Should young Muslim girls be allowed to wear the hijab in the classroom. This question has polarized Karnataka and its college campuses in the last month, so there have been at least two incidents where girls’ students studying in two different colleges in the state have been denied entry into their classrooms because they were wearing the hijab or the head scarf. Now even as these students were protesting against their college’s decision there were counter protests against the wearing of hijab by other college students wearing the saffron scarf.
It all started on December 27th last year when eight girls students belonging to the women’s government pre-university college in Udupi were barred from entering their classroom because they were wearing the head scarf. Now it’s been over a month, but the matter is yet to be resolved. These students who are studying in classes 11 and 12 have been allowed to enter their college campuses but barred from their classrooms and have therefore been marked absent all these days. These students say that wearing the hijab is a part of their faith and it is their right to do so.
Hijab refers to the principle of modesty on how you dress and how you behave, and this applies to both men and women. Now like I said the rules of modesty are open to interpretation which is why some women don’t wear the hijab. But women who wear the hijab in front of any man they could theoretically marry, many women also wear the hijab to assert their Muslim identity and for many other reasons as well. Those eight girls started wearing the hijab in December last year when they realized that there was no specific rule preventing them from doing so. In fact, they say that their parents did request the college authorities to allow them to wear their hijab but they received no response.
The principal has cited uniformity as the reason to ban the hijab, so the next question is whether government colleges in Karnataka have a dress code and have these students violate. The Karnataka government doesn’t really enforce a dress code on its colleges, it left this decision up to the colleges themselves or to the development monitoring committees. The development monitoring committee in the Udupi college is headed by BJP MLA Raghupathi Bhat. He says that this college has had a uniform since 1985 and if the state government makes it mandatory to wear the uniform then there’s no question of allowing the hijab. It’s important to point out here that these eight students have been wearing the uniform all along just that is now with the hijab which is why many activists have called the ban Islamophobic because it targets the student’s religious identity. Even as these girls were barred from class, in two other pre-university colleges in Chikmagalur and Mangalore there were counter protests against the hijab by ABVP students who took to wearing saffron scarves. Now in both these instances the PU colleges decide to ban both the hijab and the saffron scarf saying that the dress code must be followed. The protest forced the Karnataka government to set up an expert committee to resolve the hijab controversy. According to its order issued on January 25th, the committee will study the dress code and uniform rules followed in other states as well as look into court orders on the issue. The state government also said that with regard to the Udupi hijab controversy, the students will have to wear the uniform until the issue is discussed by the expert committee.
These eight students have still not attended class in fact one of the students have now approached the Karnataka High court seeking directions to her college to allow her to enter the classroom wearing the hijab. In her petition she argues that wearing the hijab is her fundamental right and that the constitution guarantees her the right of equality and the freedom to practice her religion. Even as these girls await some relief from the court or from the expert committee, on February 3rd over 20 Muslim students were barred from the Kundapura government pre-university college for wearing the hijab. Unlike the Udupi case here these girls were wearing the hijab for a long time. The college’s sudden decision may have been triggered by events from the previous day. On February 2nd where a group of students belonging to the same college protested against the girls wearing the hijab by wearing saffron scarves. This forced the college authorities along with BJP MLA to hold a meeting with the parents of the Muslim girls. This college too has now banned the hijab and saffron scouts but girls point out that saffron scarves are not part of Hindu religion. This means that these 20 odd Muslim girls will also have to sit out their classes until they remove their headscarves. The campaign against the hijab is hardly new to the coastal Karnataka region, similar protests have been held since 2009 in several colleges in the state but these are no longer isolated incidents against the Muslim community.
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