Politicizing education in Karnataka . . .
High schools and colleges reopened in the south Indian state of Karnataka on Monday after a three-day closure following violent protests over a ban on wearing hijab (headscarves) in the classroom. The ‘hijab row’ began in January with six students at a state-run college in the district of Udupi continuing to wear a hijab in keeping with their religious faith, despite their school’s ban on head coverings. The students, who were not allowed inside the classroom, remained outside in protest and maintained that the institutional guidelines are discriminatory and impede their constitutional right to religion. The students filed petitions with the Karnataka high court challenging the hijab ban, while their protests garnered national and international attention.
Clash between hijab and saffron scarves . . .
Last week saw a clash of colours as students affiliated with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Hindu right-wing organizations wore saffron scarves in a counter-protest in Karnataka. The clashes between pro-hijab and pro-ban protesters follow a February 5 Karnataka government order requiring students at state-run educational institutions to abide by guidelines banning the hijab. A predominantly Hindu state with a heavy presence of right-wing Hindu nationalist groups, Karnataka is accustomed to communal tensions. While everyone awaits the final court decision on the hijab ban, students are required by an interim court order to refrain from wearing any form of head coverings, scarves, or religious flags within classrooms.
Policing bodies or denying fundamental rights . . .
While the face and head coverings as practiced in Islam are often seen as barriers to women’s rights, equal rights activists maintain the issue is fundamentally one of choice, not about the garment itself. According to this argument, individuals, particularly females, should have the right to choose what they want to wear, and the state, community, or institutions should not “police their bodies.” The Karnataka case paints a troubling picture of discrimination based on religion and gender. India's educational institutions can be public and run by either the central or state governments, or privately-run. As petitioners challenging the hijab ban in Karnataka have demonstrated, educational institutions should allow students their fundamental right to religious freedom.