UDUPI – When Aliya Assadi was 12, she wore a hijab while representing her southern Indian state of Karnataka in a karate competition. She won gold.
Five years later, she tried wearing one at her junior college, the equivalent of a US high school. She never made it through the campus gate, turned away under a new policy banning religious headgear.
“It’s not just a piece of cloth,” Assadi said while visiting a friend’s house. She wore a niqab, an even more veiling garment that covers almost the entire face with only a slit for the eyes, which she wears when she is not at home. “Hijab is my identity. And right now they are taking my identity away from me.”
She is one of countless Muslim students in Karnataka who have found themselves at the center of a stormy debate over the ban on hijab in schools and the place of Islamic head coverings in this predominantly Hindu but constitutionally secular nation.
The issue has become a focal point in the fight for the rights of Muslims, who fear being marginalized in India and see the hijab restrictions as a worrying escalation of Hindu nationalism under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.
The hijab is worn by many Muslim women to maintain modesty or as a religious symbol, often viewed not just as a bit of clothing but as something mandated by their faith. Opponents see it as a symbol of oppression imposed on women. Hijab adherents dispute this, saying it has different meanings depending on the individual, including as a proud expression of Muslim identity.
The turmoil began in January in India, where Muslims make up just 14% of the country’s 1.4 billion people but are still numerous enough to make it the second-largest Muslim population of any nation after Indonesia.
Staff at a government-run junior college in Udupi, a coastal town in Karnataka, began refusing entry to girls who showed up in a hijab, saying they were violating the uniform code.
The students protested by camping outside and holding their classes there. They argued that Muslim students had long been allowed to wear a headscarf in school. Other schools across the state soon imposed similar bans, prompting demonstrations by hundreds of Muslim women.
This led to counter-protests by Hindu students wearing saffron shawls, a color closely associated with that religion and favored by Hindu nationalists. They shouted slogans like “Ave Lord Ram,” a phrase traditionally used to celebrate the Hindu deity but co-opted by nationalists.
On a campus, a boy climbed a flagpole and raised a saffron flag to cheers from friends. At another, a girl in a hijab was shouted with Hindu slogans by a group of boys; She raised her fist and shouted, “Allahu akbar!” — “God is great” in Arabic.
To defuse tensions, the state, ruled by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, closed schools and colleges for three days. She then imposed a nationwide ban on hijab in the classroom, saying “religious dress” in state-run schools “disrupts equality, integrity and public law and order.”
Some students gave in and participated with bare heads. Others refused and were expelled from school for nearly two months – students like Ayesha Anwar, an 18-year-old in Udupi, who missed exams and is falling behind her peers.
“I feel like everyone is letting us down,” Anwar said as she was surrounded by friends in a dimly lit cafe, her voice barely a whisper behind her cloth veil.
Six students are suing for the government’s ban to be lifted, arguing it violates their rights to education and freedom of religion. An Indian court on Tuesday upheld that ban, saying the Muslim headscarf is not an essential religious practice of Islam.
One of the plaintiffs in the challenge was Aliya Assadi.
“I’m Indian and Muslim,” she said. “Looking at this from a Muslim’s perspective, I see that my hijab is at stake and as an Indian, I see that my constitutional values have been violated.”
Their activism comes at a price: Hindu nationalists have doxxed their personal details on social media, unleashing a spate of online abuse and harassment. She lost friends who portrayed her actions as Muslim fundamentalism.
But she is steadfast in wearing the hijab. She only did this as a child, imitating her mother and carefully arranging the headscarf in front of the mirror every morning. Today she enjoys the private sphere and the religious pride that goes with it: “That makes me self-confident.”
Ayesha Imtiaz, another student who was expelled from the school, said she wears it as a sign of devotion to Islam, but acknowledged that opinions differ even among Muslim women.
“There are so many of my friends who don’t wear a hijab in the classroom,” said Imtiaz, 20. “They feel empowered in their own way, and I feel empowered in my own way.”
In her eyes, the bans separate women according to their beliefs and go against the fundamental Indian values of diversity.
“It’s Islamophobia,” Imtiaz said.
Hijab restrictions have emerged elsewhere, including France, which banned them in schools in 2004. Other European countries have enacted public space regulations, usually targeting the more veiling garments such as niqabs and burqas. The use of head coverings has even divided some Muslim communities.
In India, wearing hijab in public has historically not been banned or restricted. Women wearing the headscarf is common across the country, which has religious freedom enshrined in its national charter with the secular state as a cornerstone.
But Modi’s critics say India has steadily moved away from that commitment to secularism and today is deeply fractured along religious lines. The prime minister and senior cabinet officials often perform televised Hindu rituals and prayers, blurring the lines between religion and state.
Since taking office in 2014, Modi’s government has passed a series of laws that opponents have described as anti-Muslim, although his party has denied allegations of discrimination.
Calls for violence against Muslims have moved from the fringes of society to the mainstream. Monitoring groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have warned that attacks on Muslims, who are disproportionately represented in India’s poorest neighborhoods and in prisons, could escalate.
Some of the anti-Islam sentiment has been directed specifically at women – recently many in the country were outraged by a website offering a fake “auction” of more than 100 prominent Indian Muslim women, including journalists, activists, artists and movie stars.
Muslim students claim that behind the counter-protests in Karnataka was the Hindu Jagran Vedike, a nationalist group linked to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a far-right Hindu organization ideologically linked to Modi’s political party.
Mahesh Bailur, a senior member of Hindu Jagran Vedike, denied that his group had organized demonstrations, saying it was only offering “moral support” for the saffron shawls and their cause.
“Today these girls in colleges are demanding hijab. They want to pray there tomorrow. Eventually they will want separate classrooms for themselves,” he said. “This is unacceptable.”
Bailur, 36, is a proponent of a discredited conspiracy theory that says Muslims plan to convert India’s Hindu population and eventually transform it into an Islamic nation. The requirement to wear the hijab in class is one of them.
Manavi Atri, a human rights lawyer based in Bengaluru, the capital of Karnataka, said the hijab ban is among the many attacks on the expression of Muslim identity in India today, violates the principles of state neutrality in religious matters and stokes a “we -against- them philosophy” in a country already torn by sectarian divisions. Most worrying is the pressure she is putting on girls and young women in their formative years.
“This choice (between education and faith) that people are forced to make is not a choice that you have to make at that age,” she said.
In the court case, Karnataka state attorneys argued that the Qur’an does not clearly identify the wearing of the hijab as an essential spiritual practice, so its prohibition does not violate freedom of religion.
Many Muslims reject this interpretation.
On a Friday, Rasheed Ahmad, the chief imam of the Udupi Grand Mosque, preached a sermon to hundreds of believers. With a thunderous voice from loudspeakers on the minarets, he railed against the bans as an attack on Islam.
“Hijab is not just our right,” he later said in an interview, “but an instruction from God.”
Assadi said she and the others were determined to prevail.
“We are brave Muslim women,” she said, “and we know how to fight for our rights.”
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https://www.local10.com/news/world/2022/03/15/hijab-bans-deepen-hindu-muslim-fault-lines-in-indian-state/ Hijab bans deepen Hindu-Muslim fault lines in Indian state