Understanding the Hijab judgement through different voices

I have not come across any scientific evidence or a peer-reviewed paper that suggests that wearing religious symbols or practicing faith have any impact on learning outcomes and classroom management in schools, said an educator

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Varalika Mishra
Varalika Mishra
is a Mental Health activist, author and a freelance journalist

“We must distinguish between the right to wear Hijab and the issue of hijab. My support of girls’ right to wear hijab is NOT an endorsement for the garment. I am personally against all prescriptions for women in the name of honour, piety and purity. But this is not about my or your likes or dislikes. It is about someone’s wish to wear it. I had a very fruitful discussion in class with my students. When I put across my views on hijab or burqa, a Muslim girl said, ‘ma’am this is my comfort zone now.’ You can’t take away this agency from a girl to decide what she finds comfortable and what they don’t. And for the argument – but this is school and schools have uniforms and rules, all I can say is if there was something inherently good about uniform, we’d have it in college and workspaces. Western countries don’t have uniforms for school children. I understand the convenience of having uniforms but surely the issue can be visited. It’s not like a big normative ideal that has to be upheld, pointed out Ifrah Rehman, an assistant professor at the University of Delhi.

The Karnataka High Court on March 15 upheld the restriction on Muslim women wearing a hijab in educational institutions. A three-judge bench comprising Chief Justice Ritu Raj Awasthi and Justices Krishna S Dixit and Khazi M Jaibunnisa, held that the right to wear a hijab is not constitutionally protected.  

“The Constitution will exclusively protect “essential religious practises” whether a practice is vital or integral for religion. The High Court has rightly concluded that Hijab is not an essential practice in Islam. The word ‘hijab’ is used in 7 Quranic verses: 7:46, 33:53, 38:32, 41:5, 42:51, 17:45 and 19:17. None of these have occurrences of the word ‘hijab’ meaning a headcover for women. Also, the court rightly stated that prescribing uniforms is the institution’s right. This issue has already been decided in Fathima Tasneem v State of Kerala where the High Court of Kerala held that the collective rights of an institution would be given primacy over the individual rights of the petitioner. Thus the judgement is sound both on law and on religious texts,” says Kapil Sankhla, criminal lawyer and constitutional expert, Supreme Court.

According to some sections of society, the issue is not merely about hijab but a larger issue catering to the subjugation of minority communities.

“In imposing the hijab ban on targeted communities, the government is stoking the flames of hatred against the minority community. This shows a deep resentment for cultural pluralism and egalitarianism. Wearing the hijab is a fundamental human right under Article 14 and 25 of the constitution and educational institutions cannot restrict it,” claimed Faisal Ali, a human rights activist.

“I feel the judgement is one-sided to favour the ruling government. It does not take the real essence of Islam and is misunderstood completely. Islam mentions parda as a custom which is why the girls and women who wear a hijab, wear it religiously. The matter is also about putting the Muslim community down in the eyes of the community,” said Rizwana Fatima, assistant professor at Miranda House.

high court and hijab judgement girls right to education human rights
A participant’s placard during an anti-hijab ban protest in Kolkata (File Picture)

Is education important or a piece of cloth?

Some people feel education and clothing should not be intertwined and a student must be allowed to learn regardless of the identity of cloth -whereas others hold a perspective that a uniform can create a thought of unity amongst students. Given the current times of pandemic, when the education system has been severely hit, one may ask if the recent judgement would impact the future of education for Muslim girls.

“Nudity empowers some, Modesty empowers some; different things empower different women and it’s not your place to tell her which one is it,” says Mariam Jamal, a teacher.

 “I’m appalled by this. Why was no Islamic Scholar consulted before releasing the judgement that hijab is not an obligation in Islam. Hijab is an obligation. It’s right there in our Holy book Quran. Wearing what you want shouldn’t even be an issue to begin with but since it is now, a religious scholar must’ve been consulted and they should’ve read our religious texts. Whether a Muslim observes it or not hijab is an obligation. It’s 2022 and we should be fighting for bigger causes, not for a piece of cloth on our head,” said Nazia, a disappointed student.

“When we talk about school uniforms, it implies uniformity and unity amongst all. In a uniform, one cannot distinguish a person based on religion, caste or class as all are equal. I support the court’s judgement,” said Aprajita Gautam, president of the Delhi Parents Association (DPA).

Faith and education

When faith and education get intertwined, it is the students who suffer at the end of the day, especially girls. The right to education should not be compromised at any cost.

“I have not come across any scientific evidence or a peer-reviewed paper that suggests that wearing religious symbols or practicing faith have any impact on learning outcomes and classroom management in schools,” Dr Zulfiqar Sheth, educator and scholar, put forth a strong point.

“It’s sad and infuriating. Telling women what is essential and what is not continues to happen every single day. I hope we get to see a day when all these cowards fail and women are free to dress however they want, do whatever they want and avail education without any conditions,” said Zehra Zaidi, an Early Childhood Educator.

high court and hijab judgement girls right to education human rights
A viral picture of four Muslim girl students outside their classroom when they were not allowed to attend class for wearing hijab. After this incident the issue had reached to HC | Courtesy: Anonymous

Impact on the education of girls

The judgement has received a mixed perspective from all sections of society. The impact will certainly be on the students – those who wish to wear hijab as per their custom, choice or tradition. The pandemic had led to several drop-outs of girl child students and the judgement might impact the future of education of those girls who are firm on wearing hijab.

The Hijab Judgement is problematic at many levels. Consciously or otherwise, most of us wear religious symbols in our day-to-day life and that shouldn’t determine our rights and liberty. While the judgement affronts the right of Muslims to exist as Muslims, a big problem is that it compromises the universal right to education of girls based on their identity and attire. This will have a serious impact on the girls as it pitches their right to faith against the right to education, said Tanushree Bhowmik, a Delhi-based development professional.

“At a time when we’re all struggling to make up for the significant loss of learning in the wake of the pandemic, it’s unfortunate how sectarian interests continue to overshadow any genuine efforts to keep access to learning equitable. Those who advocate the hijab ban demonstrate a complete apathy towards ensuring continual or uninterrupted access to education for young Muslim girls,” rued Ima Kazmi, an Educator at The British School.

“I feel our system has failed our future. Millions of women have struggled and fought for decades for their fundamental rights and this judgement nullifies the efforts of every one of them,” mentions Avleen Kaur, Strategy associate at an edtech, former management consultant and an LSR alumni

The United Nations estimates that at least 1 billion learners have been affected globally by the closure of schools due to the pandemic. With the pandemic continuing to evolve, the world is likely to face a ‘generational catastrophe’ in education (United Nations, 2020). This leaves us with a question to reflect on – Can we compromise on education?

Varalika Mishra
Varalika Mishra
is a Mental Health activist, author and a freelance journalist

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