An Indian High Court dismissed constitutional claim on hijab; not ‘essential’ to Islam practices

The High Court of the Indian state of Karnataka ruled that students are not entitled by the constitution to wear hijab and need to follow school uniform. A divisive row sparked after women were barred from classrooms while wearing headscarves.

Students in Karnataka wearing hijab
Students in Karnataka wearing hijab talking to a faculty member (PTI)

The Karnataka High Court dismissed on March 15 petitions filed against a hijab ban in universities that reviewed Indian conception of freedom of religion. The court considered that the hijab was not an integral part of Islam and that students could not oppose school uniforms.

Wearing of hijab by Muslim women does not form a part of essential religious practice in Islamic faith,” the Karnataka High Court wrote in the ruling. The text used quotes from the Quran to justify hijab was not an essential religious practice because “wearing hijab has been only recommendatory, if at all it is“.

The question of hijab being a part of Islam’s essential religious practice in India was “the bone of contention,” the High Court judgment said.

In the hearings, both sides emphasized their submissions with concepts of secularism, freedom of conscience, and right to religion. The High Court was in the end tasked to interpret the notion of ‘positive secularism’ in Indian laws. The decision in Karnataka could as such have a national impact.

India is a secular country that “does not discriminate anyone on the basis of religious identities.” But the court considered “Indian secularism may not be approximated to the idea of separation between Church and State as envisaged under American Constitution”. While in the United States or Australia, the freedom of religion is declared “in absolute terms,” the constitution of India “appreciably embodies the limits of that freedom”. Refraining students from wearing hijab is therefore not considered a breach of their constitutional rights.

The case will likely be appealed to the Supreme Court.

The row about hijab took off in early January when six young Muslim students of a public pre-university college were barred from classrooms with the headscarf. The row quickly extended across the state of Karnataka.

Other students also showed opposition to the hijab by wearing saffron scarves, a symbol of Hindu nationalism and Karnataka’s ruling party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The government in February issued an order imposing a school uniform that banned hijab and saffron shawls and any clothing that “disturbs equality, integrity and public order“.

In its ruling, the Karnataka High Court considered that a school uniform was “only a reasonable restriction constitutionally permissible which the students cannot object to.”

Last year in Ghana, two students were barred from school because dreadlocks were against the dress code. Students considered it was part of the Rastafari religion and after several back and forths, Ghana’s High Court Two ordered to accept them.

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Karnataka High Court ruling, March 2022, Free access, PDF

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