In recent weeks, protests in India over Muslim headscarves in schools have gained international attention. The controversy began when a high school in Karnataka banned hijabs in classrooms, and demonstrations have since spread to other states. The Karnataka High Court has been deliberating the legality of the school ban and is due to issue a verdict soon.
Head coverings are relatively common among Indian women. About six in 10 women in India (61 percent) say they cover their heads outside of their homes, according to a conducted in 2019-20.
That includes a majority of Hindu women (59 percent), and roughly equal share of Muslim (89 percent) and Sikh women (86 percent) – although the exact type of head covering can vary significantly among and within religious groups.
India’s adult population is 81 percent Hindu and 13 percent Muslim, according to the latest census conducted in 2011. Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains account for most of the remaining 6 percent. The Center’s survey only included adults ages 18 and older and does not show what share of school-aged girls wear head coverings.
Head Coverings More Common Among Indian Women in North India
There are regional differences among Indian women when it comes to head coverings. The practice is especially common in the largely Hindi-speaking regions in the northern, central and eastern parts of the country.
In Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan, roughly nine in 10 women say they wear head coverings in public. In stark contrast, fewer women in the South say they cover their heads in public, including just 16 percent in Tamil Nadu.
These regional differences are largely driven by Hindu women, as Muslim women cover their heads in public regardless of what region they live in. This leads to large differences between Muslims and Hindus in the South in particular.
In the South, 83 percent of Muslim women say they cover their heads, compared with 22 percent of Hindu women. In the northern region, meanwhile, roughly equal shares of Muslim (85 percent) and Hindu (82 percent) women say they cover their heads in public.
In the South, Head Coverings Are More Prevalent in Karnataka
Within the South, Karnataka stands out for its relatively high share of women who wear head coverings. More than four in 10 women in Karnataka (44 percent) say they wear one, compared with 26 percent in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, 29 percent in Telangana, and even fewer in Kerala (17 percent) and Tamil Nadu (16 percent).
A majority of Muslim women in Karnataka say they cover their heads (71 percent), compared with 42 percent of Hindu women.
Religion and Political Affiliation Both Likely To Influence Choices on Head Coverings
Nationally, head coverings tend to be more common among women who are older, married, more religious and who have less formal educational attainment. The practice is also more prevalent in rural areas.
But in the South, age, education and other demographic differences are less of a factor in whether or not women cover their heads. Religion, however, does make a difference: Muslim women and women who are more devout are likelier to cover their heads in public.
Among women in the South who say religion is very important in their lives, 29 percent say they cover their heads in public, compared with 18 percent who say religion is less important in their lives.
Headscarf wearing also varies by political affiliation. Even though some proponents of the hijab ban have been described as supporters of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), women with favourable attitudes toward India’s ruling party are actually more inclined to wear head coverings in public than women who do not favour the governing party. This is true nationally, and in the South.
Among Indians overall, 66 percent of women who have a positive view of the ruling BJP party say they cover their heads outside their home, compared with 53 percent among those who view the party unfavourably. This correlation may – at least in part – be tied to the fact that BJP supporters tend to be more religious.
(This article was first published on Pew Research Center. It has been reprinted on The Quint with permission from the former. Ariana Monique Salazar is a research analyst at Pew Research Center, Neha Sahgal is associate director of research at Pew Research Center.)