By Mohammad Naushad Khan

The Hijab row, which started in Udupi on January 1 after six female students wearing Hijab were denied entry in their classrooms, has now caught the attention of the entire country in one way or the other and has sparked debates in many parts of India. Many petitions have been filed in the Karnataka High Court as some Muslim students have been asserted for exercising their constitutional and fundamental rights to wear Hijab in classrooms under Articles 14, 19 and 25 of the Constitution of India.

In India or in the entire world the controversy over Hijab is not new. We have heard many times that some were denied job or asked to quit because of Hijab. But this time it has sparked a national debate and has become the question of safeguarding religious freedom and constitutional and fundamental rights as per the law of the land enshrined in the Constitution of India.

Sanjay Hegde, Senior Advocate of Supreme Court, who is representing four Muslim female students at Government PU College for Girls, said, “The Karnataka Education Act, 1983, did not contain any provisions governing uniform. Also Rule 11 of the Karnataka Educational Institutions (Classification, Regulation, and Prescription of Curricula, etc.) Rules, 1995, which allowed the government to release a dress code guideline on February 5, 2022, did not apply to pre-university colleges. The rules for pre-university colleges, which were published in 2006, did not include a dress code.”

Another senior Supreme Court lawyer, M R Shamshad said, “The basic issue under the storm is a piece of cloth to cover the head and hair of a school going girl in the name of uniformity in the classroom. In educational institutions, uniformity in outlook has never been there nor is it possible. This issue should not be seen with religious angle though it is also a matter of religion. It is also a matter of basic fundamental freedom of an individual. It is obligatory on the State to remain respectful to the freedom and identity of persons till the time it does not infringe the rights of others.”

Hamza Sufyan, Ex-VP of AMU Students Union, while sharing his perspective on the ongoing debate said, “Their fundamental right to practise their faith, as well as their right to freedom and dignity, have been violated. The issue of religious dress is not new in India. While the state of Karnataka claims that ‘religious symbols and attire’ cannot be worn, other state high courts have allowed students to do so in a variety of circumstances. In a country like India, where the government’s divide-and-rule approach has already shattered communal unity, an issue like that of the Hijab will exacerbate the social imbalance.”

He argued, India is thought to be home to a diverse range of religions and cultures. Why is it that a Sikh wearing turban, or a Hindu woman donning ghoonghat, or a boy wearing kalava or applying tilak is respected in Indian society, but a Muslim woman wearing naqab, burqa or hijab isn’t?

Sufyan added, “When such a prescription of dress is an integral part of the religion, the right of women to have a choice of attire based on religious injunctions is a basic right protected by Article 25(1). The government or anyone else has no right to intervene with a person’s dress as fundamental rights cannot be curtailed inside any institutions. It is each person’s unique freedom and decision. There is no reason why a woman should be evaluated by her dress when she is rising above the zone to which she was limited.”

Another student leader, Fawaz Shaheen, National Secretary, Students Islamic Organisation of India (SIO),

while terming the response of Karnataka High Court as disappointing, said, “The Karnataka High Court has equated hijab – an article of faith – with saffron shawl – a politically motivated gimmick – and essentially asked Muslim Women to suspend observance of their faith till the High Court hears the matter. This displays a complete lack of understanding of the issue at hand as well as the simple fact that for a believing person, articles of faith are not optional protocols to be picked up or abandoned at a mere whim.”

He further said, “Hijab is an essential religious practice in Islam and the court’s order is a direct infringement of the Muslim women’s fundamental right to practise their faith, as well as their fundamental right to education without discrimination.”

In order to understand the position and importance of Hijab it is important to have a look at the Qur’anic notion of Hijab and why it is important can be analysed from Surah Al-Ahzab, Ayat, 59. It says,“O Prophet! Say to your wives, your daughters and the women of believers that, (whilst going out,) they should draw their veils as coverings over them. It is more likely that this way they may be recognised (as pious, free women), and may not be hurt (considered by mistake as roving slave girls). And Allah is Most Forgiving, Ever-Merciful.” 

Sajid Nomani, who is working for a multinational company in India, said, “Hijab controversy is just a hushed-up challenge which does not seem to hold any base whatsoever. Everyone should have a right to decide their preferences. No one can curtail the basic rights of an Indian citizen. This is not a challenge to the right to wear one’s attire but messing it up with the basic right of an individual. Women have the right to choose their attire as well as men. Being a democratic country we are all aware that individual freedom ends where the nose of the other person begins.”              

On February 10, over a thousand feminists, democratic groups, collectives, academicians, lawyers and individuals across the walks of life issued a statement to condemn the targeting and exclusion of Hijab wearing Muslim women students, reaffirming that Hijab is only the latest pretext to impose apartheid on and attack Muslim women, following on the heels of Hindu supremacists holding multiple ‘online auctions’ of Muslim women and making speeches calling for their sexual and reproductive enslavement.

In an open letter, which has been signed by 1,850+ people and counting, they affirmed that they firmly believe that the Constitution mandates schools and colleges to nurture plurality, not uniformity. Uniforms in such institutions are meant to minimise the differences between students of different and unequal economic classes. They are not intended to impose cultural uniformity on a plural country. This is why the Sikhs are allowed to wear turbans not only in classrooms but even in the police and Army. This is why Hindu students wear bindi/pottu/tilak/vibhuti with uniforms without comment or controversy. And likewise, Muslim women should be able to wear hijabs with their uniforms.

It further said, “Making hijabi women sit in separate classrooms or move from colleges of their choice to Muslim-run colleges is nothing but apartheid. Hindu supremacist groups in coastal Karnataka have, since 2008, been unleashing violence to enforce such apartheid, attacking togetherness between Hindu and Muslim classmates, friends… It must be remembered that such violence has been accompanied by equally violent attacks on Hindu women who visit pubs, wear ‘western’ clothes… Islamophobic hate crimes have been joined at the hip to patriarchal hate crimes against Muslim and Hindu women – by the same Hindu-supremacist perpetrators.”

The letter was endorsed by over 130 groups across 15 states, including All India Democratic Women’s Association, All India Progressive Women’s Association, National Federation of Indian Women, Bebaak Collective, Saheli Women’s Resource Centre, Awaaz-e-Niswaan, National Alliance of People’s Movements, Forum Against Oppression of Women, People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Dalit Women’s Collective, National Federation of Dalit Women, Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression, and Feminists In Resistance.

The signatories included Kavita Krishnan, Mariam Dhawale, Annie Raja, Aruna Roy, Radhika Vemula, Manuja Pradeep, Safoora Zargar, Hasina Khan, Ajita Rao, Khalida Parveen, Uma Chakravarti, Sujatha Surepally, Vrinda Grover, Virginia Saldanha, Satnam Kaur and Sadhna Arya, Chayanika Shah, Poushali Basak, Utsa Patnaik, Nivedita Menon, Susie Tharu, Prabhat Patnaik, Radhika Singha, Amrita Chachhi among others.

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