Muskan Khan was trying to deliver a university assignment in Mandya when she came across a group of Hindu men wearing saffron scarves – the color of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party – according to a video posted on social media.
The men harass her as she makes her way through the schoolyard, demanding that she take off her face covering, but instead of complying, Khan yells “Allahu Akbar” as she throws her fist in the air.
The standoff illustrates the religious divide that has widened in Karnataka since a group of girls began protesting outside their government-run school in January after they were prevented from entering class for wearing a headscarf.
The girls petitioned the state Supreme Court to lift the ban, sparking rival protests from the right Hindu students.
On Wednesday, the court referred the petition to a larger panel of judges, but no date has been set for hearings.
They say that by denying Muslim women the choice to wear the hijab, the government is depriving them of their religious freedoms, enshrined in the Indian constitution.
“This is a huge attempt by the BJP to unite the Indian culture, to make it a Hindu-only country,” said a 23-year-old. Muslim Activist Afrin Fatimah, who was protesting in support of students in her hometown of Allahabad in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
“Muslim women are isolated in India. The situation is getting worse every day.”
What started as a small protest grabbed national headlines after several other state educational institutions in Karnataka banned entry to students wearing headscarves.
The protests have since spread to other cities. Dozens of students took to the streets in the Indian capital, Delhi This month They carried banners and chanted slogans to express their anger at the ban. and hundreds more protested in Reuters reported that Kolkata and Hyderabad.
On Tuesday, the BJP-ruled Karnataka state ordered the closure of all secondary schools and colleges for three days amid heightened tensions. On Wednesday, authorities in the state capital, Bengaluru, banned protests outside schools for two weeks.
For many Muslim women, the veil is an integral part of their faith. While it is seen as a source of controversy in some Western countries, in India it is not prohibited or restricted from wearing in public.
Karnataka’s education minister, B. C. Nagesh, said he was in favor of banning headscarves in educational institutions, citing the state’s mandate on religious clothing.
“The government is very firm that the school is not a platform for practicing dharma (religion),” he told CNN affiliate CNN News-18.
But experts say the issue runs deeper than the dress code.
Karnataka – where only 13% of the population is Muslim – is ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party.
According to attorney Muhammad Tahir, who represents a group of petitioners in the court, Karnataka is a “hotbed” of Hindutva ideology backed by many right-wing groups that seek to make India the land of Hindus.
Karnataka has banned the sale and slaughter of cows, an animal considered sacred by Hindus. It also introduced a controversial bill against conversion, which would make it difficult for couples of different faiths to marry or for people who convert to Islam or Christianity.
According to attorney Taher, religious tension in the state is likely to increase ahead of the pivotal state elections next year.
“These issues (such as the headscarf ban) are very easy to polarize the entire community in order to vote,” he said.
“University campuses have thus turned into another playing field for the BJP and other members of the right-wing Hindu majority,” the statement said.
CNN attempted to contact state authorities but received no response.
Muslim women have also been targeted
The hijab controversy follows a series of online attacks against Muslim women in India.
“They came for us online,” said Fatima, who appeared on the online application. “Now, they are directly targeting our religious practice. It started in one college, and it has grown. I have no reason to believe it will end there.”
On Tuesday, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai described the hijab controversy as “horrifying”.
The prime minister said his government “stands with every Muslim victim”.
Khan, the student who shouted at Hindu men, said she was standing up for her religious rights.
“Every religion has freedom… India is unity… Every religion has freedom,” Khan told reporters on Wednesday.
“They follow their culture and I follow mine. They should allow us to follow our culture and not raise any obstacle.”
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