Hijab Ban Controversy in India’s Karnataka State – Analysis


The “Hijab Ban” Controversy in India began when the administration of a local college in the Karnataka district of Udupi refused entry to Muslim girls wearing hijabs. The girls petitioned the Hon’ble High Court of Karnataka for relief from the alleged violation of Articles 14, 19, and 25 of the Constitution after being dissatisfied with the college administration’s decision to deny them admission solely based on wearing a hijab.

The girls claimed in their petition to the court that wearing a hijab is an essential religious practice and that the “Hijab Ban” violates their right to freedom of conscience as well as their right to practice and propagate religion. We examine the court’s decision and the autonomy of Muslim women in India in this paper. We will also investigate the decision’s ramifications and impact on Muslim women’s education and independence.

What is the concept of hijab in Islam?

In Islam, Muslim women wear the hijab, which is a symbol of modesty and privacy. Modern English dictionaries define “Hijab” as Muslim women covering their heads and necks, but Islamic scriptures provide a broader definition. Almost every major Islamic school defined the “hijab” as a total coverage of all but the face and hands. The Quran addresses all aspects of life and guides all Muslims.

Muslim couple in India.
Muslim couple in India.

The concept of veil/covering is also mentioned extensively in the Quran. The Quran and the Sunnah or Hadiths, which are laws derived from Prophet Mohammad’s lifestyle and teachings, were recognized as two important sources of Islamic law by Islamic jurisprudence. The dress code for Muslim women is prescribed in various verses of the Quran. The two key verses concerning dress code are as follows:

1. In Chapter 24, Verse 31, the Al-Quran says: “And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and to display of their adornment only that which is apparent, and to draw their veils over their bosoms, and not to reveal their adornment save to their husbands or fathers or husband& fathers, or their sons or their husband& sons, or their brothers or their brother& sons or sisters’ sons, or their women, or their slaves, or male attendants who lack vigor, or children who know naught of women’s nakedness. And let them not stamp their feet to reveal what they hide of their adornment. And turn unto Allah together, 0 believers, so that ye may succeed.”

2. Subsequently, in Chapter 33, Verse 59, the Holy Quran commanded: “O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to lower over them a portion of their jilbabs. That is more suitable that they will be known and not be harmed. And even Allah Forgiving and Merciful.”

To maintain modesty and privacy, the Quran correctly prescribed a dress code for Muslim women. As a result, it is clear that the concept of veil/covering is recognized as the dress code for Muslim women in the Holy Quran, but the word “hijab” is never used in the Quran. This causes a schism in Islamic religious scholars’ views on the hijab. Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer, a well-known Indian writer, and social activist stated in his paper titled “Rights of Women and Muslim Societies,” that “the Quran does not prescribe the hijab for women.” The word hijab for veiling a Muslim woman’s face does not appear in the Quran. It was only for the Prophet’s wives; because they were unfamiliar with the relevant cultural norms, the Bedouin Arabs would freely converse with the Prophet’s wives after dinner. The Prophet objected, so it was revealed that men should leave after dinner and that if they spoke with the Prophet’s wives, they should do so from behind the curtain, hijab. When read in context, it is clear that the reference was to a curtain, not a face veil. For other women, the words hijab or burqa do not appear in the Quran at all.”

Thus, the Karnataka high document states, citing the Quran and other Islamic religious texts, that wearing a hijab was not a mandatory religious practice and that not wearing one did not make one a “sinner.”

As a result of the order, several Muslim women missed classes and even exams. The controversy surrounding religious clothing and symbols in educational and other public institutions is not new. Supporters of a ban on the hijab and other religious dress in schools, for example, argue that it is intended to eliminate what they see as an oppressive symbol of male dominance. They argue that banning the hijab and other religious clothing frees wearers from oppressive religious practices, thereby increasing their autonomy.With this lens and assumed perspective, the “autonomy” of Muslim women is in jeopardy. Autonomy is broadly defined here as individuals’ ability to choose how to live their lives without interference from others; that is, people become “authors” of their own lives. It contrasts with heteronomy when others determine what an individual does with her life and what goals she pursues.

The dilemma of whether the hijab represents oppression is highly subjective, and it takes away the wearer’s ability to decide for herself what it means for her.

