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Women take part in a demonstration organized by Awami Rickshaw Union to protest against barring Muslim girls from wearing hijab in classes at some schools in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, in Lahore, Pakistan, on Feb. 10.K.M. Chaudary/The Associated Press

When 18-year-old Ayesha Hajira Almas leaves her home these days, she believes she is being followed. Her phone routinely rings with threatening calls, so much so that she has stopped answering it altogether. Many of her friends receiving similar calls have had to change their phone numbers. The reason: They have filed court petitions in the Indian state of Karnataka to fight a new government-imposed rule that bars them from wearing a hijab inside the classroom of their public high school.

“The hijab is being used as a weapon to deny us our rights,” Ms. Almas said in an interview. For more than a month, she and a group of seven other Muslim girls have not been allowed to attend class unless they take off the hijab, citing the new guideline that restricts religious attire on campus.

“‘Will you get out of the classroom or should I throw you out?,’ the teacher shouted at us. We had heard of seniors whose headscarves had been pulled off forcefully. So we decided to sit outside the classroom in protest and try to study, with exams just round the corner,” she said.

What began as a small sit-in protest in the coastal town of Udupi has snowballed into controversy across the state after the government formalized the hijab ban in educational institutions last week, calling for a uniform dress code with the directive that “clothes which disturb equality, integrity and public law and order should not be worn.”

The state’s High Court began to hear the petitions of the protesting Muslim girls on Tuesday, calling for “peace” while the case unfolded. The girls’ lawyers argued that the hijab was essential to the practice of Islam and posed no danger to public order, and banning it in schools and colleges would restrict constitutional rights to practice religion freely, education and equality.

On Wednesday, the single-bench judge hearing the petitions passed the case to a larger bench for deeper consideration. The three judges decided Thursday to restrict any kind of religious attire in schools and colleges until a verdict is reached. The high court will resume the hearing on Feb 14.

Women take part in a protest against the recent hijab ban in few colleges of Karnataka state, on the outskirts of Mumbai, India, on Feb. 11.FRANCIS MASCARENHAS/Reuters

Outside the courtroom, however, schools and colleges in the state have become a battleground between Muslim and Hindu students. Protests erupted across the state this week, in some cases turning violent with stone pelting, as hundreds of students sporting the radical Hindu symbol of saffron scarves and turbans objected to their classmates wearing hijabs, both sides locked in a heated war of words, with police called in to control the crowds.

To defuse some of the tension, Karnataka state’s Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai ordered the closure of colleges and high schools in Karnataka for the rest of the week and police have banned protests near schools and colleges for the next two weeks.

The issue has sparked outrage across the country as videos of hijab-wearing girls in the town of Kundapura went viral last week, showing the girls pleading with college authorities to be let in only to be turned away. Soon, other colleges in the state buckled too, shutting the gates to Muslim students who refused to adhere to the new rule.

Rights groups, opposition parties and student organizations are questioning the hijab restriction, which they said is exclusionary and meant to further marginalize one religious minority in the guise of securing equality and unity.

“Wearing a hijab on campus was never a problem before. But since last year, it is being politicized, with right-wing groups and politicians out to dehumanize Muslims and create controversies to distract from real issues,” said Ashwan Sadiq, national general secretary of the Campus Front of India, a student organization that is supporting the protesting Muslim girls. The country’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, “needs a tool to appeal to their vote bank during this election season, that’s what this is about,” he added.

In 2019, Quebec passed Bill 21, which restricts the wearing of religious symbols in public sector jobs, including at schools, and remains controversial. In India, where Muslims comprise 14.2 per cent of the population of 1.4 billion, wearing a hijab or burqa is not banned nor is their use restricted in public places.

The BJP, which is also in power in Karnataka, has defended the move in schools saying it will not allow “Talibanization” of the education system, according to the party’s Karnataka chief Nalin Kumar Kateel.

“Students of one community want to identify themselves, so this is a reaction to that. We do not want educational institutions to become a war-field for two communities. It is a sacred place where education is most important … So the government clearly took a stand…,” Bellur Chandrashekharaiah Nagesh, the state’s Minister of Primary and Secondary Education told local media. He added that there were “hidden hands” behind the row, which he sees as part of propaganda by religious organizations to brainwash students to tarnish India’s image globally.

But Ms. Almas and her hijab-wearing classmates do not agree: “The college management claims that they don’t want to follow religious symbols, and yet they conduct Hindu ceremonies and festivals on campus, which we never objected to. Then why create such a big issue just over a piece of clothing?”

The row has also stoked the debate over whether hijab should be supported as a social practice, with public sentiment in India firmly divided.

“Being a feminist means to support the choice to wear whatever a woman wants to wear. I am not a hijabi but why would I not support them if they want to wear it? Instead of calling wearing a hijab a form of oppression, why not instead let the girls access education and decide if it is?” said Hana Mohsin Khan, a pilot who finds herself frequently harassed as a prominent Muslim voice on social media.

“Every day, there is a new form of harassment against Muslims and it is being stretched to no end. When the hijab controversy heated up, my first reaction was ‘Not again!’ Is this what the country has turned into? You have to be cautious all the time as you don’t know what will happen next,” she said.

The girls at the centre of the hijab dispute, meanwhile, are holding their ground and have pinned their hopes on the High Court verdict.

“When I wear my navy-blue hijab, I feel a sense of pride and safety,” said Ms. Almas. “I have been wearing it since I was four years old. Now at 18, how can they suddenly tell me to remove it? How will I adjust? It is rare for a girl to be allowed to pursue a career in my community, but my parents have been supportive. I want to become a pilot. But the hijab ban has become another barrier for me. The college is our second home. Every day we hope we will be let back in.”

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