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Muslim women face trauma as Hijab ban in India continues

Why must one choose between education and religion?


"When people talk about college, they say you will have fun living that life. But right now, we are fighting for our basic fundamental rights and seeing it being denied by the High Court is really heartbreaking," said Aliya Assadi, 17, one of the six petitioners who has challenged the Hijab ban in the southern state of India, Karnataka — the hotbed of growing Islamophobia in the country.

 

In December, six Hijabi girls from Udupi, Karnataka, sat outside their classrooms in protest after being denied entry due to their Hijab. They were the first to demonstrate against the Hijab ban, which has now extended to several colleges throughout Karnataka — around 400 girls are missing their classes which amounts to 12.5% of the total Muslim girls in pre-university colleges in Udupi.


Muslim students had pinned their hopes on Karnataka High Court to protect their fundamental rights snatched away, but what they got instead was a 129-page order weaponising Hijab and dictating what a woman can or cannot wear.

In a multi-religious and cultural country where schools are inaugurated with 'pujas' and prayers, Hindu literature is taught in the curriculum, and many students wear various religious identity markers even to school; why is it that Hijab is being singled out? 


Why is somebody's right to wear one, which doesn't infringe upon the rights of another, be a roadblock to their rights? 


'Education of thousands of women at stake'


Assadi found it difficult to explain the hurt and betrayal the students have felt over the past months. "There are many girls who want to wear a Hijab and study simultaneously. They will not be able to rise through upward mobility. I think the court should have kept that in mind before passing the verdict," she said.


Assadi claims that even though her seniors were allowed to wear Hijab in the classrooms, the teachers routinely harassed them and pulled them off their heads.


Meanwhile, the Karnataka Education Minister BC Nagesh has said that the government would not hold re-exams for girls absent due to the Hijab ban. 


The group which subscribes to the 'keep-religion-out-of-school' thought must know that the same people are now considering introducing Bhagavad Gita (a religious Hindu text) into the school curriculum. This also aligns with the majoritarian sentiment stemming from a majoritarian religion as 'culture' and a 'way of life.' The cognitive dissonance is real.

 


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Furious as she was, Assadi stated, "A whole year has been wasted. If only the school administration had let us take classes and exams for these remaining 3-4 more months, they would have saved the education of thousands of girls."

She said when they approached the High Court; right-wing goons came with their saffron shawls to intimidate them. Similar reports also cropped up from nearby schools and colleges.


Another petitioner, Almaas AH, 18, agrees. “Hijab ban is no longer about Hijab; the issue has now become communal and political in nature; we didn’t expect it to go to court,” she said.


Almaas believes that if the college administration had resolved the issue on campus, it would not have blown up the way it has. They both stated that despite pursuing the matter legally, they have been called “terrorists” and “anti-nationals.”


How the High Court disappointed these women


On 15 March 2022 - the three-judge bench of the Karnataka High Court declared — "we are of the opinion that the Hijab is not an essential part of Islam and female students cannot wear it." 


Some of these women come from families that allow them to access education when wearing a Hijab. However, the state judiciary has indirectly validated the mob’s behaviour instead of standing for the rights of Muslim women. 


Advocate Anas Tanwir who has filed an SLP (Special Leave Petition) against the order in Supreme Court, said:
"Why did the Court not take or talk about action against the hecklers? How the mob has behaved is punishable by law, they harassed, intimidated, forced the girls to disrobe, i.e. removing their Hijabs, and it amounts to outraging the modesty of the women. The court has emboldened the mob; this is called the mob veto.”


The three-judge bench has justified the ban under the premise of “reasonable restrictions.” The Muslim women fear that this judgement will further alienate them from educational spaces. Tanwir countered this too. "Even in terms of ‘reasonable restriction,’ you don't ban everything; that is extreme, not reasonable. Secondly, the rules in Karnataka already prescribe a dupatta with the uniform, so then how can the court decide how the women choose to wear that dupatta?"


According to Tanwir, here’s another catch : the case was viewed through an incorrect lens. 


"The court did not see the issue in the light of administrative law as they should have, which is the biggest flaw in the verdict. Secondly, the court has created a dichotomy between freedom of religion and freedom of conscience. This implies that they are mutually exclusive. The court went into the question of ERP (Essential Religious Practice); when you go into defining ERP, and you have insufficient information before you, you will not understand given that religion is complicated like any law. Essential is not mandatory, but they did not understand that."


On the court invoking the examples of a ‘Gurukul’ while discussing the uniform, Tanwir said, "The Courts do not have the understanding of Islam and its nuances, they see it through the prism of their religion, hence are provoking Hindu texts and Brahmanical teaching which cannot be applied to this issue."

