UDUPI, India — When Aliya Assadi was 12, she wore a hijab while representing her southern Indian state of Karnataka in a karate competition. She won gold.
Five years later, she tried wearing one to her junior college, the equivalent of an American high school. She never walked through the campus gate, turned away under a new policy banning religious headgear.
“It’s not just a piece of cloth,” Assadi said while visiting a friend. She wore a niqab, an even more concealing garment that veils almost the entire face with just a slit for the eyes, which she puts on when she is not at home. “The hijab is my identity. And right now what they’re doing is taking my identity away from me.
She is one of countless Muslim students in Karnataka who have found themselves at the center of a heated debate over the banning of the hijab in schools and the place of Islamic headgear in this Hindu-majority but constitutionally secular nation.
The issue has become a flashpoint in the battle for the rights of Muslims, who fear being sidelined as a minority in India and see hijab restrictions as a worrying escalation of Hindu nationalism under Prime Minister Narendra’s government. Modi.
On Tuesday, an Indian court upheld the ban, saying the Muslim headscarf is not a core religious practice of Islam.
The hijab is worn by many Muslim women to maintain modesty or as a religious symbol, often viewed not just as clothing, but as something mandated by their faith. Opponents see it as a symbol of oppression imposed on women. Proponents of the hijab deny this and say it has different meanings to different individuals, including as a proud expression of Muslim identity.
The fury began in January in India, where Muslims make up just 14% of the country’s 1.4 billion people, but are still large enough to make it the second-largest Muslim population of any country, after the Indonesia.
Staff members at a government-run junior college in Udupi, a coastal town in Karnataka, have begun refusing admission to girls who show up wearing a hijab, saying they are violating the uniform code.
Female students protested by camping outside and teaching there, arguing that female Muslim students had long been allowed to wear headscarves at school. Other schools in the state quickly imposed similar bans, prompting protests by hundreds of Muslim women.
This led to counter-protests by Hindu students wearing saffron shawls, a color closely associated with that religion and favored by Hindu nationalists. They shouted slogans like “Hail Lord Ram”, a phrase that was traditionally used to celebrate the Hindu deity but was co-opted by nationalists.
On one campus, a boy climbed a flagpole and hoisted a saffron flag to the cheers of his friends. At another point, a girl in a hijab was greeted with Hindu slogans shouted by a group of boys; She raised her fist and shouted: “Allahu akbar! — “God is great”, in Arabic.
To ease tensions, the state, ruled by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party, closed schools and colleges for three days. He then imposed a statewide ban on hijab in classrooms, saying “religious attire” in public schools “disrupts equality, integrity and public order.”
Some students gave in and attended with their heads uncovered. Others refused and were kicked out of school for almost two months – students like Ayesha Anwar, an 18-year-old in Udupi who failed exams and lags behind her peers.
“I feel like everyone is letting us down,” Anwar said as she was surrounded by friends in a dimly lit cafe, her voice barely a whisper behind her fabric veil.
Six students have filed a lawsuit to overturn the state ban, now upheld by the court, arguing that it violates their rights to education and religious freedom. One of the plaintiffs in the challenge was Aliya Assadi.
“I am Indian and Muslim,” she said. “When I see this from the perspective of a Muslim, I see my hijab is at stake, and as an Indian, I see my constitutional values have been violated.”
Her activism comes at a price: Hindu nationalists doxxed her personal details on social media, sparking a flood of online abuse and harassment. She lost friends who described her actions as Muslim fundamentalism.
But she is determined to wear the hijab. She first did it as a child, imitating her mother, carefully arranging the scarf in front of the mirror every morning. Today, she appreciates the intimacy it provides and the feeling of religious pride it conveys: “It gives me confidence”.
Ayesha Imtiaz, another student expelled from the school, said she wore it as a sign of devotion to Islam, but acknowledged that opinions vary even among Muslim women.
“There are so many of my friends who don’t wear hijab in the classroom,” Imtiaz, 20, said. “They feel empowered in their own way, and I feel empowered in my own way.”
In her view, the bans segregate women based on their religion and contravene core Indian values of diversity.
“It’s Islamophobia,” Imtiaz said.
Restrictions on the hijab have surfaced elsewhere, notably in France, which in 2004 banned them in schools. Other European countries have enacted regulations for public spaces, usually targeting the most concealed garments such as niqabs and burqas. The use of head coverings has even divided some Muslim communities.
In India, the hijab has historically been neither banned nor restricted in public spheres. Headscarf-wearing women are common throughout the country, which has religious freedom enshrined in its national charter with the secular state as its cornerstone.
But Modi’s critics say India has gradually moved away from this commitment to secularism and is now deeply fractured along religious lines. The Prime Minister and senior Cabinet officials often perform Hindu rituals and prayers on television, blurring the lines between religion and state.
Since taking office in 2014, Modi’s government has passed a series of laws that opponents say are anti-Muslim, though his party rejects accusations of discrimination.
Meanwhile, calls for violence against Muslims have moved from the margins of society into the mainstream. Watch groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have warned that attacks could intensify against Muslims, who are disproportionately represented in India’s poorest neighborhoods and in prisons.
Some of the anti-Islam sentiment has specifically targeted women – recently many people in the country were outraged by a website that was set up offering a fake “auction” of over 100 prominent Indian Muslim women, including journalists, activists, artists and movie stars. .
Muslim students say behind the counter-protests in Karnataka was the Hindu Jagran Vedike, a nationalist group associated with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a far-right Hindu organization ideologically linked to Modi’s political party.
Mahesh Bailur, a senior member of the Hindu Jagran Vedike, denied that his group had organized any protests and said he only offered “moral support” to Saffron Shawls and their cause.
“Today these girls are demanding hijab in colleges. Tomorrow they will want to pray there. Finally they will want separate classrooms for themselves,” he said. “This is unacceptable.”
Bailur, 36, is a proponent of a discredited conspiracy theory that Muslims are plotting to convert India’s Hindu population and eventually turn it into an Islamic nation. Requests to wear the hijab in class, he argued, are among them.
Manavi Atri, a human rights lawyer based in Bengaluru, the capital of Karnataka, said the hijab ban is among many attacks on expressions of Muslim identity in India today, violates principles of state neutrality on religious issues and inflates an “us versus their philosophy” in a country already torn by sectarian divisions. Most troubling, she said, is the pressure this puts on girls and young women in their formative years.
“This choice (between education and faith) that people are forced to make is not a choice one has to make at this age,” she said.
In the court case, Karnataka state attorneys argued that the Quran does not clearly establish wearing the hijab as an essential spiritual practice, so banning it does not violate religious freedom.
Many Muslims reject this interpretation.
On a recent Friday, Rasheed Ahmad, the chief imam of the Udupi Grand Mosque, delivered a sermon to hundreds of worshippers. His voice booming through loudspeakers mounted on the minarets, he railed against the bans as an attack on Islam.
“The hijab is not just our right,” he later said in an interview, “but an order from God.”
Assadi said she and the others were determined to prevail.
“We are brave Muslim women,” she said, “and we know how to fight for our rights.”
Associated Press religious coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.