From Kemal Pasha’s Turkey to Nicolas Sarkozy’s France, the row over hijab and burqa

By | February 9, 2022

The Karnataka hijab row has triggered a larger debate in India about regulations for uniforms in colleges and schools and freedom of clothing choice with or without religious beliefs. Such debates are neither new nor limited to India. Many countries, particularly in the Middle East, have rules for dressing, especially for women.


The Karnataka row emerged from 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 February 5 order issued by the Karnataka government.

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The government order said banning hijabs for students while attending classes was not a violation of religious freedom guaranteed under the Constitution.

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

These garments recently became international headlines when the Taliban re-imposed the law in Afghanistan, making hijab, burqa, abaya (full-length garment) or niqab (clothing to cover face) mandatory for women in public or meeting men outside of the family.


The campaign against hijab and burqa is at least a century old. The biggest proponent of discarding such dress restrictions guided by religious consideration was Kemal Pasha Ataturk of Turkey. Kemal Pasha is fondly called the father of the modern Turkish nation.

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

In 1925, the Kemal Pasha government issued a cabinet decree introducing clothing reforms meant to banish overt symbols of religious affiliation for civil servants.

He did not specifically issue regulation for women’s dressing but encouraged both men and women to shun religious consideration in deciding what to wear.

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His efforts saw an almost disappearance of hijab and burqa in Turkey. Revival of Islamist trend that brought Recep Tayyip Erdogan to power first as Turkish prime minister in 2003 and president in 2014 saw a law being brought in 2013 to abolish Kemal Pasha’s dress regulation.


Erdogan’s easing of restriction on the Islamic veil came when banning such clothing was being discussed throughout Europe. France became the first European country to ban the Islamic veil through law in 2010-11 following a sustained campaign by the Nicolas Sarkozy government.

More than 1,500 people have been arrested in France since the enactment of law for violating the veil ban. Religious clothing, including headscarves, has been banned in French schools since 2004. Law in France says “no one is allowed to wear clothing in public that allows them to cover their face”.


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

In The Netherlands, if you cover your face with a veil, it draws a penalty of 150 Euros (about Rs 13,000). The ban is not only on niqab but also on burqa and hijab.

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In the United Kingdom, covering the face with a veil is banned in schools and hospitals. Germany does not allow covering face with a veil in schools or by civil servants, including judges and soldiers. Sweden has by law banned wearing a garment that covers the face in schools.

Soon after France imposed a ban on the Islamic veil, Belgium followed suit. Breaking the law attracts seven-day jail and penalty. Italy does not have a law to ban the Islamic veil, but it has had a law since the 1970s that bans clothing that hides the wearer’s identity.

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


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


A New York woman, Nazma Khan, launched a campaign called Hijab Day on February 1 in 2013 to propagate headscarf-wearing among women. A counter-movement began from Canada and other places to mark a No Hijab Day on February 1.

ALSO READ | Hijab-saffron shawl row: Two detained for flashing knives in Karnataka’s Kundapur

Not wearing a hijab in public is a crime in Iran, where a strong movement started a few years ago against the mandatory wearing of headscarves. Women would come to public squares and throw hijabs off their heads.

The debate goes on in many countries, as in India.

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