The Karnataka High Court’s decision upholding the ban on hijab in classrooms is highly problematic and distressing. It overlooks the key issue of access to education and instead includes an unnecessary, misinformed, and lengthy treatise on the place of hijab in the Islamic faith. The court has also given a particular meaning to uniform and dress code, where the stress is on homogeneity rather than uniformity. The principles of tolerance, balance, and accommodation that are indispensable in a plural, multi-religious, and culturally diverse country like India, have been ignored.
We cannot agree with the court’s selective reading of a particular English translation of the Quran, while excluding all other interpretations and translations of the Quran, and its reliance on these selective sources to hold that hijab is not an “essential” practice of Islam. In fact, we believe that this case is an illustration of the inherent defects of the Essential Religious Practices doctrine. The mandate of Article 25 is to see whether a particular act is a legitimate religious practice among the adherents of the faith, and, if yes, whether or not it collides with public order, morality or health. It should not be the job of the courts to decide what is or is not essential to any faith.
This decision also sets a dangerous precedent in rewarding “rule by mob”. When the court draws a false parallel of hijab with the saffron shawl, it essentially validates the strategy of Hindutva groups who had started distributing saffron shawls as a political gimmick to intimidate Muslim women students and counter their demand for wearing hijab. The court has failed to appreciate the difference between a historically followed practice like hijab, which many adherents consider as an obligation of their faith, and a political gimmick like the saffron shawl.
Schools are a place for education and learning. Co-existence, harmony, tolerance, and empathy are the crux of the education system. The judgment seems to miss this point when it stresses uniforms as a tool for erasing diversity. Uniforms are widely accepted as a means for ensuring differences of economic and class background do not create a divide among students. However, this nowhere means that uniforms cannot be sensitive to cultural practices and religious beliefs. The allowing of turbans and even kirpans for students of the Sikh community is a reflection of a broad principle of tolerance and empathy. The question of hijab could have been dealt with in a similar vein.
Muslims as a whole in India has been steadily striving to improve the educational standards of their children, and much of this has to do with an intrinsic trust that public institutions in the country will not discriminate between Muslims and others merely because of their faith. In fact, hijab and uniforms have coexisted in thousands of institutes across the country for decades without any disturbance to public order whatsoever. The denial of hijab-wearing students from entering classrooms is going to send out an extremely demoralizing message, tantamount to declaring that public educational institutions will not be respectful of their faith and their choices. This has the debilitating potential to push back the trajectory of education of Muslim women by many years.