Secularists see religious symbols like the hijab as symbols of religion’s control over people’s lives, dictating their choices and rendering them non-autonomous. The secularist project of constructing a secular civic nationalism free of religion and the strict separation of the state from religion is based on a view of religion as fundamentally opposed to autonomy. In contrast, secularist critics point out how hijab bans undermine autonomy. They argue that hijab bans impose dominant or majoritarian cultural dress codes on minority community believers, infringing on their freedom to practice their religious beliefs and choose what to wear. In other words, the right to author one’s own life includes the right to practice religion, both of which provide meaning and value in the lives of many people. Following religious norms, on the other hand, is not necessarily non-autonomous, and can even enhance autonomy. This argument is strengthened by the fact that wearing the hijab is not harmful to the wearer. A reversible decision (a person wearing a hijab can later choose not to wear it) has no negative impact on anyone’s future capacity for autonomy.

Autonomy In Decision Making

We will now look at how the Indian Constitution and courts dealt with these issues.

The Karnataka High Court dismissed petitioners’ claims that the hijab ban violated their free speech, privacy, and autonomy rights in Resham. These rights, according to the court, are not available in “qualified public places,” such as schools and colleges, because such “spaces repel the assertion of individual rights to the detriment of their general discipline and decorum.” As a result, the petitioners’ rights claimed in educational institutions were “derivative” and “penumbral,” rather than “core” and “substantive,” according to the court. According to the court, the petitioners’ weaker “derivative” rights do not entitle them to wear a hijab in educational institutions.

However, the court’s reasoning is flawed for the reasons discussed below.

The fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution protect various aspects of an individual’s autonomy. These include the freedoms of expression and assembly (Article 19), association, residence, business (Article 21), and religion (Article 25). Recent Supreme Court decisions highlight the significance of autonomy in all of these rights.

The court recognized the right to privacy in K.S Puttaswamy v. Union of India (Puttaswamy I). Individual autonomy—the ability of an individual to make choices and decide how to develop her personality—is a fundamental part of the concept of privacy, according to Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, who explained the philosophical foundations underlying the concept of privacy. He maintained his privacy:

enables individuals to preserve their beliefs, thoughts, expressions, ideas, ideologies, preferences, and choices against societal demands of homogeneity. Privacy is an intrinsic recognition of heterogeneity, of the right of the individual to be different, and to stand against the tide of conformity in creating a zone of solitude. Privacy protects the individual from the searching glare of publicity in matters which are personal to his or her life. Privacy attaches to the person and not to the place where it is associated. Privacy constitutes the foundation of all liberty because it is in privacy that the individual can decide how liberty is best exercised. Individual dignity and privacy are inextricably linked in a pattern woven out of a thread of diversity into the fabric of a plural culture. (Puttaswamy I)

This leads to several significant conclusions. To begin with, autonomy necessitates the ability to make decisions that run counter to social norms or “demands of homogeneity.” By protecting autonomy, the right to privacy ensures heterogeneity and diversity in our plural culture. As a result, any attempt by the state to impose homogeneity and uniformity across society violates this guarantee.

Second, the preservation of autonomy is linked to the preservation of individual dignity, and each is a “facilitative tool for the other.” Personal dignity is violated when an individual’s identity is not recognized (Navtej Singh Johar v. Union of India). Individuals’ dignity and privacy would be violated if they could not express their religion, which is an important part of their identity.

… In Puttaswamy, Justice D.Y. Chandrachud held that individual autonomy—a person’s ability to make choices and decide how to develop her personality—is a fundamental component of the concept of privacy.

Third, privacy refers to individuals rather than locations. As a result, individuals have a right to privacy even in public places such as schools and other educational institutions, contrary to what the Karnataka High Court ruled in Resham. Furthermore, decisional autonomy, or the ability of individuals to make choices that contradict social demands for homogeneity, is neither “derivative” nor “penumbral,” but is at the heart of the right to privacy and is protected by the Indian Constitution.

The Supreme Court, in particular, has ruled that the fundamental right to privacy protects the individual freedom to choose how one dresses and expresses faith, including in public places (Puttaswamy I, Shafin Jahan). Is it possible, however, to argue that wearing a hijab or other religious clothing limits the autonomy of those who wear them because they regard the practice as obligatory? Is it thus the state’s paternalistic duty to outlaw the hijab or other religious clothing in the interests of those who wear it?

