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Controversy brews in India over school dress codes and Muslim headscarves

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

In India, a controversy is brewing over school dress codes and Muslim headscarves. Six girls are suing their state for the right to keep their heads covered in the classroom. Their case has drawn global outrage about discrimination against Muslims. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from Mumbai.

MUMTAZ KHAN: Different colors. All different colors. We have all designs also in it.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Mumtaz Khan (ph) runs a boutique in Mumbai that sells Muslim headscarves or hijabs. Most of her customers, as you might expect, are Muslim women - until two weeks ago.

KHAN: We have Hindus. We have Christians also. They also come and ask for scarf. Yes, Hindu also.

FRAYER: When women from other religions started coming in, they told her they wanted to show solidarity with women like Mumtaz, who wears the hijab, because of something going on 500 miles south in the Indian state of Karnataka...

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Karnataka has erupted over some Muslim girl students insisting they will wear a hijab.

FRAYER: ...Protests two weeks ago over a hijab ban in some of the state's high school classrooms. The whole thing has perplexed Mumtaz because school dress codes are not unusual. Her high school in Mumbai also required her to take off her headscarf in class.

KHAN: It was not a problem in any point. And we never felt anything bad in that or anything odd in that.

FRAYER: But the change at this one school in Karnataka came abruptly, without warning, during election campaign season in parts of India. And it confirmed some people's suspicions of what's been happening to Muslim minorities under India's Hindu nationalist government.

GHAZALA WAHAB: This is what we've been seeing, marginalization of the Muslims from public spaces.

FRAYER: Ghazala Wahab wrote a book called "Born A Muslim," chronicling anti-Muslim prejudice in India. She says Muslims absolutely suffer discrimination here, but that this Karnataka incident...

WAHAB: To my mind, was a very local incident. But because the girls - one of them contacted one organization, which is, in popular perception, labelled as a radical Muslim organization, it was blown out of proportion.

FRAYER: The involvement of Muslim activists triggered a backlash by Hindu activists and rival protests, marches, sloganeering. All of it then went viral on social media. The high court in Karnataka has now temporarily banned all religious garb in the state's public schools. No hijabs, no saffron Hindu scarves, nothing until it can rule on a lawsuit by six Muslim girls. Jyoti Punwani is another writer who spent decades chronicling Hindu-Muslim tensions in India. And she says, yes, this is a religious issue. But...

JYOTI PUNWANI: It's also a issue of bullying young women.

FRAYER: What's lost here, Punwani says, is that the women at the center of this controversy are 14 and 15-year-old girls in the middle of their high school semester.

PUNWANI: Since they go to government schools, they are not, obviously, very well-off. For them, the education itself is like a way for a better life.

FRAYER: And whether these humble students are being lionized as heroines or demonized as troublemakers, they are being used by political parties and by activists on both sides, Punwani says, to prove something about India.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLES HONKING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: Back in her hijab shop, Mumtaz is wearing a lovely, black abaya, studded with pearls. But she's shaking her head about the news from Karnataka.

KHAN: It's just dirty politics, nothing else.

FRAYER: Dirty politics, she says, nothing else.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Mumbai.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHANNES BORNLOF'S "FLIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.