Guest Post: The Hijab Case through the Lens of Non-Discrimination – Lessons from Kenya

[This is a guest post by M. Jannani. Previous posts on the Hijab Case can be found here and here.]


Recently, the Karnataka State Government pre-university education department issued a direction invoking 133(2) of the Karnataka Education Act, 1933 which in effect restricted female Muslim students from wearing hijab in educational institutions that are under the its jurisdiction. The order reportedly stated that:

“Invoking 133 (2) of the Karnataka Education Act-1983 which says a uniform style of clothes has to be worn compulsorily. The private school administration can choose a uniform of their choice”

Though on the face of it, the notification may seem neutral, the point lies in disparate impact it has had on female Muslim students whose self-expression and religious practices have been jeopardised. This piece discusses the judgment of Fugicha v. Methodist Church in Kenya which used the doctrine of indirect discrimination to strike down a restriction on wearing Hijabs along with the usual uniforms prescribed by a school in Kenya. It also aims to contextualize the judgment’s relevance to the doctrine of indirect discrimination, which has already been recognized by Indian courts.

Background

On the 22nd of June 2014, there was a request made by the Deputy Governor of Isiolo county to allow Muslim girl students to wear hijab and white trousers in addition to the already prescribed uniform in St. Paul’s Kiwanjani Day Mixed Secondary School (“the school”). Approximately a week after the request was made, Muslim girl students wore both the hijab and white trousers along with the school uniform that was prescribed by the school. They were then asked to revert back to the dressing in the uniform that they had to wear before the request was made. The county director passed a decision that Muslim girl students should be allowed to wear the hijab and white trousers along with the school uniform. However, the Methodist Church in Kenya (“the Church”) opposed it and argued that this particular move allowed for preferential treatment of female Muslim students. It also termed the move as a violation of natural justice and the rule of law, while supporting the dress code that did not (according to it) permit the exhibition of religious symbols.

At the outset it is important to note that Constitution of Kenya expressly recognizes the right against indirect discrimination in article 27 which states as follows:

“27 (4) The state shall not discriminate directly or indirectly against any person on any ground including race, sex, pregnancy, marital status, health status, ethnic or social origin, colour, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, dress, language or birth.

(5) A person shall not discriminate directly or indirectly against another on any of the grounds specified or contemplated in clause (4)”.

Given this background, the Kenyan Courts, among other questions in the present case, were tasked with the role of examining whether the banning of hijabs in schools amounted to an act of indirect discrimination, which violated article 27 of the Kenyan Constitution.

Decision of the High Court

The High Court observed that the Republic of Kenya is a secular country and since article 8 of the Kenyan Constitution states that there cannot be a state religion, the school was not justified in allowing female Muslim students to wear a hijab. It also stated that they should revert back to the uniform. The judgment further held that not having such restrictions on the uniform for female Muslim students would amount to preferential treatment over their non-Muslim peers.

In my opinion, the court terming the move to allow female Muslim students to wear hijabs being called special or preferential treatment was erroneous and ran contrary to the principles of indirect discrimination. These principles were, for instance, laid down by the judgment of the Constitutional Court of South Africa in MEC for Education: Kwazulu-Natal v. Navaneethum Pillay. In this case, a girl student wore a nose stud (which formed a part of her cultural belief as a Hindu) to her school. Her school found it to be a violation of the uniform dress code and objected to her wearing the nose stud. This restriction was constitutionally challenged. The Constitutional Court of South Africa held that such restrictions would have an effect of indirect discrimination on those whose cultural practices are compromised. The relevant extract of the judgment is as follows:

“It is those learners whose sincere religious or cultural beliefs or practices are not compromised by the Code, as compared to those whose beliefs or practices are compromised. The ground of discrimination is still religion or culture as the Code has a disparate impact on certain religions and cultures. The norm embodied by the Code is not neutral, but enforces mainstream and historically privileged forms of adornment, such as ear studs which also involve the piercing of a body part, at the expense of minority and historically excluded forms. It thus places a burden on learners who are unable to express themselves fully and must attend school in an environment that does not completely accept them. In my view, the comparator is not learners who were granted an exemption compared with those who were not. That approach identifies only the direct effect flowing from the School’s decisions and fails to address the underlying indirect impact inherent in the Code itself.”

Decision by the Kenyan Court of Appeals

The Court of Appeals in Mohamed Fugicha v. Methodist Church in Kenya looked into whether the restriction on wearing hijabs was a violation of article 27 of the Kenya’s Constitution. To determine whether the restriction on female Muslim students wearing hijabs on their uniforms was an act of indirect discrimination, the court imported the test that was laid down in the case of Sarika Angel Watkins v. The Governing Body of Aberdare Girls’ High School. In the case of Sarika, the English and Wales High Court looked into whether a Sikh girl student could be restricted from wearing a Kara, which was of immense significance to her faith. The following four step test was laid down in the Sarika judgment, and was affirmed by the Kenyan Court of Appeals :   

“(a)  to identify the relevant ‘provision, criterion or practice’ which is applicable;

(b) to determine the issue of disparate impact which entails  identifying a pool for the purpose of  making a  comparison of the relevant disadvantages;

(c) to ascertain if the provision, criterion or practice also  disadvantages the claimant personally;

(d) Whether this policy is objectively justified by a legitimate aim; and to consider, if the above requirements are  satisfied, whether this is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.”

