From 'Allow Headscarf In Classrooms' To 'Add Burqa In Uniform': Rising Demands By Pro-Hijab Protesters And The Road Ahead

by Swati Goel Sharma - Jan 22, 2023 01:11 PM +05:30 IST
From 'Allow Headscarf In Classrooms' To 'Add Burqa In Uniform': Rising Demands By Pro-Hijab Protesters And The Road AheadA public demonstration in support of hijab
  • During various court hearings last year, lawyers representing the pro-hijab protesters had repeatedly said that all that the girls wanted was a headscarf.

    However, the demands have already grown to that for a full-body veil.

Demands by a section of the Muslim community to allow girl students a special concession for wearing an additional Islamic veil over the uniform in schools and colleges have been going on since at least December 2021.

The demands began in a state-run school in Udupi district of Karnataka when six girls started starting coming to the school wearing a headscarf. It covered their hair and neck and was fastened by a pin, and was worn over the uniform that comprised of a loose kurta, salwar and dupatta pleated around the chest.

The girls said the headscarf was ‘hijab’ and their religion made it mandatory for women to cover their hair in front of men who were not family.

When the school refused to buy their argument and barred them from entering classrooms (they were allowed entry in the campus), the girls, with help of activists, petitioned the Karnataka high court to be allowed to wear the hijab as an “essential religious practice in Islam”.

As is well-known, the high court gave a verdict that educational institutes should be allowed to enforce their respective dress codes and hijab was not an essential religious practice in Islam.

The petitioners then moved the Supreme Court, which delivered a split verdict in August where one of the two judges dismissed the petitions while upholding the right of the Karnataka government to enforce uniform, while another judge said that ‘hijab is a matter of choice’ for the students.

Even as the petitions are pending to be heard by a larger bench to be formed by the Chief Justice of India, demand for hijab has risen in many schools and colleges across the country.

The demand, however, is no more for a headscarf but has evolved to a full-body veil or burqa.

The latest agitation was carried out at a government-run college in Moradabad district of western Uttar Pradesh. It happened on 18 January at Hindu College, which has a dress code of kurta-salwar for girl students.

When some Muslim girls were barred from entering the campus unless they removed the veil at the gate, a large number of men from their community gathered and raised slogans against the college management.

The men were mostly the youth cadre of Samajwadi Party. The Akhilesh Yadav-led political party is in opposition with the Bharatiya Janata Party currently governing the state, with Yogi Adityanath as Chief Minister.

The college told the protesters that “special arrangements” had been made at the gate for the girls to remove the veil, but it did little to assuage the agitators.

On the contrary, they gave a memorandum to the college to include burqa in the dress code for students.

This is a marked shift in the stated demands of the pro-hijab protesters since the Karnataka agitations.

During various court hearings last year, lawyers representing the pro-hijab protesters had repeatedly said that all that the girls wanted was a headscarf. The entire hijab issue was only for “an additional cloth…that is, a headscarf”,” Senior advocate Devadutt Kamat told the high court.

This correspondent had raised the issue of ambiguities in the definition of ‘hijab’ last year itself. 'How would the supporters of pro-hijab agitations ensure that the demand would be limited to “a mere headscarf” and not grow into that for a full-body veil?', this correspondent asked that time.

And now, the fears have come true with the Moradabad protest.

As there is no consensus among the Islamic scholars and organisations on what really constitutes hijab - whether it is a headscarf, full-body veil barring the face, or full-body veil covering the face, or full-body veil covering the face and also hiding the figure such as shuttle-cock burqa – the fear that the demand of hijab would quickly give way to demand for a full-body veil was always looming over women.

This is what holds for the future of Muslim women at large if this new demand of adding burqa in uniform goes unchecked:

-For the fetish of a few, all the girls from the community would be vulnerable to live under the imposition of burqa. This is because conservative families would want their daughters to necessarily wear burqa if schools make it part of the uniform.

-Just like the demand has already moved on from headscarf to burqa, tomorrow it may move on to shuttle-cock burqas already visible in many parts of the country including western UP cities like Deoband and Muzaffarnagar

-Girls who would like to wear only the headscarf and not the burqa would be vulnerable to attacks from the fanatical sections of their community as they would be seen as un-Islamic or religious rebels. This, of course, could be the future also for those girls who would not want to wear any form of the Islamic veil.

As far as students from other communities are concerned, adding burqa as part of dress code is bound to give them confused signals on what constitutes gender progress or make them respond with saffron scarfs or other attire to feel equal in getting special concessions. 

Swati Goel Sharma is a senior editor at Swarajya. She tweets at @swati_gs.

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