 


The Karnataka Education Act, 1983 also mentions that educational institutions must "value and preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture" — an essential point that has been conveniently missed out.


The socio-political climate in Karnataka is also a testament to the state’s politics; apart from the Hijab ban, non-Hindus have been stopped from putting up shops during festivals or near temples.


The anti-Muslim rhetoric by the country's leaders has made it acceptable to attack Muslims with impunity. 


Soon after the verdict, Karnataka BJP leader and Udupi College Development Committee Vice-president Yashpal Suvarna talking about the students, said, “A terrorist organisation from Hyderabad came here and trained them on what statements should be given in the media.”


The psychological impact on Hijabi girls


In the 1930s, as the Nazification of Germany was in force, Hitler's focus was to attack every identity marker of Jews and use that to limit their place in schools and colleges. 

 

In India, young Muslim girls recall their college and friends turning against them. 


Almaas, who considers it a matter of modesty, said, “I consider my college to be my second home, and those teachers are like my parents - I respect them; why are they forcing us to choose between our religion and our education? We live in a secular country and have constitutional rights, but we are still being prevented from exercising them."


Almaas claims that she received threat calls since the college leaked their phone number.


"I'm collapsing mentally; I can't even leave my house; we're always paranoid; what did we do to deserve this?" Almaas continues.


Meanwhile, Assadi stated that teachers segregated them to another classroom and library lest they interact with the media persons.


Talking about her non-Muslim friends opposing her, she narrated:


"One of my close friends used to tell me, 'wear your Hijab, fight if you want to, I'll support you.’ But then I was told that she, along with others, told our Vice-Chancellor that they have not been able to concentrate because of us. How is this possible? We are the ones who are missing classes, facing the media and police daily, but they are complaining."

 


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Dr Rukhsheda Syeda, a Mumbai-based psychiatrist, said:


“The Hijabi girls feel betrayed by authority figures; they may have faced a lot of trolling and hatred. Trauma affects different people differently, both mentally and psychiatrically; there is a higher risk of people developing disorders such as stress, anxiety symptoms, and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) symptoms, all of which impact their quality of life.”


A huge contribution to the whole issue around Hijab has been made by the Liberal commentariat, apart from the right-wing or centrists. When you use a blanket term like that, you do not account for other identities that are the primary target here. 


The elite commentariat has mostly debated about whether Hijab is patriarchal or oppressive and if they "agree" with it. Missing the main point: It’s exclusionary to deprive a section of an already vulnerable community of their access to education over Hijab and continue to harass them.


When you repeat the narrative of "both sides are responsible," you distort the ground reality by whitewashing the huge imbalance of power and putting the targeted minority students and a hostile mob on the same footing. You cannot view resistance and oppression through the same lens. 


Gendered Islamophobia and narrativising Hijab 

As the public’s desire to deliberate upon what is essential to religion and what is not may continue, one thing is clear: bigotry and harassment of minorities and students due to their religious identity are essential to Hindutva politics. 


Islamophobia is much more than just hatred against Muslims, as Julianne Hammer once wrote - “an ideological construct produced and reproduced at the intersection of imperial ideology, political expediency, and the exploitation of nationalist, racial, and religious insecurities.”

 

The majority’s perception of Muslim women is of a "submissive and veiled, and woman without any agency." Gendered Islamophobia manifests itself in various ways — Muslim women are considered a minority within a minority — they are dehumanised far more than Hindu women as the right-wing group in India does not see Muslim women as human beings. They auction them online, humiliate them by bidding on their pictures and intimidate them into social isolation.

 

Hijab has a different meaning to Muslim women; it's at the intersection of religion, identity, faith, choice and liberation, without being mutually exclusive. But it is also wrong to weaponise Hijab to deny fundamental rights under the assumption that every woman who wears it does it under coercion. 


The Hijab ban has already catapulted a ripple effect in other spheres of public spaces.


Dr Parvez Mandiwala, who lives in Mumbai, Maharashtra, posted on the day of the verdict that her Hijabi wife was denied a seat on the local train. "This incident has more to do with the prevailing Islamophobia growing in a cosmopolitan society. This is not about my wife or my family, but about the society we are evolving into and the environment we are heading towards," said Dr Parvez.


The irony is that Karnataka is the same state where young Hijabi students like Bushra Mateen and  Lamya Majeed have bagged gold medals in their universities, respectively. Neither would’ve possibly achieved what they did if they were forced to choose between education and Hijab.

About the author

Arshi Qureshi (L) is an Independent journalist based in Mumbai, Maharashtra. She covers stories at the intersection of communalism, Human Rights and Indian politics. Tweets | @ArshiiQureshiAliza Noor (R) is a journalist based in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh and has worked with ScoopWhoop Unscripted and The Quint. Tweets | @AlizaNoor1501

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