When applying the above test, the Kenyan Court of Appeals firstly stated the relevant practice to be considered was the restriction imposed by the school on female Muslim students wearing hijab along with their uniform. The court then observed that the ‘pool’ in this case comprised of the female Muslim students and the ‘comparator group’ consisted of the non-Muslim student body. In this context, it made the observation that unlike the ‘pool’, the comparator group’s compliance with the school’s uniform rules did not subject them to disadvantage which was violative of their religious practices and beliefs. While looking into whether the criterion or practice disadvantages the claimant personally, the court held that the ban on wearing hijabs that existed in the school was one that compromised and curtailed their religious beliefs that were of exceptional importance to the individual. While upholding that the restriction constituted an act of indirect discrimination under the Sarika test, the court expressly stated that:

“It is important to observe at this point that it is not for the courts to judge on the basis of some ‘independent or objective’ criterion the correctness of the beliefs that give rise to Muslim girls’ belief that the particular practice is of utmost or exceptional importance to them.  It is enough only to be satisfied that the said beliefs are genuinely held.”

The Court of Appeals also referred to the judgment of the Constitutional Court of South Africa in City Council of Pretoria v. Walker to hold that though the rules on the uniform dress code may be perceived as neutral, the still may have a discriminatory effect. The relevant portion of the judgment states as follows:

“The inclusion of both direct and indirect discrimination, within the ambit of the prohibition imposed by section 8(2) of the Constitution, evinces a concern for the consequences rather than the form of conduct.  It recognizes that conduct which may appear to be neutral and non-discriminatory may nonetheless result in discrimination and, if it does, that it falls within the purview of section 8(2) [our Article 27(4)] of the Constitution.”

It was therefore held even though the uniform dress policy was one that appeared to be neutral, by not allowing female Muslim students to wear the Hijab, it amounted to an act of indirect discrimination. This constituted a violation of article 27, Constitution of Kenya. The Kenyan Court of Appeals, thereby, proceeded to outlaw the restriction on wearing hijabs on uniforms.

Decision by the Kenyan Supreme Court

The decision given by the Kenyan Court of Appeals in Mohamed Fugicha v. Methodist Church was appealed before the Supreme Court of Kenya. The majority set aside the judgments of both the High Court and the Court of Appeals on the procedural ground that there was no proper cross-petition to be determined by the courts. The minority opinion delivered by Chief Justice Ojwang termed the view of the Appellate Court in the interpretation of indirect discrimination as ‘appositely pragmatic and rational’ while also holding that it reflects the desirable judicial stand.

Recognition of Indirect Discrimination by Indian Courts

Last year, the Supreme Court in Nitisha v. Union of India applied the doctrine of indirect discrimination while holding that women army officers being denied Permanent Commission (“PC”) by the Indian Army was discriminatory. Through the judgment it acknowledged that though certain rules or laws appear to be neutral they may have a disparate impact on certain groups/ communities of people due to their identities. While doing so, the Supreme Court of India, similar to the Kenyan Court of Appeals, referred to the Constitutional Court of South Africa’s judgment in City Council of Pretoria v. Walker. A similar reference to the decision of the South African court was made in the decision of Madhu v. Northern Railways. which also looked into the doctrine of indirect discrimination.  Thereby, it can be observed that the Indian courts have not hesitated in borrowing the interpretation of the indirect discrimination from jurisdictions that have expressly recognised. However, to determine whether an act constituted indirect discrimination, the Supreme Court in Nitisha had adopted the Fraser v. Canada test as opposed to the test laid down in Sarika which had been adopted by the Kenyan Court of Appeals.

Conclusion

Though the Kenyan Court of Appeals judgment in Methodist Church in Kenya v. Mohamed Fugicha was set aside by the Supreme Court of Kenya (albeit not on the merits), it can be seen that the Court of Appeal’s interpretation of the doctrine of indirect discrimination in the specific context of the restrictions on wearing hijabs over uniforms is one that is extremely relevant. The doctrine of indirect discrimination plays an important role in opposing state action that may have a perversely disproportionate impact on those who face intersectional discrimination as has been demonstrated by the Kenyan Court of Appeals. The application of this doctrine by the Indian Courts in the way the Court of Appeals did to outlaw the restriction on hijabs will, in my opinion, be of critical importance to the realization of substantive equality.

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