Sydney Hastings-Wilkins/Daily. Hindi and Urdu Languages lecturer Bairam Khan addresses students at the teach-in. Buy this photo.

The Indian Muslim Student Association in collaboration with South Asian Awareness Network and Sikh Students Association hosted a teach-in at the Trotter Multicultural Center Thursday night in response to the outcome of the recent Resham v. State of Karnataka case. In March, the highest court in the Indian state of Karnataka upheld a ban on hijabs in schools and colleges, with the court ruling that hijabs were not “essential” for Muslim students who identify as women to be wearing in school.

The case was brought to the Karnataka High Court after six Muslim women were denied entry in January from Udupi Women’s PU College in the city of Udupi. The students claimed they were discriminated against for wearing a hijab, which was not a part of the assigned school uniform. The denial prompted students to file a petition against the school, claiming the ruling was a violation of articles 14, 15, 19, 21 and 25 of the Indian Constitution

At the Trotter teach-in, eight guest panelists — including U-M students and faculty — shared their thoughts about the legality of banning hijabs in India. Rackham student Meenu Deswal spoke first and said several legal scholars and activists have been critical of the court decision. She cited the words of legal scholar Gautam Bhatia, who notably criticized the case decision on March 15.

“This is a legal scholar who’s saying that ‘the crucial error that the court made is that it sanctifies the uniform instead of sanctifying education,’” Deshwal said. “The judgment raises a number of important issues related to interpretation or misinterpretation of fundamental freedoms and rights, reading and misreading of constitutional provisions by the judges of Karnataka High Court.”

Articles 14 and 15 guarantee equality for all citizens in India, shielding them from discrimination on the basis of religion, race, gender, caste or birthplace. Article 19 guarantees the freedom of speech for all citizens. Article 21 protects the right to life, liberty and education for all citizens. Article 25 guarantees the free practice of religion for all citizens of India.

The three judges who upheld the ban said the hijab is not essential to Muslim religious practices. They ruled that school uniforms are reasonable restrictions and therefore are constitutionally permissible. This decision comes after the Bharatiya Janata Party — one of the two major political parties in Karnataka —  has been accused of turning a blind eye to crimes against Muslims in the state.

Following the ruling, Muslim citizens, students and other communities in India began protesting against the decision As the protests grew, demonstrators found themselves met by right-wing Hindu counter-protesters. The protests led the Karnataka government to temporarily close schools for three days. 

Deshwal said the ruling exemplifies the ongoing weaponization and politicization of Muslim women’s rights, since policies are justified as liberating Muslim women, but in reality, they take away Muslim women’s agency and religious expression. She provided historical examples of policies that sparked debate on Muslim women’s rights in India, such as the Shah Bano judgment (1985), which gave Muslim women divorce rights; the Protection of Rights on Divorce Act (1986); the Shayara Bano case (1985); and the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Act (2019).

“The judges claim that banning hijabs in the classrooms is a step in the direction of women’s emancipation and more particularly to the access of education,” Deshwal said. “So they’re claiming that this is a progressive step, but how can a decision like this emancipate women when it does not even acknowledge and recognize women’s choice?”

LSA freshman Bilal Irfan, another one of the panelists and LSA Student Government president, said recent cases regarding the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act of 1937 have been used to allow the majority Hindu government to regulate Islamic practices.

“You’re seeing a case of Indian jurists who are actively interpreting Islamic law, and deeming and recognizing what is an essential practice,” Irfan said. “I think that is really where it comes into that legal question … (over) Muslims’ right to interpret their own law.”

LSA senior Ramneet Chauhan and LSA freshman Gurleen Chauhan, members of the Sikh Students Association, also spoke about pieces of legislation that have marginalized Indian minority communities. They mentioned the exclusion of Muslims from the Citizenship (Amendment) Act of 2019, which created a naturalization process for members of certain religious communities fleeing to India from neighboring countries. 

Ramneet Chauhan also pointed to members of the Sikh community being forced to remove their turbans in order to enter schools in Karnataka state.

“This one decision to ban the hijab can spread to other religions as well,” Ramneet Chauhan said. 

LSA senior Nabighah Azim, President of IMSA, said in an interview with The Michigan Daily that she was inspired to create the teach-in to educate Ann Arbor community members on anti-Muslim discrimination in India. She also said Trotter served as a safe activist space for the teach-in.

“We (organizers) chose to make this event a teach-in because a lot of individuals are not educated on what’s going on in India and especially not to that extent,” Azim said. “I really wanted this (event) to be something where there’s a moment of solidarity here because this (hijab ban) isn’t something that only Muslims should just sit around and talk about. There are so many marginalized communities that are unfortunately not advocated for. We should all be working towards spreading awareness and advocating for communities.” 

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