A college student has become a symbol of resistance in India’s Karnataka state, where religious tensions are rising over the right to wear religious clothing to school.
Muskan Khan was attempting to hand in a college assignment in the city of Mandya when she was accosted by a group of Hindu men wearing saffron scarves – the color of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – according to video posted to social media.
“They were not allowing me to go inside, just because I was carrying the burqa,” she told local outlet channel NDTV. Khan had covered her head with a hijab, an Islamic headscarf, and was wearing a religious dress.
The men heckle her as she makes her way across the school grounds, demanding she take off her face covering, but instead of complying, Khan shouts back “Allahu Akbar” as she punches her fist in the air.
The confrontation illustrates the religious divide that’s been widening in Karnataka since a group of girls began protesting outside their government-run school in January after they were denied entry in the classroom for wearing a hijab.
The girls petitioned the state’s top court to lift the ban, prompting rival protests from right-wing Hindu students.
On Wednesday the court referred the petition to a larger panel of judges, but no date has been set for hearings.
Activists say the hijab row is yet another example of a broader trend in India – one that has seen a crackdown on India’s minority Muslim population since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP came to power nearly eight years ago.
They say that by denying Muslim women the choice to wear the hijab, the government is denying them their religious freedoms, enshrined in the Indian constitution.
“This is a massive attempt by the BJP to homogenize Indian culture, to make it a Hindu-only state,” said 23-year-old Muslim activist Afreen Fatima, who has been protesting in support of the students in her hometown of Allahabad in India’s northern Uttar Pradesh state.
“Muslim women are isolated in India. And the situation is getting worse every day.”
The ‘hijab row’
What started as a small protest made national headlines after several other government-run educational institutions in Karnataka denied entry to students wearing hijabs.
The protests have since spread to other cities. Scores of students took to the streets in India’s capital Delhi this month holding placards and shouting slogans to express their anger at the ban. And hundreds more have protested in Kolkata and Hyderabad, Reuters reported.
On Tuesday, BJP-ruled Karnataka ordered a three-day closure of all high schools and colleges amid the growing tensions. And on Wednesday authorities in the state’s capital Bengaluru banned protests outside schools for two weeks.
For many Muslim women, the hijab is an integral part of their faith. While it has been seen as a source of controversy in some western countries, in India it is neither banned, nor restricted from being worn in public places.
Karnataka’s education minister B.C. Nagesh said he supported banning the hijab in educational institutions, citing the state’s mandate on religious attire.
“Government is very firm that the school is not a platform to practice dharma (religion),” he told CNN affiliate CNN News-18.
But experts say the issue runs deeper than a dress code.
Karnataka – where just 13% of the population is Muslim – is governed by the BJP.
According to lawyer Mohammed Tahir, who is representing one group of petitioners in court, Karnataka is a “hotbed” of the Hindutva ideology supported by many right-wing groups, which seeks to make India the land of the Hindus.
Karnataka has banned the sale and slaughter of cows, an animal considered sacred to Hindus. It has also introduced a controversial anti-conversion bill, which makes it more difficult for interfaith couples to marry or for people to convert to Islam or Christianity.
And according to Tahir, the lawyer, religious tension in the state will likely increase ahead of pivotal state elections next year.
“These issues (like the hijab ban) are very easy to polarize the entire community for votes,” he said.
In a statement Tuesday, the Indian Muslims for Secular Democracy said it “strongly condemns the attempt by Hindutva forces and the BJP government of Karnataka to engulf college and school campuses in the already raging communal fire in the state.”
“College campuses have thus been transformed into yet another playing field for the BJP and other right-wing Hindu majoritarians,” the statement said.
CNN has attempted to contact the state authorities but did not receive a response.
Muslim women further targeted
The hijab row follows a string of online attacks against Muslim women in India.
In early January, the Indian government was investigating a website that purported to offer Muslim women for sale. It was the second time in less than a year that a fake online auction of that kind sparked outrage in the country.
“They came for us online,” said Fatima, who was featured on the online app. “Now, they are directly targeting our religious practice. It started in one college, and grew. I have no reason to believe it will end there.”
On Tuesday, Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, called the hijab row “horrifying.”
“Objectification of women persists – for wearing less or more. Indian leaders must stop the marginalisation of Muslim women,” she wrote on Twitter.
The All India President of the Students’ Federation of India, V P Sanu, criticized the hijab ban, saying it was used “as a reason to deny Muslim women’s right to education.”
Modi referred briefly to Muslim women in a speech in Uttar Pradesh Thursday as that state started voting in local elections.
The Prime Minister said his government “stands with every victim Muslim woman.”
He didn’t refer to the hijab ban but said the government gave Muslim women “freedom” by scrapping the controversial Muslim practice of triple talaq, which allows a Muslim man to divorce his wife by simply saying the Arabic word for divorce, “talaq”, three times. The Indian government criminalized the practice in 2019.
Khan, the student who yelled at the Hindu men, said she was defending her religious rights.
“Every religion has freedom, India is a unity…every religion has freedom,” Khan told reporters Wednesday.
“They are following their culture and I am following my culture. They should let us follow our culture and not raise any obstacle.”
CNN’s Esha Mitra contributed reporting