view it as a personal choice made by informed individuals. 

The matter remains sub judice for now.

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