The Karnataka High Court judgement on the hijab controversy has to be considered at more than one level. It has, importantly, made clear one important issue – the hijab (or the burqa) is not essential in Islam. People will contest this and the matter may even be taken to the Supreme Court, but the verdict will remain the same. In the understanding of the Indian state, this is not compulsory religious practice so the argument cannot be used to violate rules on the laid down dress code in a school. Women may choose to wear such clothing as a fashion statement but only in their private lives.
So, nobody can claim that students are being denied their religious rights. The verdict, therefore, makes it an issue just about determining what students may wear in a school or college, which is to be decided by the particular institutions. A government institution will require students to abide by rules that are laid down by the government, while private institutions can have varying rules.
At the same time, it must be noted that these rules should be as inclusive as possible. Just as the effort is made to include differently-abled children, there should be space for what may be described as the ‘socially-challenged’. It is a fact that some girls come from extremely conservative families that force the burqa and hijab on them – they have no choice. This practice has to be ended but not by denying the child her right to education. The decision to include ought to be made, again, by the particular institutions and not dictated by others. At the same time, nobody can force the institution to accept the hijab.
The High Court verdict is about uniformity in the dress code, not about the right of children to practice religion. Why the need for a uniform, it may be asked. This is to ensure that children from different social and economic backgrounds do not feel superior or inferior in an otherwise equal environment. This, however, does not go against diversity of other kinds, including religious belief. Religious symbols that do not violate this principle of uniformity are not being opposed by anybody. In this context, those who consider themselves secular and liberal should learn to distinguish between religious beliefs and oppressive social practices. The women who worked hard for emancipation from such discrimination in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries should not be let down by, of all people, educated women of the 21st!