An Indian court on Tuesday upheld a ban on the hijab in class in the state of Karnataka, observing that the "headscarf was not essential to Islam". The court, leading up to the ruling, assessed whether wearing a hijab/headscarf is “part of essential religious practice in Islamic faith” as protected under Article 25 of the Indian Constitution. The Karnataka government argued that it wasn’t “essential” and ultimately the court too declared that “wearing of hijab by Muslim women does not form a part of essential religious practice in Islamic faith”.
The court’s ruling comes after weeks of rows and protests over the observance of hijab in educational institutes in the state. The court was hearing the petitions of Muslim students who had been stopped in January from entering the government college in Udupi for wearing the hijab. Udupi is one of three districts in Karnataka's coastal region and a stronghold of PM Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
While the court's ruling will have a huge bearing on Muslims in not just Karnataka but India at large, the brunt of its repercussions will be borne by Muslim women.
The court's decision will ultimately hinder Muslim women from enjoying freedoms and opportunities granted to every other citizen in India. Many will now have to choose between the hijab and going to school, college or other educational institutes. Ultimately, a Muslim woman in India loses either way. Either she gives up her basic right to religious practice and expression by not wearing the hijab, or she loses out on educational and, ultimately, economic opportunities. Who's to say the ban on the hijab won't be extended to other public spaces in other Indian states as well? Will Muslim women soon be deprived of the opportunity to attend public universities or hold public offices while observing the headscarf?
Leading up to the ruling, the government had argued in court that the observance of the hijab is also a question of law and order. Under Article 25 of the Indian Constitution, religious freedoms are subject to “public order, morality and health”. “If somebody is to assert the exercise the right to freedom of religion, the court will have to see if this exercise affects public order, morality,” the government's advocate general had submitted to the court. “Whenever [such] challenge comes before court, first test, according to me, whether it comes against public order, morality or health.”
It is hard to believe that a piece of fabric on a woman’s head can pose such a great threat to a country's “public order, morality or health”. Ideally, it should also be hard to believe that a young Muslim woman must consider going against the "law and order" of her country when she chooses to wear the hijab to college. For her, just like many girls in India and across the world, the hijab is an external manifestation of her religious beliefs. A choice she made as part of her personal and religious identity. There is nothing devious or conniving about such choices — they are made by men and women of various faiths and religions the world over.
It should be the state’s responsibility to instil tolerance for plurality and respect for other religions within society rather than issue rulings that ultimately discriminate against and alienate a certain segment of society. Such rulings fan hatred and instability, something the state of Karnataka seems to be well aware of given that it has banned large gatherings for a week in the state capital of Bengaluru "to maintain public peace and order" following the ruling.
The court, in trying to decide what is “essential” to a religion, has set a troubling precedent. Having knowledge about a country's laws doesn’t automatically translate into an awareness of religious law and its intricacies that took hundreds of years to set. Neither does it mean one is truly aware of the existing opinions within the religious community in question. In the absence of these, does a court really have the grounds to decide on what is essential to a religion? In situations where the court has no choice but to rule on something as personal and subjective as religion, decisions should not be made in a vacuum. They should ideally always consider social context and religious exegesis.
The Karnataka hijab row and the resultant court order is a glaring example of body politics — how personal issues associated with the body such as sexual harassment, pregnancy and clothing styles — become political battlefields for others to assert power through and over. When this becomes the norm, women (and even men in many cases) no longer retain the power to decide things for themselves. We've seen body politics play out in France as well when it banned the hijab for Muslim women.
We also see small manifestations of people being stripped of bodily autonomy in Pakistan. In 2021, the Toba sub-campus of the University of Agriculture Faisalabad (UAF) issued a dress code for its male and female students. Similarly, the Federal Directorate of Education asked female teachers not to wear jeans and tights. The body banned their male counterparts from wearing jeans and T-shirts as well.
Tragically, we're now witnessing a curtailing of religious expressions and bodily autonomy of Muslim women across the border as well. When will we learn that controlling people, through clothes or religion, is wrong. Let people be free to practice their religions and be free to be.