Bangalore, India – An Indian court upheld a local ban on the hijab in classrooms on Tuesday, weeks after the edict stoked violent protests and renewed fears of discrimination against the country’s Muslim minority.
Southern Karnataka state was on edge for several weeks after a small group of girls in their late teens were prevented from wearing the garment on school grounds at the end of last year.
Demonstrations snowballed across the state and police used tear gas to disperse angry crowds as more schools imposed their own bans and radical Hindu groups staged boisterous counter-demonstrations.
After weeks of deliberations, Karnataka’s high court ruled that the wearing of the hijab “does not form a part of essential religious practice in Islamic faith”.
Its judgement said schools had reasonable grounds to impose dress codes that forbade the headdress in the interests of preventing divisions on religion and other grounds.
“The aim of the regulation is to create a ‘safe space’… and the ideals of egalitarianism should be readily apparent to all students.”
Hundreds of extra police officers were deployed around Karnataka on Monday ahead of the ruling, though there was no sign of fresh protests by mid-afternoon.
As tensions came to a head in February, several violent confrontations in cities across the state were broken up by police and schools were shut.
– Article of faith –
The hijab is an important article of faith in Islam and many in Karnataka say that Muslim girls have worn the it in schools for decades, just as Hindus, Sikhs and Christians have done with symbols of their respective religions.
Critics accuse authorities in Karnataka, which is ruled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, of seeking to drive a wedge between religious communities that have coexisted peacefully for generations.
Rights groups say Modi’s election in 2014 has emboldened hardline groups who see India as a Hindu nation and are seeking to undermine its secular foundations at the expense of its 200 million-strong Muslim community.
Asaduddin Owaisi, one of the country’s most prominent Muslim politicians, said Tuesday’s verdict had “suspended fundamental rights to freedom of religion” and urged a Supreme Court appeal.
“I hope this judgement will not be used to legitimise harassment of hijab wearing women,” he wrote on Twitter.
The state high court initially ordered a temporary ban on the wearing of all religious symbols — including Hindu and Christian ones — in schools.
Schools later reopened under heavy security with a ban on gatherings of more than four people.
In several instances authorities made teachers and pupils take off their hijab publicly at the school gate.
A number of Muslim pupils told local media they would rather go home than be made to choose between their faith and education.
“My daughter has been wearing the hijab since she was five years old. It is to protect her dignity,” Nasir Sharif, 43, the father of a 15-year-old girl, told AFP last month.
“What they are asking us to do is humiliating.”