Karnataka HC judging is a mixed bag

The Karnataka High Court has ruled that the Hijab is not an essential religious requirement in Islam and upheld a state government order on uniform in educational institutions.

Although the issue remains delicate and one can continue to criticize a court decision, whatever it is, it seems to me that while the High Court may be right on the whole on the first count, it may not be so solid on the second. And the fact that the court did not see the question through the prism of our constitutional secularism is flagrant.

It may be that all the “controversy” is political in nature, given that the issue has never been a big deal in recent decades. After all, uniforms were still in place in most, or at least many, educational institutions, and girls from the Islamic community wore the hijab in various institutions in the past. Why have the authorities never opposed it in the past? Likewise, one might wonder, if girls weren’t wearing so many hijabs in the past, why have so many of them done so lately, all of a sudden?

Aside from the more recent climate of division, India is perhaps one of the most liberal places in the world for practicing Muslims – more so than most Islamic countries. While the hijab has increased in recent years in many states, it’s hard not to think of it as a dead-end action and a reaction to the rise of Hindutva and Islam.

The HC’s position on the first point seems reasonable, given that many Islamic scholars also seem to agree that the hijab for women is not a mandatory religious symbol of Islam. Some point out, for example, that none of the eight references to the hijab in the Holy Quran (7:46, 17:45, 19:17, 33:53, 38:32, 41:5, 42:51 and 83:15 ) concern the wearing of the veil on the heads of women.

According to some, the culture of the hijab even predates Islam, when it was fashionable for upper-class women to wear it to distinguish themselves from the common man. Some speculate that this was probably why the Prophet Muhammad’s wives wore the hijab, not because the Quran required it. But then, I am not an Islamic scholar.

But we must recognize that rituals and practices are not constant, one-time phenomena, and that they evolve socially. The dupatta is not a religious requirement for Hindus, but most women who wear salwar and kameez wear the dupatta as a cultural norm. Moreover, in the heart of Punjab, the dupatta is often worn on the head, and even covers part of the face. In other words, the dupatta is as much a garment of “modesty” as a hijab.

Imagine a court order that says that because the dupatta is not a mandatory requirement in the Hindu religion, it must be removed from educational institutions! However, there are many institutions that have made interesting innovations such as the substitution of the dupatta by vests, which serve the “modesty” objective and are more practical! It is, in other words, innovating to accommodate the desire for “modesty” in a contemporary way.

The HC also fears that (the hijab) “establishes an undesirable ‘social separation’…”. It is absolutely difficult to digest. If the dupatta, which height for height and weight for weight is not so different from a headscarf, why should the color of the hijab in a uniform emphasize social separation, while the color of the dupatta in a uniform doesn’t? Any apprehension that not specifying the size of a hijab can create great variance in uniformed populations can easily be resolved by specifying a reasonable size for the garment.

The High Court’s position that “…(if the hijab is allowed) the school uniform ceases to be uniform”, seems to make sense. A number of educational institutions have the dupatta color specified as part of the uniform. So why can’t the neckerchief of the same color, say, the color specified for the dupatta be adopted as part of any uniform, as long as the color is not maliciously chosen to be saffron ? If dupattas and vests can be part of the uniform, so can hijabs.

It should be emphasized that the object of concern here is the hijab and not the niquab, purdah or burqua, which fully covers the face and body. The latter may have problems with identity, security, hidden objects, etc. But a hijab is no more a threat to such concern than a dupatta.

After all, in our own country, a uniform is compulsory in many professions such as the police, armed forces, airlines, customs personnel, etc., and a hijab is often permitted as part of this uniform, even if a full burqua is not.

So where is the problem for a school or a college? If the uniform includes salwar and kameez, the hijab specified could be the same as the color specified for the dupatta. If the girls are wearing skirts and a blouse, there is no reason why the color of the hijab should not be the same as that of the skirt, for example.

In short, if a girl wants to wear the hijab, let her be. She is a citizen of a secular country. Specify a uniform by all accounts, but accommodate yourself, take the hjab, just like we take the dupatta.



The opinions expressed above are those of the author.


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