Ground Reports

Religious Strife Spreads to the Capital, Much Ado About Hijab

By Sonal Nain, 7 Mar 2022

After Karnataka, students in the national capital at South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC) schools will not be permitted to wear “religious attire” to classes. The SDMC’s action comes just days after a parent from Tukhmirpur in northeast Delhi claimed that her daughter was asked to remove her hijab by a teacher from her government school.

The controversy over the headscarves dress code started at the pre-university college when six students were denied permission to wear hijab in classrooms late December. Since then, there have been instances of young Muslim girls being chased by men wearing saffron scarves who were sloganeering Jai Shri Ram in the school premises. The hijab row created a schism between these two factions, followed by incidents of stone-pelting by protesters and lathi-charge by police.

Following debates about constitutional freedom of choice and religion, and arguments about college uniform policies, the Karnataka High Court (HC) passed the interim order restraining all students from wearing saffron shawls, scarves, hijabs within the classroom, pending consideration of the pleas. However, the HC provided relief to students from the Sikh community who wear turbans as part of their traditional attire, asserting that the turban is the Constitutional right for those who follow the Sikh faith.

Madhavi Menon, in her book, ‘Law of Desire: Rulings on Sex and Sexuality in India, points out that when the law legalizes or protects something, it policies it even more vigorously, and nowhere is this policing more ferocious than in the case of women’s choices and religion. In Karnataka, for instance, Muslim girls were denied their fundamental right to an education because they wore a hijab in class. This sentiment has now spread to other parts of the country, most notably in the capital.

Nikita Sharma, the BJP councillor from Dwarka and the chairperson of the South Delhi Municipal Corporation’s (SDMC) education committee, had written to the SDMC Education Director to ensure that no students come to school wearing “religious attire.”

In the letter, Nikita noted that students look “very beautiful” in their uniforms and they ensure there is “no inferiority complex between rich and poor children studying in school.” The letter further stated that the decision of some parents to send their children to school in religious attire would “create a mentality of inequality” among the students. Nikita has instructed zonal officers to monitor students and assure they only deviate from school uniforms during competitions or festivities.

Mojo visited the MCD Primary School in Kalkaji and spoke with primary students who stated that several students in class five used to wear hijabs. However, those students have now relocated to another school because MCD schools only go up to the fifth grade.

When asked about the chairperson’s letter on the subject, the school’s principal tentatively stated that she had not yet processed everything and had no thoughts. The teachers also defended their students, claiming that they are small kids who have never worn a headscarf to school. This seemed to be contradictory to the students’ claim that they had seen other kids wear it.

Nitika told Mojo that she firmly supports the restriction on religious attire in school. She stated that she wrote the letter to keep the students disciplined and to avoid creating any discrimination among students, as “there are many students from the lower class in SDMC schools.” On student’s right to practice religion and individual freedom, she said, “If you want to wear something religious and feel it is a part of your identity, wear it at religious functions; however, wearing it in school creates unnecessary complications.”

There are 568 schools under the South MCD consisting of 2.50 lakh children. Nikita said these are young students in their formative years and they must be educated rather than treated differently and indoctrinated with indifferent religious ideas in their heads. “If they start wearing their own clothes, they will develop an attitude of inequality,” Nikita concurred.

The majority of Delhi government officials are unwilling to comment on the matter. Mojo also attempted to contact Mr Anurag Kundu, the chairperson of the Delhi Commission for the Protection of Child Rights, but he stated that he had no comment on the matter.

While the Karnataka government claims that Muslim girls protesting are influenced by Islamist organisations, there is another layer to it that brings to the surface the freedom of choice and the sense of identity that is associated with wearing hijab for these young girls. This can be linked to the Hadiya case, in which the Kerala High Court expressed its displeasure and one of the judgment’s themes was the father’s ‘concern’ that Hadiya would be ‘smuggled’ out of the country to Syria and forced to join the Islamic State.

There is much speculation about the meaning of the Hijab, according to the different schools of Islamic jurisprudence. Although the consensus as per scholars, is to cover and conceal the entire body, including the face, in such a way that the figure and shape of the body are not visible. In that case, it is a patriarchal dictation on women to dress in a particular manner. The current regime has been discriminatory toward Muslims. UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, for example, has accused and been hostile to Muslims in his speeches. These stringent rules, combined with prejudice against Muslims, have an impact on these young Muslim girls, who endure the repercussions of their fundamental rights.