Split verdict on hijab reflects growing Islamic divide

In the late seventies, as Iran erupted in street protests led by Ayatollah Khomeini against the Shah Reza Pahlavi, hundreds of Iranian students who had flocked to Bengaluru for higher studies were a common sight, with most young women sporting a head covering and the abaya, the cloak. In the city’s premier women’s college of […]

In the late seventies, as Iran erupted in street protests led by Ayatollah Khomeini against the Shah Reza Pahlavi, hundreds of Iranian students who had flocked to Bengaluru for higher studies were a common sight, with most young women sporting a head covering and the abaya, the cloak. In the city’s premier women’s college of that time, Iranian girl students would enter through the guard house, where they shed their veil, to emerge in the jeans and shirts that most teenagers sported, melting into the crowd. 

Today, as Karnataka’s hijab row takes centre stage again, after a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court delivered a split verdict Thursday on petitions challenging the Karnataka High Court directive of 15 March that upheld the state government’s ban on wearing the veil in the classroom, it will in all likelihood be referred to a three member constitution bench, for a clearer call to be taken on the matter.

It will be interesting to see whether the country’s top law-making body will take a stand on a subject that can only further deepen the growing chasm between the Hindu and Muslim community, stoked, largely by a multitude of divisive issues that range from desecration of mores that Hindus believe cannot be defiled and that Muslims believe they have a right to practice, as they have for several centuries.

The hijab row is one such ticking bomb. The new and not unexpected turn on Thursday with the two judges reflecting radically opposing views in the country, must, going forward, explore whether social norms can override religious practice, and whether such decisions should be made into law in an India. 

For the record, the split verdict saw Justice Sudhanshu Dhulia critique the HC for having ‘taken the wrong path’, adding that wearing the hijab was a matter of personal choice, and that the focus should be on the education of the girl child. Justice Hemant Gupta, who dismissed the appeals challenging the Karnataka HC order, meanwhile, raised pertinent questions that he says must be addressed by a larger bench, such as whether the college management should take a call on the uniform that students wear on campus, whether it infringes on the girl students’ fundamental rights under Article 25 of the constitution, while stating categorically that female students pursuing their right to wear the veil and ‘practice an essential religious practice under Islam’  goes against the government order which “serves the purpose of education”. Would a decision that upholds or strikes down the Karnataka HC decision be like throwing a lit match into an already burning fire? 

Opinion is divided in the bustling town of Udupi, where it all began in December 2021 at the Government PU College for Girls, where six female students arrived on the premises, sporting the head veil, in a bid to break the college’s uniform code which disallows the hijab. 

Either by accident or design, a row that had simmered for several months came to a head, setting off a clash that seemed to go beyond religion. It set off the so-called ‘saffron-shawl’ protests by students owing allegiance to the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the BJP’s student wing, not just in Udupi but in cities further afield such as Mandya, where a veiled young woman was confronted and chased away by a mob when she attempted to enter her college.   

 The ruling Basavaraj Bommai government in Karnataka stepped into the breach, backing the Government Pre-University Girls College in Udupi and gave it a decided political twist by pointing fingers at the now banned Popular Front of India’s student arm, the Campus Front of India, as the group that was goading young women into insisting on the veil. When the angry young women students from the college in Udupi, who had been rebuffed by college authorities when they sought permission to wear the hijab inside college, took the matter to the Karnataka High Court, it was dismissed, which is when the matter was taken to the higher court.      

Some of the girl students who addressed the press on camera, incidentally, sported both the head covering and face masks, only feeding into the local Congress party’s suspicions that this was nothing but the PFI’s mother unit, the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI)’s long game to eat away into its Muslim vote bank in the state, in the run up to assembly polls in 2023; a spillover from the neighbouring state of Kerala, where the SDPI-PFI using similar tactics had a growing footprint in Kasargod, Kannur and Mallapuram districts. 

The Congress, in fact, held back from a full on espousal of the cause. Cautioned perhaps about alienating the Hindu vote after the BJP’s repeated taunts of appeasing Muslims, former CM Siddaramaiah went on to claim that the veil sported by Muslim women wasn’t vastly different from the dupatta that Hindu girls wore. Interestingly, Udupi residents are quick to bring up the little known fact that the debate to veil or not to veil consumes the Muslim community in Karnataka’s Udupi town as well, where there is a marked divide between the Kannada speaking Beary community and the more conservative Urdu speaking ‘Turki’ community and where it is not uncommon to see unveiled Muslim women drive cars, and train to take part in competitive sport. 

In fact, it’s a debate that now cuts across societies and nations. Deeply conservative Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Shaikh Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud has lifted the ban on women driving and travelling without a male escort. The arrest and killing in Iran of the 22 year old Kurdish girl Mahsa Amini by the moral police, for not wearing her hijab properly has set off street protests the likes of which have not been seen for some time now in Iran. In Afghanistan, the Taliban ban on girls attending school and women from the workforce, has set off a huge backlash. 

Back in December 2000, as the Taliban militia were hounded out of the Afghan capital Kabul, one of the first people I got to interview was a female television announcer, who ripped off and set fire to the all-enveloping blue burqa that the Taliban had insisted that all women should wear. She marched away wearing a brand new pair of high heels—also banned by the Taliban. Freedom and the right to choose. Are the Udupi girl students fighting for a set of values that even the Islamic world is seeking to shed?

Neena Gopal is a veteran journalist who worked in the Middle East as Foreign Editor for Gulf News. She covered the first Gulf War in 1990, war-torn Iraq and its neighbours through the Second Gulf War.