Dress Codes In Schools : A Quest For Equality

Imposing a ban on the wearing of hijab in educational institutes, where a dress code is in force, does not take away the right to practise one's faith.
Keywords: Hijab, Faith, Controversy, Education, Ban, Institute, Islam, Religion, Conflict, Constitution, Choice
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Schools are great equalisers. When students sit in a classroom, wearing similar uniforms, and learning the same things, it creates a sense of integrated community. In those moments, they are united as scholars and learn to shed divisive agendas based on religion, colour, caste and creed. That is why the March 2022 Apex Court judgement rejecting the petition of the students of a Karnataka-based institute to be allowed to give exams wearing a hijab assumes great significance. The Karnataka High Court had previously upheld the ban on hijab in educational institutes. This led to protests in some quarters, which saw the ban as an affront to their religion. The Courts, however, were cognisant of the larger good and by upholding the ban on wearing of the hijab in schools and colleges, they ensured that equity is maintained. 

Many orthodox Muslims as well as the Muslim clergy are upset with the ban and are protesting vociferously to get the same repealed. They argue that disallowing the wearing of the hijab by girl students violates their fundamental right to practise their religion as guaranteed under Article 25 of the Indian Constitution. As Article 25 speaks to the spirit of religious autonomy, they speak for the right of Muslim girls studying in schools and colleges to wear the hijab, even if it is not a part of the dress code of that educational institute. Just as a Sikh boy is allowed to wear a turban at all times, the argument given is that a Muslim girl should have the right to wear a hijab, should she so choose. 

But can the wearing of a hijab by a Muslim girl be compared to the wearing of a turban by a Sikh youth? The Sikh faith mandates covering the head, which in the case of the male, is by a turban. It is one of the 5Ks of the religion as given by the tenth Guru, Sri Gobind Singh Ji. Hence, institutes are bound by Article 25, to allow the turban. However, there is no such injunction in Islam to wear the hijab.

A hijab literally means a separation or a barrier and not the contemporarily believed veil or head covering. There are three verses in the Quran that talk about women’s attire. These verses decree both men and women dress modestly and asks them to cover their chests. However, some contemporary clerics have interpreted these verses differently, and thus have ipso facto taken control over the sartorial choice a woman may make. This stands in stark contradiction to Article 19 of the Constitution which guarantees every citizen the right to freedom of expression.

There is no inherent contradiction between the right to practise one’s religion as given in Article 25 and the right to freedom of speech and expression as enunciated in Article 19. Imposing a ban on the wearing of hijab in educational institutes, where a dress code is in force, thus does not take away the right to practise one’s faith. But by insisting that wearing of the hijab is an essential tenet of Islam, many young Muslim girls would be pressurised to wear the hijab, even if they did not wish to do so. We would thus be denying to thousands of muslim girls, the right to choose, which would be an infringement of their fundamental right to freedom. 

How would this play out in real life? Assume for a moment, that the hijab is allowed in schools and colleges, despite such schools having a dress code. Muslim girls who do not put on the hijab would get singled out by members of their own religious community and be subtly pressurised to conform to what the orthodox Muslims consider to be a ‘suitable’ attire for girls. Societal pressure imposes a heavy burden on the girl child, forcing her to conform to the dictates of her parents, her relatives and of society in general. Those girls wearing the hijab would be categorised as ‘good,’ while those expressing their freedom of choice not to wear the hijab would ipso facto be viewed as ‘bad girls’.

This leads to a wider question: Should the orthodox Muslim male fraternity be allowed to define what is suitable attire for the Muslim girl? Why should Muslim girls be subjected to such stark choices as having to choose between a hijab and ‘kitab’ (hijab or education)—to choose between their education and their clothing? The muslim girl students, unfortunately will, willy-nilly be forced to put on the hijab, not because they choose to do so, but due to the dictates of society and retrogressive surroundings. For generations, the wings of the girl child have been clipped by a society that marks its ownership on its women by ensuring that they wear their identity on their sleeve. This needs to change.

The girl who chooses not to conform could possibly be threatened with social ostracism and religious penalties. Snide whispers and looks behind her back will point to her not being a ‘good girl’ or perhaps as ‘the woman gone awry’ who brings shame to her family and is unchaste. Faced with this alternative, most Muslim girls, especially those from middle and lower middle-class families, would don the burqa and clad themselves in black. For these girls,  schools and colleges can often become a sanctuary, where they are free and have endless opportunities to explore their own interests and passions and where, for once, they are not bound by the shackles of their societal requirements. Here, they have the chance to grow wings and fly. 

In 2017, Iran saw a rather unexpected outcry called the ‘Girls of Enghelab’. This was a series of protests against compulsory hijab in the country which gained international momentum. It ended sadly for the girls protesting with most leaders being locked up in jails for desiring to have autonomy over their attire.

A role model for women is the Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of Jordon, the consort of King Abdullah II. She holds a Master’s degree in business and has had a successful bank career. She isn’t just the most glamorous but also one of Forbes’ hundred most powerful women. Despite being the Queen of an Islamic country, she doesn’t wear a hijab and often refers to women’s attire as a free personal choice. She also publicly states that Islam does not require the wearing of hijab but certain orthodox scholars use it as a tool to subdue women. 

Recently, in India, Aroosa Parvaiz was elated when she found out she had topped her class 12 board exams. A resident of Srinagar, Kashmir she had scored 99.80 % marks—a feat very few has achieved. Her parents were beyond giddy with hope and happiness. However, very soon certain toxic trolls on social media started abusing her for not wearing a hijab. She responded back in strength saying that she didn’t need to wear a hijab to be a ‘good’ Muslim girl.

The hijab is a marker of identity. But schools are those secular places of knowledge where mutual relationships among students should not be prejudiced on religious lines. That is why uniforms in schools and other educational institutes is indeed a very good idea. It promotes unity and is a wedge against discrimination and prejudice. And that is precisely why the ban on wearing hijabs has been upheld by the Apex Court. This in no way infringes on Muslim girls’ rights. Rather, it upholds her right, freeing her of pressure from Muslim orthodoxy. 

I deeply feel for my Muslim sisters in Karnataka because I am exactly like them—a female student working hard to conjure a good life for myself. I feel a sense of community with them because I know first hand the trials and tribulations we face in the world. It’s not easy being a girl, even today. But one stark difference between me and my Muslim sisters is that they do not have what most of us have taken for granted—to wake up in the morning, pick out an outfit of our choice, don it with confidence and be allowed to live the way we deem fit.


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Sara Saxena

Sara Saxena is a college student, interning with India Foundation.

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