The Hijab Question: A Writer Recalls a Time in 1980s Karnataka When Education Came First

In the early 1980s, when I spent a year in North Karnataka’s Raichur, I took up a three-month teaching assignment at a PU college. Raichur is a rather underdeveloped district, and the district headquarters has a large Muslim population. My students were mostly first-generation students from poor families – many fathers worked as street vendors and mothers as domestic help.

There were about 10-12 Muslim girl students in my class. All of them came from their homes wearing burkhas, which they took off in a small room inside the college gates. After their classes would end, they put on their burkhas and head home. A few of them wore a head scarf in class, but many did not. It was all very orderly and unfussy.

The only disruptions I faced were from some of the boys in class. One or two tried to test my endurance power as a teacher, but I managed to keep my cool and they gave up on their tactics after a while.

What gave me great joy was to see how eager all the students were to study and, specifically, to learn English. Even the boys.

I found this curious at first, but I later recognised that English was a status symbol – it earned them respect. The girls were particularly diligent, and I remember how all of them, including the Muslim students, always sat in a group right up front and listened to me with unwavering attention.

Also read: ‘Saffron Controversy, Not Hijab Controversy’: Muslim Women Protest Across Karnataka

I learnt a great deal during those three months about the lives of those marginalised children, and some of it translated into a growing anger against the people who had composed the English text book that had been prescribed. This wretched book contained poems like ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’ and essays by Virginia Woolf and Charles Lamb.

How was one to communicate an entirely alien culture to first-generation learners in a largely conservative South Indian town in order to teach them the English language?

What angered me most was the insensitive inclusion of Lamb’s whimsical essay ‘A Dissertation on Roast Pig’. Explain roast pig? To a class with many Muslim students? I did the best I could by substituting ‘crackling’ with ‘roasted’ and potatoes and baingan for the meat. But it was hard work. Strangely, the students did not seem to be upset about the essay at all. It was I who was furious.

Fortunately, the syllabus for English has changed since and is much more rational and sensible now. All this was a long time ago but I still remember those three months and my students with enormous fondness and pride. They wanted to study; they wanted to achieve more than their parents could. Surely that is what is most important. Wearing a head scarf does not disrupt anything. But wearing a saffron scarf might.

As far as I know, saffron is worn by those who have renounced the life of a householder. Now, of course, the colour saffron denotes a political ideology.

The next time I wear a head scarf to keep my hair from blowing in the wind, I will need to be careful.

Poile Sengupta is a novelist, poet, playwright and short fiction writer, for both children and adults.

Featured image: Hiroyoshi Urushima/Unsplash