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Court backs Indian state's ban on Muslim hijab in schools, rules it is "not essential Islamic practice"

Protests erupt over hijab ban in India
Protests erupt over hijab ban in southern India 06:40

New Delhi — The top court in the southern Indian state of Karnataka on Tuesday upheld a ban on hijabs, or Muslim headscarves, in schools and colleges in a ruling that could deepen the religious divide in the country. The Karnataka High Court ruled against female Muslim students who challenged a ban imposed by a school in January, and later endorsed by the state government, with the judges arguing that wearing the hijab is not "essential" for Muslims.

"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," the panel of three judges said, dismissing petitions by a group of Muslim students who challenged the relatively new ban.

The verdict comes after months of protests and widespread debate over the rights of Muslim women to wear the hijab in India. The protests started in January at a government-run college in Karnataka state's Udupi district, when six teenage girls were barred from classes for wearing the head covering.

A woman wearing a veil walks past police standing guard outside a school in Bangalore, India, March 15, 2022, after an Indian court upheld a local ban on the hijab in classrooms. MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP/Getty

Several other schools and colleges in the state followed suit, elevating the standoff to national and international interest, sparking protests and violence and prompting authorities to close educational institutions for several days.

Several religiously charged videos of Muslim girls not being allowed into schools, and in other cases, being asked to take off their hijabs before entering schools, went viral, attracting widespread condemnation, including from Nobel peace laureate Malala Yousafzai who urged India to "stop the marginalization of Muslim women."

The Udipi college where the ban started had argued that the headscarves violated their school uniform rules. But the Muslim students disagreed, insisting that wearing the hijab was their right under India's constitution, and taking their battle to the courts.

The Indian constitution grants all citizens freedom to practice their chosen religion, with what it calls "reasonable restrictions."

The Karnataka High Court argued this week that enforcing school uniform rules was a reasonable restriction "which students cannot object to." The ruling means any school or college in the state is now free to implement bans on Muslim head coverings.

India Hijab Controversy
People participate in a march against bans on Muslim women and girls wearing the hijab in classes at some colleges in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, in New Delhi, India, February 9, 2022. Manish Swarup/AP

"I don't know what to say, we have no words… We were expecting so much from our constitution, so much from our country," one of the five students who had petitioned the court said at a news conference on Tuesday.

The Muslim students are expected to challenge Tuesday's verdict in India's Supreme Court.

India has witnessed repeated deadly Hindu-Muslim sectarian violence over the course of its 75-year history as an independent nation, with its politics and society deeply divided along religious lines.

At least 23 dead in India protests against citizenship law 00:32

Tuesday's court order could drive the wedge deeper, and critics of Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi say it has already been exacerbated since he was elected in 2014. Over the years, Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been accused of running an anti-Muslim campaign and backing violence against minorities. Both the prime minister and his party reject those allegations.

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