The worst thing about our school uniform in Kolkata was that it was all white. Every day without fail, we came home grubby and smudged, our uniforms dusty from schoolyard games and stained from our tiffins. Sending boys to school in clean white clothes every day was the biggest hurdle our mothers faced.
But uniforms did instil a certain kind of uniformity. We later discovered that some of the boys among us were the sons of industrialists, some lived in crowded tenements in the old Anglo-Indian quarters of town, others came from upper middle-class doctor-engineer families. The differences were apparent when we went to birthday parties. I remember coming home awestruck because one of the boys had a real-life ice-cream vendor with a pushcart at his birthday and we could go up and ask for any ice cream we liked. My mother quickly told me to banish any such expectations for my own birthday party. But in school those differences of class and status were ironed out by the school uniform which mostly came from the same prescribed school uniform shop.
The school uniform didn’t just enforce discipline or a sense of belonging. It helped all of us feel that we were on the same page even if some of us had fancier tiffin boxes and pencil sets.
The irony of the hijab and the school uniform controversy in Karnataka is that instead of helping everyone feel they are on the same page, school uniforms are now being used by one group to show another group its place.
The controversy, as everyone knows by now, erupted when a college in Udupi barred eight Muslim students from attending classes while wearing headscarves that it deemed as being in violation of its uniform code. That led to tit-for-tat protests and it all escalated further when a government college in Udupi banned students in hijab from entering the campus this February. Soon, clips started going viral—a school principal closing the gates on students, a lone Muslim female student being heckled by a group of men in saffron scarves, Dalit students doing “blue scarf” solidarity protests.
Eventually, the Karnataka high court ruled that wearing a hijab was not “essential religious practice” in Islam and prescription of school uniforms does not violate fundamental rights on freedom of expression and privacy and authorities were justified in imposing a uniform code because they were not singling out hijabs per se and schools were anyway “qualified public spaces”, like “courts, war rooms and defence camps”.
In arguing its case, the court cited a UK House of Lords judgement involving the Denbigh High School. In it Baroness Hale says, as the court notes, that a “uniform dress code can play its role in smoothing over ethnic, religious and social divisions”. So far so good. But as lawyer and writer Gautam Bhatia points out in his critique of the ruling in the Indian Constitutional Law and Philosophy blog, the court neglects to mention what else Baroness Hale said in her speech.
She said that while “social cohesion” was promoted by the “uniform elements of shirt, tie and jumper”, cultural and religious diversity was also respected by allowing the girls to wear “either skirt, trousers or the shalwar kameez and by allowing those who wished to do so to wear the hijab”. She called it a “thoughtful and proportionate” response to the complexities of the situation.
Schools need rules but rules do not have to be iron-clad. As soon as a rule kicks in, even one with the best of intentions, someone or the other will fall afoul of it in ways the rule makers never imagined. In the latest season of Sex Education, the popular multicultural Netflix serial, the new principal decides to institute school uniforms in Moordale High because she wants to institute a sense of discipline and change the negative headlines about the school in the media. But she goes about it with inflexible rigidity. Cal Bowman, the gender non-binary student, tries to accommodate the new rules but in a way that feels true to their own identity. Bowman chooses to wear a uniform that’s a few sizes too big to hide their own body shape and trousers instead of a skirt. The principal has no patience for this and disciplines Bowman, a response that is not “thoughtful and proportionate”. The uniform rule becomes a way for the new principal to show petty power. She does not stop to ask the basic question—Does Bowman’s oversized uniform hinder the other students in any way in their lessons? And by not asking that question, she fails in her duty as an educator.
As Bhatia writes, the court “sanctifies the uniform instead of sanctifying education”. When it says “no reasonable mind can imagine a school without an uniform”, it inadvertently makes the uniform, rather than education, the centrepiece of a school instead of the means to an end.
And like any rule, when implemented without a spirit of accommodation, it defeats the purpose of the rule. In American schools, the efforts to institute uniforms came about as a way to tackle violence. Former US president Bill Clinton wanted to implement school uniforms to stop gang wars and prevent students from sporting gang symbols. That sounded laudable enough but as a 2016 article in The Atlantic notes, students at a public school in Georgia were not allowed to wear anything with Mickey Mouse symbols because some gang had adopted Mickey Mouse as a symbol. In 1997, a Texas school banned rosaries not because they were religious symbols but because a gang called United Homies wore rosaries to school. Of course, whether uniform dress codes really have a measurable impact on students joining gangs is an entirely different issue.
In the US, where the protection of freedom of expression under the First Amendment is strong, school uniform rules have unsurprisingly often ended up in court. In 1923, the court had to rule whether Pearl Pugsley was violating the school policy that barred students from wearing transparent hosiery, face paint, cosmetics and immodest dress by showing up to school with talcum powder on her face. The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled in favour of the school, a verdict that would have horrified my entire class in Kolkata because so many of us came to school liberally daubed in talcum powder.
American courts have generally been sympathetic to schools needing to provide order, safety and discipline, with a court once saying that in a time of armed guards and metal detectors, one was almost nostalgic for the “days when sharp words, crumpled balls of paper, and at worst the bully’s fist were the weapons of choice”.
India is nowhere in that situation right now. Schools are not a battleground for gangs or freedom of expression, for that matter. The headscarf does not get in the way of understanding history or mathematics any more than a turban does. While lawyers on both sides can argue the constitutionality issues threadbare, the sad fact is that we live in a country that increasingly thinks accommodation is a sign of weakness.
A little accommodation on all sides could have gone a long way but in the current political climate, hard lines win TRPs and votes. As a result, one side will now be more defiant about wearing the hijab as a marker of identity, the other side will see the ruling as a green signal to outlaw hijabs wherever it can.
The sad truth is, if the courts had ruled the other way, it would not have been the end of the story either. Chances are some organisation or the other would have had Hindu students show up with saffron bhagwas, just to score some whataboutery points.
And the young woman just trying to go to class and sit for her examination would have been collateral damage. There are so many hurdles to young women completing their education and so many ways young woman have navigated those hurdles. Now we have just added one more hurdle, and one sanctioned by the government and court no less, to the list.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.