Hanging in the balance

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Hanging in the balance


India’s Supreme Court asks not to ‘sensationalise’ the hijab issue

As the Supreme Court on March 24 declined to give any specific date for the hearing of the hijab pleas challenging the Karnataka high court order, students feared that they would not be able to appear in the upcoming examination.

When senior advocate Devadatt Kamat pressed the Apex Court that there is an urgency, because of the impending exams, Chief Justice NV Ramana said, “Exams have nothing to do with the issue. Don’t sensitise.”

Earlier, the top court refused to urgently hear the appeal and posted the matter after Holi break.

On March 24, the case was scheduled to be mentioned before the Chief Justice of India for urgent listing. Advocate Kamat said the students have their exams on March 28 and if they are not allowed inside the classroom without hijab, they will lose a year.

The Karnataka high court, in its recent ruling, has upheld the ban on religious clothes inside educational institutions, including hijab. The high court ruled that hijab is not an essential religious practice in Islam. The verdict has been challenged in the top court.


Meanwhile, the high court judges Chief Justice Ritu Raj Awasthi, Justice Krishna Dixit and Justice Khazi M Jaibunnisa who passed the hijab verdict have been provided with Y category security after they complained of receiving death threats.

According to reports, many students skipped exams owing to the hijab ban. Karnataka education minister BC Nagesh said no re-exams will be taken for those who skipped exams as there is no such provision. “Whatever the Court has said, we will abide by it. Being absent from exams will only be the prime factor and not the reason, whether it may be because of hijab row or ill-health or inability to attend or for not having studied. In the final exam- absent means absent- repeat exams cannot be held,” the minister said.

Reportedly, since the hijab row has commenced in India, many people have spoken up and it also became an international issue the world over.

According to an opinion piece by Sanya Dhingra titled ‘Hijab bans in India: Where communalism and patriarchy intersect’ published in Al-Jazeera,  in Karnataka, young Muslim girls are fighting their schools, Hindu right-wing mobs, the state government and even the state’s judiciary to be able to keep their hijabs on in classrooms. This is unquestionably a feminist struggle – after all, these women are fighting against patriarchal attempts to police their dress. But not everyone is seeing it that way.

Hindu right-wing groups, and even certain sections of India’s elite intelligentsia, appear convinced that these women must have been “brainwashed” by their oppressive families or the Islamic orthodoxy to want to wear this garment. Smartphones and television screens across the country are filled with provocative reports and images implying that young Muslim women do not have agency.

That they must be tricked into thinking this way. That they must be saved from their own families and culture – they must be saved from themselves.


Of course, these points of view are not sprouting out of the ground completely organically. Amid elections in five states, including India’s most populous and perhaps politically significant state Uttar Pradesh, there were political machinations at play.

The hijab controversy was being amped up by the governing BJP and the wider Hindu right wing to legitimise and whitewash their anti-Muslim attitudes and rally their supporters behind an emotive cause during elections.

Earlier, in February, as per Al-Jazeera, the ban on hijab in colleges in the southern Indian state of Karnataka has triggered a major row amid growing concerns that the attacks on Muslim symbols and practices are part of the larger Hindu far-right agenda of imposing majoritarian values on minorities.

The country’s 200 million Muslim minority community fear the ban on hijab violates their religious freedom guaranteed under India’s constitution.

The US ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom said the hijab ban would stigmatise and marginalise women and girls.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which runs governments in Karnataka as well as at the centre, has backed the discriminatory ban. The BJP has for decades campaigned for the application of a Uniform Civil Code (UCC), which minorities believe would be tantamount to the imposition of Hindu laws.


Many hijab-wearing Muslim girl students were barred from entering schools and colleges across the state.

The visuals of Muslim girls removing their hijab outside their schools created a furore, with social media users calling it “humiliation”, while Sujatha Gidla, author of the book Ants Among Elephants, said it reminded of “the French police terrorising Muslim women in burkinis” in 2016.

“Around 13 of us were taken to a separate room because we were wearing a headscarf over the school uniform,” Aliya Meher, a student at Karnataka Public School in Shivamogga district, told Al Jazeera.

“They told us that we cannot write the pre-board exam if we don’t remove our hijab. We responded by saying: In that case, we will not write the exam. We cannot compromise on the hijab,” said Meher.

“Suddenly, they are asking us to remove hijab,” she added. Reshma Banu, the mother of one of the students barred entry to the same school, said the hijab ban is “unacceptable”.

“The hijab is an integral part of our faith. We admitted our children here since we thought their rights would be respected,” she told Al Jazeera.


But Susheela V, the principal of Karnataka Public School, said her institution is “only abiding by government orders”.

“It’s just a pre-board examination and we can make arrangements for them to write it later,” she told Al Jazeera, adding that “we will implement necessary rules as per the court’s judgement”.

Muslim students have challenged the hijab ban in the Karnataka High Court.


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