Indian Muslim Organizations’ Responses to Karnataka Ḥijāb Ban in Schools

By Raha Rafii

Several long-established bodies representing Muslims in India have responded to the Karnataka State Court’s upholding of the ḥijāb ban in government schools in March. Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind,[1] the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM),[2] and the All India Personal Law Board (AIMPLB)[3] in Delhi emphasized the negative impact on both religious freedom and Muslim girls’ education in India. The All India Muslim Personal Law Board is a non-government institution established in 1973 to oversee the application of the Islamic Law Code to Muslims in India in matters of personal law. Its board consists of lawyers, politicians, scholars, and other professionals from most Muslim traditions. Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind, founded in 1919, is an organization of Islamic scholars belonging to the Ḥanafī Deobandi school of thought. It split into two factions in 2008,[4] with the current Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind being led by Mahmood Madani.[5] AIMIM is a political party representing Muslims based mainly in Hyderabad; Asaduddin Owaisi is its current National President.

Owaisi, in a Twitter thread[6] written the same day the Karnataka Court Order was issued, announced his disagreement with the Court’s judgment, and his hope that petitioners, as well as the AIMPLB and other Indian Muslim organizations, would appeal the judgment before the Supreme Court. Because the Court’s full judgment[7] and its assessment of the applicability of the constitutional rights of freedom of religion and expression[8] had ostensibly not been available when Owaisi wrote his thread, he questioned the compatibility of these principles with its upholding of the ban. He also questioned the utility of a school uniform mandate that banned ḥijāb in order to “ensure uniformity,” rhetorically asking if uniformity was ever successful in erasing differences of socio-economic and caste backgrounds. Instead, Owaisi asserted that, through the ban, the government “created a problem where none existed,” and expressed concern that it provided a basis for harassment for women wearing ḥijāb in places such as banks, hospitals, and public transport.

Owaisi, along with Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind and AIMPLB, expressed concern with secular state courts intervening to determine what was considered essential religious practice among Muslims. The latter two organizations also explicitly asserted that decisions regarding particular religious traditions should be based on the accepted opinions of authoritative Muslim scholars. The Karnataka Court had utilized a hierarchy of religious authority[9] for interpreting Islamic law established in the colonial period through commentaries of colonial-era Indian Muslim legal specialists and Anglo-Muhammadan legal treatises. The Court’s only reference to contemporary Muslim religious scholars was in its response to petitions against banning the ḥijāb, where it stated that petitioners’ claim of support in Qurʾānic sūras for mandating head-coverings for Muslim women were weak without an affidavit “sworn to by any Maulana explaining the implications of the suras quoted by the petitioners’ side.”[10] In its statement dated March 28,[11] AIMPLB criticized the courts “for interpreting the holy scriptures as per their whims and fancies, while they are neither authorized nor capable of doing so;” it also expressed concern for judicial precedent to ban “other religious symbols like turban, crucifix and bindi.”

AIMPLB then announced that it intended to challenge the Order banning the ḥijāb in the Supreme Court, and that its Working Committee “appreciated” that the petition would be filed by two female members of its Board.[12] It also asserted that the Uniform Civil Code was a means by which to “impose Hindutva ideology through which all minority religious and cultural groups can be forcefully assimilated in the majoritarian religion.”[13] The state of Karnataka is currently governed by Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist BJP, which also governs nationally; Muslims make up about 13%, or 8 million, of the population in Karnataka, and constitute the largest religious minority in the state.[14] Muslims comprise about 15% of the total population in India.[15]

The AIMPLB, in its fight against this imposition of religious erasure and Hindutva hegemony, asserted a three-fold strategy: ensuring women members are included in every AIMPLB committee; strengthening its Women’s Wing; and including non-Muslims in its attempts to “reform” society, “so that the responsibility to fulfill and build a better nation by enjoining good and forbidding evil can take place.”[16] It also felt that there should be an increase in the number of Board member representatives and Muslim organizations overall, and that conveners should be appointed at the state level. In its statement on March 31st,[17] the AIMPLB reiterated that ḥijāb was compulsory (wājib), and the fact that it had become a contested “national” issue was due to “the anti-Muslim attitudes of the BJP government in Karnataka.” The AIMPLB asserted that it was not a “mute spectator on the issue,” that it had been in “consistent contact” with petitioners and legislators in the lawsuit against banning ḥijāb, providing them with arguments “from legal and sharīʿa perspectives,” and that it will take its petition to the Supreme Court so that repealing the ḥijāb ban “can be dealt with within the ambit of the law.”[18] The Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind had earlier asserted that if “the issue is not resolved by the court then in a democratic country Parliament and Assemblies have absolute right to enact a law,” although it also stated that, as a direct impact on religious freedom, “no society is governed only by its legal nuances” where “traditional and social values” weigh heavily.[19]

Notes:

[1] “Jamia Ulama-i-Hind Response to Karnataka High Court Order Restricting the Wearing of Headscarves in Colleges in the State (Mar. 15, 2022),” SHARIAsource, April 19, 2022, https://beta.shariasource.com/documents/4453.