The Answer Is No

In many scenarios, Muslim women may express or affirm their autonomy by wearing the hijab or other religious clothing. Contrary to popular belief, many women wear the hijab to gain respect in their families and communities, but many also find the hijab liberating them from the oppressive demands of western fashion or the ongoing sexualization of female bodies. As a result, Muslim women may wear the hijab for a variety of reasons, and many Muslim women may genuinely value the privacy and dignity that wearing a hijab in public places provides.

This is also true for wearing religious and cultural symbols such as turbans, sindoors, or kadhas, as well as participating in religious and cultural practices such as traditional marriages, forms of worship, and festival celebrations. The state has no way of knowing whether or not every instance of wearing a religious or cultural symbol is purely autonomous.

Secondly, the Supreme Court has rejected romantic state paternalism, in which the state intervenes to “protect” women based on patriarchal views of them as weak and lacking agency, in favor of an approach that acknowledges women’s agency. The Supreme Court overturned a law prohibiting women from working in bars to “protect” them in Anuj Garg. The court stated that such a law “ends up victimizing its subject in the name of protection.” Rather than restricting their freedom in the name of protection, it was the state’s responsibility to provide the necessary safety conditions to encourage women’s greater labor-force participation. As a result, when faced with options for protecting individuals, the state must choose the option that promotes their autonomy. The same can be said for the hijab. Rather than forcibly prohibiting the hijab to “protect” women from their communities, the state should provide them with the conditions (such as education) to make that decision for themselves. Assuming that women are incapable of making such a decision for themselves only contributes to romantic paternalism’s subjugation of them.

Thirdly, the prohibition on religious clothing, such as the hijab, causes Muslim women and other religious people to be excluded from educational institutions. This has many negative implications. Individual autonomy can be meaningfully developed only through education. The ability to choose from a variety of options is required for autonomy. This requires a basic level of education and information, as well as a basic set of resources to put our choices into action, as well as the freedom to pursue them.

Following the secularist approach and assumed notion would jeopardize Muslim women’s rights and would rely heavily on dominant community practices rather than their free choice to interpret their religion as they see fit.

The Impact Of The ‘Hijab Ban’ On The Education Of Muslim Women

The prohibition on wearing the hijab in Karnataka has serious implications for Muslim women’s right to education and freedom of expression. Studies and media reports show a drop in the number of Muslim girls attending school since the Karnataka government banned the hijab in February.

Any discussion about the hijab has far-reaching implications for Muslim girls both now and in the future. According to a recent People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) report, a ban on hijab can harm Muslim students’ education, particularly those from low-income families where orthodoxy is high. Several girls have dropped out of school since Karnataka’s hijab ban. For girls from low-income families, it is a double-edged sword. Their parents are frequently ultra-conservative, uneducated, and socially pressured. The issue of the hijab has been politicized on all sides.

What Could Be The Measures And Reforms To Tackle This Problem

One can effectively wear a uniform while wearing a hijab. Blue hijabs, for example, look great with blue school uniforms — or some combination of the two. This is not a problem that cannot be solved by talking to parents. The ultimate goal is to persuade these parents who will not to allow their children to attend school unless they wear a hijab. Education is critical for changing such deeply ingrained conservative beliefs and behaviors, but the girls are prevented from receiving education and empowering themselves. Education is the key to reformation. A girl must first attend school and then college to understand what is wrong, what is right, what is mandatory and what is her free will, what her rights in a democracy are, and what her options are. However, this type of political positioning, in which girls are denied access to classrooms and many girls have already dropped out of exams, is already incorrect. This represents a step backward.


The Karnataka hijab controversy has sparked several discussions about the nature of individual autonomy, religious freedom, secularism, and state paternalism. Our discussion has revealed that prohibiting Muslim women from wearing the hijab in educational institutions does not protect, them but rather significantly reduces their autonomy. If the state truly protected and enhanced all individuals’ (including Muslim women’s) ability to question and resist community norms, the best way would be to provide autonomy-promoting education as well as strengthen legal and institutional mechanisms to support those who disagree with their communities.

Azka Ali Khan is a student of Gender Studies in New Delhi


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