The parents of a Muslim girl attending a Catholic school in India have gone to court to force school administrators to allow traditional Muslim dress in violation of school rules. The parents of four-year-old Fatima Bibi have taken the Kristo Jyoti School of the Golaghat district in Guwahati , the largest city in India’s northeastern Assam State, to the High Court seeking a policy change.
The suit came in response to a request by the school’s administrator, Fr. Jose Varghese, who asked the parents in March 28 note to remove the girl’s hijab or head scarf within 15 days or cease sending her to the school. The girl’s mother, Alee Ahmed, said because of the school principal’s decision, she had no option other than seeking justice in a civil court. “Hijab is a part of the tradition. So she wears the scarf on head along with the complete uniform. I hope justice will be done to my daughter,” said Ahmed.
It was on March 21 that the girl’s teacher voiced an objection to the headscarf, which violated the school’s dress code. All students at the school are required to wear a uniform in accordance with the dress code. The girl’s teacher also wrote a note to the parents requesting adherence to the uniform code.
The parents responded to the teacher’s request by writing on March 25 to Fr. Varghese and requesting an exception in their daughter’s case. Fr. Varghese refused the request. On April 8, Fatima’s mother filed a petition with the Guwahati High Court to annul the school’s decision. Fr. Varghese insists that the family abide by the school’s uniform code, as do other parents.
Fr. Varghese asserted that parents who have already agreed to abide by the school’s rules should receive a special exemption. “Apart from Fatima, there are several Muslim girl students. If we make any relaxation for her then we may have to allow other girls to wear the scarf,” said Fr. Varghese.
The Muslim family's attorney, Javanta Kumar Goswami, asserted that the case could dramatically change practice within Indian schools. "Case is likely to set precedence for all children facing similar problems in various schools across India. It is associated with religious rights guaranteed in the constitution."
Article 25 of India's constitution, proclaimed in 1949, states the following about the practice of religion in the world's largest democracy:
"25. Freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion
(1) Subject to public order, morality and health and to the other provisions of this Part, all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion
(2) Nothing in this article shall affect the operation of any existing law or prevent the State from making any law
(a) regulating or restricting any economic, financial, political or other secular activity which may be associated with religious practice;"
The use of the hijab, Arabic for veil or headscarf, varies from country to country and within Islam. In some regions, such as Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, women are totally covered from head to foot when out in public or in the presence non-related adult males. Normally, the rule applies only to women upon the onset of puberty.
The Golaghat district of Assam is a majority-Hindu area of India that lies very near Burma and Bangladesh. Muslims account for approximately 75,000 of the 1 million inhabits of the district, while Christians of all denominations account for 52,000.