[2] The organization’s website is available at: http://www.aimim.org/.

[3] “All India Muslim Personal Law Board Response to Karnataka High Court Order Restricting the Wearing of Headscarves in Colleges in the State (Mar. 28, 2022),” SHARIAsource, April 19, 2022, https://beta.shariasource.com/documents/4454; “All India Muslim Personal Law Board Response to Karnataka High Court Order Restricting the Wearing of Headscarves in Colleges in the State (Mar. 31, 2022),” SHARIAsource, April 19, 2022, https://beta.shariasource.com/documents/4455.

[4] HT Correspondent, “Jamiat-Ulama-E-Hind splits,” Hindustan Times, April 5, 2008, https://www.hindustantimes.com/delhi/jamiat-ulama-e-hind-splits/story-IDjhcuJ53UvaREVOqr3wSM.html.

[5] “Working Committee Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind,” Jamiat.org.in, n.d., https://www.jamiat.org.in/masters/jamiat_governing_body/.

[6] “President of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen Response to Karnataka High Court Order Restricting the Wearing of Headscarves in Colleges in the State (Mar. 15, 2022),” SHARIAsource, April 19, 2022, https://beta.shariasource.com/documents/4456.

[7] “Karnataka High Court Order Restricting the Wearing of Headscarves in Colleges in the State in response to the Petitions Challenging the Ḥijāb Ban (Mar. 15, 2022),” SHARIAsource, April 19, 2022, https://beta.shariasource.com/documents/4452.

[8] See Raha Rafii, “Karnataka High Court Order Upholds Ḥijāb Ban in Government Schools,” Islamic Law Blog, May 19, 2022, https://islamiclaw.blog/2022/05/19/karnataka-high-court-order-upholds-%e1%b8%a5ijab-ban-in-government-schools/.

[9] See Raha Rafii, “Karnataka High Court’s Interpretation of Islamic Sources: Ḥijāb is Not ‘Part of Essential Religious Practice in Islam,’” Islamic Law Blog, May 27, 2022, https://islamiclaw.blog/2022/05/27/karnataka-high-courts-interpretation-of-islamic-sources-%e1%b8%a5ijab-is-not-part-of-essential-religious-practice-in-islam/.

[10] “Karnataka High Court Order Restricting the Wearing of Headscarves in Colleges in the State in response to the Petitions Challenging the Ḥijāb Ban (Mar. 15, 2022),” 86.

[11] “All India Muslim Personal Law Board Response to Karnataka High Court Order Restricting the Wearing of Headscarves in Colleges in the State (Mar. 28, 2022).”

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] According to the Indian census of 2011. See “Karnataka Religion Census 2011,” Census2011.co.in, 2011, https://www.census2011.co.in/data/religion/state/29-karnataka.html.

[15] The Indian census of 2011 lists the Muslim population as 14.2%. See “All India Religion Census Data 2011,” Census2011.co.in, 2011, https://www.census2011.co.in/religion.php. The 2021 census is currently postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. See HT Correspondent, “Census activities postponed amid Covid surge,” Hindustan Times, January 4, 2022, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/census-activities-postponed-amid-covid-surge-101641232471939.html. The Pew Research Foundation projects the Muslim population to have risen to 15% in 2020. See Pew Research Center, “Religious Composition of India,” Pew Research, September 21, 2021, https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/09/21/population-growth-and-religious-composition/.

[16] “All India Muslim Personal Law Board Response to Karnataka High Court Order Restricting the Wearing of Headscarves in Colleges in the State (Mar. 28, 2022).”

[17] “All India Muslim Personal Law Board Response to Karnataka High Court Order Restricting the Wearing of Headscarves in Colleges in the State (Mar. 31, 2022),” SHARIAsource, April 19, 2022.

[18] “All India Muslim Personal Law Board Response to Karnataka High Court Order Restricting the Wearing of Headscarves in Colleges in the State (Mar. 28, 2022).”

[19] “Jamia Ulama-i-Hind Response to Karnataka High Court Order Restricting the Wearing of Headscarves in Colleges in the State (Mar. 15, 2022).”

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