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Church welcomes relaxation of hijab ban in Indian state

The traditional scarf worn by Muslim women was banned in south Karnataka state by previous pro-Hindu government
Muslim students and supporters sit in front of the office of the deputy commissioner in a protest against the order banning the hijab in schools and colleges in Shivamogga district in India’s Karnataka state on Feb. 17, 2022

Muslim students and supporters sit in front of the office of the deputy commissioner in a protest against the order banning the hijab in schools and colleges in Shivamogga district in India’s Karnataka state on Feb. 17, 2022. (Photo: AFP)

Published: October 27, 2023 11:34 AM GMT
Updated: October 27, 2023 12:29 PM GMT

Catholic officials have welcomed the southern Indian Karnataka state relaxing a ban on traditional hijab (head scarf) by allowing Muslim women to wear it while appearing for government recruitment exams.

“There was no need for any such ban and we are happy that the present government has taken steps to relax it,” said Father Faustine Lucas Lobo, spokesperson of Karnataka Catholic Bishops’ Council.

The decision was taken on Oct. 22 at a review meeting attended by Karnataka state’s Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, who goes by one name, and Higher Education Minister M C Sudhakar, who are from the ruling Congress party.

Sudhakar told the media that students will “be allowed to write examinations wearing the hijab,” referring to the competitive exams for jobs conducted by the state government.

The ban was imposed in February 2022 when the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was leading the state government.  The party, however, lost to the Congress party in the May state elections.

The ban order was issued after an altercation between hijab-wearing Muslim students and a mob of hardline Hindu nationalists who objected to “the religious practice inside academic institutions" in January 2022.

The pro-Hindu BJP government’s order prohibited wearing clothes “that disturb equality, integrity and public order in schools and colleges.”

Five Muslim students challenged the constitutionality of the ban in court.

The Karnataka High Court held that the ban on hijab does not violate Article 25 of the Indian constitution which guarantees religious freedom.

The state’s top court also observed that “wearing of the hijab by Muslim women does not form essential religious practice in the Islamic faith.”

The case eventually went to the Supreme Court where a split verdict by the judges forced the matter to a larger bench for adjudication in October last year.

The Congress government, which professes secular values enshrined in the Indian Constitution, promised voters during the election that it would withdraw the controversial ban order.

But as the ban is under consideration of the Supreme Court it has only decided to relax it for the moment for the exams, said an official who did not want to be named.

Father Lobo told UCA News on Oct. 27 that the previous BJP government “unnecessarily” imposed the ban that he described as “a clear case of discrimination.”

“In this case, it seemed to be a deliberate attempt to create disharmony and distrust [between communities] and disturb discipline in education institutions,” the priest said.

He said the present government is trying to restore peace and harmony in the state.

But pro-Hindu groups have threatened to protest the order and the statements by Sudhakar. "This is a secular country. People are free to dress however they want," the minister said.

The hardline Hindu organizations remain unanimous in demanding a nationwide ban on the hijab or any other sign of religious attire worn by any student in class, including Catholic nuns.

The hijab ban order caused protests against and for it across the country in 2022.

Protests were also seen in Islamic countries such as Kuwait, where influential leaders called for a ban on the entry of any member of India’s ruling BJP into their country.

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