'They are punishing us for following Islam': Why India's school hijab ban is a thinly veiled attack on Muslim women's education
It's been a month now and female students at the Government Pre-University College in southern India's Karnataka have still not been allowed into their college since being denied entry for “wearing the hijab”.
Every day since the girls were first banned from entering the college premises, they have been sitting outside protesting against the administration – which has marked the six students as ‘absent’ since December 31, 2021. The students have also claimed that the college was preventing them from speaking in their mother tongues – Beary and Urdu – and have also allegedly discouraged students from offering Islamic salutations to each other.
|Dozens of young girls sit outside their college in protest of being banned entry [Masood Manna]|
Hijabi students from another Indian institution, the Government Junior College in the coastal town of Kundapur, also in Karnataka, have also faced the same treatment. Videos show scores of girls pleading with their teachers to let them into the college after they were also denied entry at the start of February this year. "There is no rule against wearing the hijab," they are heard shouting in the videos that have since gone viral.
"I see plain hatred everywhere, just because we’re Muslims"
Protests also erupted a month ago at the PU Girls College in Udupi, where students are still fighting to be allowed to sit in class wearing their headscarves. Such occurrences are becoming a norm in India, where anti-Muslim sentiments seem to be rising, as alleged members of Hindu right-wing groups feel emboldened under Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The government stands accused of – but denies – encouraging the persecution of Muslims and other minorities by hardline Hindu nationalists since coming to power in 2014.
In response to the protests, the Karnataka government issued an order in early February banning school students from wearing clothes that "disturb equality". The order made it clear that schools have the authority to set uniform stands: "In the event of [the] administrative committee not selected a uniform, clothes which disturb equality, integrity and public law and order should not be worn," the directive said.
On February 7, the Government PU College in Kundapur allowed students in hijab to re-enter the college but asked them to go to a “separate room”, sparking concerns about segregation.
"Students at the Udupi college have also alleged that in the past the school administration has forcefully pulled hijabs off students’ heads"
“Earlier it was just our college, now it is other colleges as well which are slowly banning the expression of our Islamic identity, even if it is just a cloth around our head," says 17-year-old student protester Aliya Assadi, who has not been allowed to enter her college since last December. She feels that the college is severely discriminating against Muslim girls to make them give up the hijab and sees her state Karnataka as a "forest where the wildfire of Islamophobia is spreading further every day."
Aliya’s parents are extremely worried. While Aliya and her friends are determined to claim their right to practice their religion freely as is guaranteed by the Constitution of India under articles 25-28, her family is apprehensive as these are her last months of pre-university college which are crucial for her career, amid threats by local leaders.
Last year in April, Aliya recounts how she was forced to take off her hijab inside her college by the administration and threatened that she won’t be allowed to enter her classroom if her hijab makes an appearance again.
Students at the Udupi college have also alleged that in the past the school administration has forcefully pulled hijabs off students’ heads.
The college development committee, which is headed by BJP's MLA K Raghupathi Bhat, had suggested that students wearing the hijab to college must opt for online classes until the issue is resolved by the BJP state government.
One of these students, Resham Farooq, has sent a written petition to the Karnataka High Court requesting the right to wear a hijab, or headscarf, inside the classroom.
Resham, who has protested every day since the hijab became a symbol of repugnance in her campus, feels that the administration is trying to throttle their right to exercise their religion. “Our Hindu friends didn’t stand for us, let alone support, they have stopped replying to our calls and messages. They make fun of us, it’s like they’ve never known us,” Resham told The New Arab as she lamented over the lack of support from the Hindu students who are a majority in the college.
"The college development committee, which is headed by BJP's MLA K Raghupathi Bhat, had suggested that students wearing the hijab to college must opt for online classes until the issue is resolved by the BJP state government"
A.H Almas, another student protester finds the outrage over girls wearing the hijab to be bizarre as she held the belief that government colleges do not favour or discriminate over any parameter at all. Almas sees this outrage as a deeply political move – she feels that the college is "unbothered about their education and is judging them with eyes that see a cloth wrapped around their head, above every other quality they hold."
Hijab for these young girls doesn’t just hold mere religious importance, for them, the hijab is an important part of their identities and the ideologies they stand for, they say.
Earlier this week in Kundapur, scores of Hindu students studying at a government pre-university college came to the campus wearing saffron shawls as a mark of protest towards Muslims claiming their constitutional right to wear the hijab. While the Hindu religion does not mandate wearing saffron shawls, several Hindu students donned saffron shawls as they made their way to a Kundapur college.
In Karnataka, sudden spurts of violence against Muslims have been increasing. Throughout 2021, there was a spike in the overall violence against Muslims in India, an independent hate crime tracker documented hundreds of hate crimes against Muslims in the last four years. This issue is of significance as India has always maintained that it is a secular nation, respecting all religions; however, since the arrival of Modi and his right-wing Hindu nationalist BJP government in 2014, Muslims are being targeted not only through legislation but also through government-backed propaganda that vilifies the mere existence of Muslims.
Recently, in northern India, thousands of Muslims were robbed of the right to practice Jummah namaz (Friday prayer) in authorised public spaces, again, by a BJP government minister. Muslim women have also faced an attempted ‘auction’ by Hindus on social media who were motivated by the anti-Muslim sentiment in India.
The constant thrust towards Hindu supremacy has claimed a greater space in public, political and policy parlance ever since the Modi government came to power.
The expression of Islamic identity is becoming difficult for the BJP to gulp down because it poses a threat to their idea of the 'Hindu Rashtra' implying a state where rules, regulations and legal proceedings are based on the principles of Hindu scriptures.
The BJP government is thus using policies and propaganda to police Muslims’ religious behaviour to the extent of practically diluting their constitutional right to profess and practice their religion.
"I see plain hatred everywhere, just because we’re Muslims,” Aliya, the young student, concludes.
Tarushi Aswani is a freelance writer based in India.
Follow her on Twitter: @tarushi_aswani