'A target on every hijabi's back': Why Muslim women in India are looking over their shoulder wherever they go

Hijab ban India
6 min read
05 April, 2022
Muslim women in the Indian state of Karnataka have found themselves thrust into a nationwide debate over the banning of hijabs in schools. But as Modi's BJP tightens its grip on social norms, Indian Muslims fear further ostracization and hostility.

Days after Karnataka imposed the hijab ban on schoolgirls, Dr Parvez Mandviwala, a Muslim dentist in Mumbai shared how his wife was denied a seat on a local train – all because she wore a hijab.

Legally, Dr Rukhsar – who was denied the seat – is far removed from the new law, which claims to only affect schoolgirls wearing uniforms in Karnataka, a state in southwest India. 

But despite what the media has said, the effects of this ban are far-reaching and Dr Rukhsar isn’t the only one being impacted. 

"The truth is that amplifying the perspective of the everyday Muslim woman – and of all minority groups – is crucial in understanding just how far-reaching the impacts of such bans can be"

The ban itself comes at a time when Islamophobia is on the rise in India. Linguistic graduate Afreen Fatima, who is also involved in student politics, shares how difficult it has been to live under a government that has openly endorsed Islamophobic narratives.

“It is a harrowing situation to know there is a government that capitalizes on this emotion. This is how they win elections,” Afreen says.

The increase in religious discourse and the need to define religious choices have allowed state legislature to make the issue of hijab in schools an Essential Religious Practice (ERP) judgment.

Muslim women hold placards and talk to the media as they take part in a march organized by All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM)
Muslim women hold placards as they take part in a march organised by All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) against the recent hijab ban in schools and colleges in Karnataka [Getty Images]

Maryam Nasir Alavi, a lawyer, points out that there’s a lot that’s been ignored within the court discussions for them to reach an ERP judgment.

Maryam, who shares that she has been wearing a hijab for the entirety of her career, adds “just because people see this on my head they think we are incapable of thinking for ourselves and need someone else to think for ourselves.

"As if I need to leave my religion behind to get educated. If 'conditioning' is so important, educate the girls and then let them choose. The hijab for school girls could not have been by any stretch of logic a reason for the court to come to an ERP judgment."

For Maryam as a lawyer, both the issue of taking away a woman’s right to choose, as well as the provision of education as a state-given right, overtakes the very idea of the hijab as "essential".


Maryam is right. Amid all the political conversations, Muslim women who are being impacted the most have been left silenced.

Despite media attention around the ban, there’s a certain language being used that has turned the local media into a lynch mob, Afreen claims.

“The kind of language being used is only to alienate marginalized communities. As a linguist, I'm conscious that these tactics are being used to stoke tension" she adds. “ We’ve seen videos of journalists running after young girls in Karnataka, hounding them. The media is only pushing Muslims away.”

Despite voices like those of Maryam and Afreen using their platforms as much as possible, the media is focused on pushing a specific narrative around Muslim communities and Afreen shares that between right-wing conservatives and supposed leftist liberal allies, the narrative of the meek helpless Muslim woman who needs to be saved has continued to be solidified. 

"Muslim women are far from being the meek oppressed community that Indian media – and perhaps many well-seeming allies – would have the world believe"

“A young girl was stopped from entering her school due to her wearing a hijab. She had gone to school with her father and she returned with him. So what the media does is instead of asking the school why they are denying education they run after the father asking him why he is denying her education," Afreen tells The New Arab, sharing an incident she recently observed in the media. "No one questions the school teachers and administration and staff who are responsible for providing a safe school environment. Everyone is after the ‘savage regressive Muslim man'."

The truth is that amplifying the perspective of the everyday Muslim woman – and of all minority groups – is crucial in understanding just how far-reaching the impacts of such bans can be.

Maryam points out that this ban might be restricted in its wording but it impacts hijabi women far beyond the school gates of Karnataka.

A teacher was recently stopped from entering a school with her hijab despite the ruling not applying to her. “You’ve painted a target on every hijabi woman’s back. We have to find cover, we feel attacked. Why should it be the child’s burden to go to class thinking everyone hates me,” the lawyer points out when talking about the impact this ban will have on mental health as well as Muslim women’s mobility.

Even when it comes to supposed allies, there’s the very real problem of co-opting Muslim women’s narratives as part of the mainstream feminist movement.

In a country where campaigns like #BetiPadhao (educate your daughter) exist whilst young girls are turned away from school gates, anthropologist Sophia Abbas points out that this is far from being merely a feminist issue.

Speaking of the specificity of such campaigns against Muslim lived experiences Sophia shares, “When I talk about such things people ask where are the facts, but these are the experiences of Muslim women.”

She further adds that the ban is merely another way to limit Muslim women’s mobility and the larger community’s mobility and limit economic and social access and other Muslim women like Fatima have agreed. “Muslims are already being ghettoised. I wear a hijab and if someone told me to drop out or leave my hijab I would drop out,” Fatima says. 

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Muslim women are far from being the meek oppressed community that Indian media – and perhaps many well-seeming allies – would have the world believe.

From dominantly leading anti-CAA protests to fighting this new target on their back every day, it is their experiences that are crucial to understanding the realities this ban will bring. Muslim women have to question their very existence in the public sphere, and yet very few are being given the mic.

This issue isn’t one for analytics and data. What is important is to amplify the needs and voices of those being impacted.

Ali* an advocate and former journalist close to the case pointed out that the doors the ban has opened will take a long time to close, and till then every Muslim woman in India will walk around having to look over their shoulder. 

*Name changed to protect anonymity

Anmol Irfan is a freelance journalist with bylines in VICE, HUCK, and the Guardian among others. She has experience writing on minority politics, activism, and gender issues. She is also the founder of the Pakistani community platform, Perspectives Magazine 

Follow her on Twitter @anmolirfan22