From the Turkey of Kemal Pasha to the France of Nicolas Sarkozy, the dispute over the hijab and the burqa

Karnataka’s hijab row has sparked a wider debate in India over the regulation of uniforms in colleges and schools and freedom of choice in dress with or without religious beliefs. Such debates are neither new nor limited to India. Many countries, especially in the Middle East, have dress codes, especially for women.


The Karnataka dispute arose out of opposition from a group of students who insisted on attending classes while wearing a hijab or burqa. Their insistence on wearing the particular dress turned into a protest against the Feb. 5 order issued by the Karnataka government.

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The government order said banning hijab for students while attending classes was not a violation of constitutionally guaranteed religious freedom.

Hijab is a traditional Islamic headscarf covering the head and hair, but not the face. The burqa covers the face, and the same garment can cover the rest of the body.

These garments recently made international headlines when the Taliban reimposed the law in Afghanistan, making the hijab, burqa, abaya (long garment) or niqab (face-covering garment) compulsory for women in public or meeting men outside the family.


The campaign against the hijab and the burqa is at least a century old. The biggest proponent of abandoning these religiously guided dress restrictions was Kemal Pasha Ataturk of Turkey. Kemal Pasha is affectionately called the father of the modern Turkish nation.

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Kemal Pasha abolished the Caliphate of the Ottoman Empire and launched a series of reforms in the 1920s to make Turkey a modern nation modeled on developed Europe.

In 1925, Kemal Pasha’s government issued a cabinet decree introducing dress reforms designed to ban overt symbols of religious affiliation for civil servants.

He did not specifically issue regulations for women’s dress, but encouraged men and women to avoid religious considerations when deciding what to wear.

READ ALSO | Udupi Hijab controversy: girls excluded from classes start protesting

His efforts have seen a near disappearance of the hijab and burqa in Turkey. The revival of the Islamist bent that brought Recep Tayyip Erdogan to power as Turkey’s prime minister in 2003 and president in 2014 saw a law enacted in 2013 to abolish Kemal Pasha’s dress regulations.


Erdogan’s relaxation of restrictions on the Islamic veil came as a ban on such garments was under discussion across Europe. France became the first European country to ban the Islamic veil by law in 2010-2011 following a sustained campaign by Nicolas Sarkozy’s government.

More than 1,500 people have been arrested in France since the law was enacted for violating the headscarf ban. Religious clothing, including headscarves, has been banned in French schools since 2004. The law in France states that “no one is allowed to wear in public clothing allowing him to cover his face”.


An international tourist destination, Switzerland last year became the last country in Europe to ban the niqab, the Islamic veil.

In the Netherlands, if you cover your face with a veil, it results in a penalty of 150 euros (around Rs 13,000). The ban does not only concern the niqab but also the burqa and the hijab.

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In the UK, covering the face with a veil is banned in schools and hospitals. Germany does not allow face covering with a veil in schools or by public officials, including judges and soldiers. Sweden has banned by law the wearing of clothing that covers the face in schools.

Shortly after France imposed a ban on the Islamic veil, Belgium followed suit. Breaking the law results in seven days in jail and a sentence. Italy does not have a law banning the Islamic veil, but it has had a law since the 1970s that bans clothing that conceals the identity of the wearer.

Denmark, Bulgaria and Austria have also banned face-covering clothing in public places. In Austria, the law specifically requires individuals to show their facial features from the chin to the hairline.


In India, what to wear and how to dress are matters of personal freedom and freedom guaranteed by the Constitution. The only restriction might be decency and public morality. But these are not defined either in the Constitution or in the Indian Penal Code.


A New York woman, Nazma Khan, started a campaign called Hijab Day on February 1, 2013 to spread the headscarf among women. A counter-movement has started from Canada and other places to mark a hijab-free day on February 1.

READ ALSO | Row of hijab-saffron shawls: Two detained for lighting knives in Kundapur, Karnataka

Not wearing a hijab in public is a crime in Iran, where a strong movement started a few years ago against the compulsory wearing of the headscarf. Women would come to public squares and get rid of the hijab.

The debate continues in many countries, such as India.

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