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Muslims Decry Indian State Hijab Ban

The ban does not extend to other Indian states, but the ruling could set a precedent for the rest of the country.

Feelings of shock and distress are rampant among Indian Muslims after an Indian high court upheld a ban on the wearing of hijabs in educational institutes in Karnataka state on Tuesday.

“We can’t take off the hijab, we won’t take off the hijab,” Ayesha Imthiaz, a third-year undergraduate student in the Karnataka district of Udupi where the protests began, told Reuters.

“We have fifth semester exams next month, we will have to sit that out unless things change by then.”

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The controversy sparked last month after the southern state of Karnataka banned hijab, a decision met by protests by some Muslim students and parents, and counter-protests by Hindu students.

Critics of the ban say it is another way of marginalizing a community that accounts for about 13% of Hindu-majority India’s 1.35 billion people.

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“We are of the considered opinion that wearing of hijab by Muslim women does not form a part of essential religious practice in Islamic faith,” Chief Justice Ritu Raj Awasthi of the High Court of Karnataka said in the judgement.

After the court’s disappointing decision, Imthiaz said she would either drop out of her government-aided college or opt for a correspondence course.  

Fears

Criticizing the decision, the Students Islamic Organization of India said their fear was that Tuesday’s verdict would encourage more states to ban the hijab in class.

“We don’t want it to set a national precedent and we want it overturned,” its national secretary Musab Qazi said.

“The court verdict might embolden more states to ban it. So in all likelihood, we will approach the Supreme Court.”

Muslim politicians, including the former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir state, Mehbooba Mufti, called the verdict “deeply disappointing”.

“On one hand we talk about empowering women yet we are denying them the right to a simple choice,” she wrote on Twitter. “It isn’t just about religion but the freedom to choose.”

Islam sees hijab as an obligatory code of dress, not just a religious symbol displaying one’s affiliations.

Hijab restrictions have surfaced elsewhere, including France, which in 2004 banned them in schools.

But in India, where Muslims make up 14% of the country’s 1.4 billion people, the hijab has historically been neither prohibited nor limited in public spheres.