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Hijab row sparks fears of Muslim marginalization in India

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NEW DELHI: For over two months, tension has gripped India’s southern state of Karnataka, after schools and colleges barred entry for Muslim girls and women who wear the hijab, a move that has created ripples across the country and comes as regional elections are happening in five states.

“A ban on the hijab is not acceptable. Hijab is part of our identity. It is in our faith and emotions,” said A H Almaas, a student at the Government Pre-University College for Girls, Udupi, in Karnataka. She was among the girls prevented from take her exams on Monday because she was denied entry to the campus.

But Almaas said, her determination to get the rule changed. “Our fight is right and constitutional. We can’t compromise on it. We will fight till the end, and we will eventually win,” she believed.

The Muslim community has reacted with anger to the ban, arguing that it is a direct assault on their core religious rights. It has sparked fears of further marginalization of Muslims under the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The controversy began in late December last year at the college in Udupi, a district in coastal Karnataka, when a group of six Muslim girls was thrown out of class because they were wearing the hijab. College officials said the girls were violating the school’s dress code. The group responded with a defiant protest, camping outside the classroom and missing important lessons.

The girls and their supporters say banning students from class for wearing the hijab is a violation of their right to practice their religion and their right to education.

Mohammad Salman, an activist who heads the Student Islamic Organization of India said that the hijab ban is aimed at imposing cultural homogeneity with Hindus and creating barriers for Muslim women fighting their way into educational institutions and jobs.

The controversy snowballed as more and more colleges banned the hijab on campus after Hindu students, backed by extremist groups, started wearing color saffron-colored scarves and shawls, a symbol associated with Hindu nationalism. They also held violent protests against the hijab.

Nabila Khan, an activist in New Delhi, said the controversy around the hijab reflects growing Islamophobia in India. “They are coming after our symbols of Muslim-ness, one by one. Today they are objecting to the hijab, tomorrow they will object to our faith without any pretext,” she said.

“We want them to give us our rights. This is not just about us, but a fight for every Muslim girl in India,” 18-year-old Hajra Shifa, a member of the group leading the resistance against the ban, she added.

“The Indian constitution gives us all the rights — the right to freedom, the right to equality, the right to education, and the right to religion. I don’t know why the college is stopping us from exercising our rights.”

She is among the petitioners who have filed a case with the state’s high court, arguing the students should be allowed to wear the hijab.

A panel of three judges hearing the case issued an interim ruling in mid February banning “religious clothing” in schools until the court decides whether wearing the hijab is a fundamental religious right under the Indian constitution. The ruling has raised tensions further, as schools and colleges across the state have banned the hijab, including for teachers. Muslim girls and women being forced to uncover themselves in public, in front of the media, has triggered a sense of humiliation among Muslims.

Shifa said the courts should reach a decision as soon as possible. “Till the decision is made, we will not enter the classrooms. [This] month I have laboratory practical exams. If I do not attend that, I may lose one year.” Shifa, a science student, said she wants to be a cardiac technician. But the hijab row has disturbed her focus.

The dispute over the hijab has dominated national headlines for weeks, as observers say the BJP could use the issue to distract attention from unemployment, the farm crisis, and lackluster economic development.

Yogi Adityanath, a right-wing Hindu monk and BJP politician who is fighting for a second term as chief minister in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous, has said in TV interviews that he opposes allowing the hijab in schools and colleges. In February, his supporters, sporting saffron scarves, went to a college in the city of Aligarh and demanded that it ban the entry of students wearing headscarves. Two days later, the college imposed the ban as demanded.

“It’s the party’s way of showing its core voters how it is putting Muslims ‘in their place’,” said Aditya Menon, political editor of a local news site. “But electoral gains are only one part of the story. Humiliating Muslims on an everyday level is also an end in itself for Hindu nationalism,” he said.

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