‘Very Frightening’ to Enter Campus Alone: Muslim Students Recount Hijab Ban’s Impact

New Delhi: The hijab ban issued by the Karnataka government, later upheld by the high court, is creating and widening the social divide among student communities which could potentially lead to ghettoisation of education, a study published by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) said.

The ban has forced some hijab-clad students to seek a transfer to Muslim-managed institutions, thereby limiting their interactions with students of other communities, said the interim study for which the PUCL spoke to students who were impacted by the ban. This has also led to a deep sense of isolation and depression among these students, the study revealed.

The Karnataka high court had declared that “wearing of hijab (headscarf) by Muslim women does not form a part of essential religious practices in Islamic faith and it is not protected under the right to freedom of religion guaranteed under Article 25 of the Constitution of India.

Even the Supreme Court earlier this month had asked, while hearing a batch of petitions challenging the hijab ban, if the right to dress would also include the “right to undressing.” In another hearing, Justice Hemant Gupta had asked the advocate, representing the petitioner, not to compare the ban on hijab with the practices in Sikhism [wearing of turban] as these practices are well-established in the culture of the country.

The PUCL report said that the high court’s verdict has denied women their right to wear the hijab as a matter of choice and agency for themselves.

It’s important to note here that there are many women, irrespective of their religion, who like to cover their heads because it makes them feel safe. Hijab is a personal choice for several Muslim women, however, as The Wire had reported earlier, the headscarf has led to workplace discrimination for many in India.

Also read: ‘Won’t Look Good for Business’: Muslim Women Face Workplace Discrimination for Wearing Hijab

Many experts had pointed to the high court’s failure to address the right to privacy, freedom of expression and the principle of ‘non-discrimination’ as per Article 15 of the Constitution.

Many have argued that the high court had failed to protect the fundamental right to education to be guaranteed by the state without any discrimination. After the verdict, a sizeable number of women were unable to appear for their examinations. In one such case, two of the petitioners in the hijab case were not allowed to sit for their board exams of second pre-university college – the equivalent to class 12 exams – for wearing a hijab.

The report said that for most of the hijab-wearing students who missed writing their exams this year, after the interim order was passed, the high court judgment came as a rude interruption to their studies and further plans. (Note here that as per the 2011 Census data, Muslim women’s literacy rate in India, especially in rural areas, is the lowest among other religious communities.)

Additionally, given the communal targeting of the Muslim students both within the campus and outside, they are facing constant harassment, insult, and humiliation in and outside the classroom. There is increasing hostility from the college administration as well, in matters such as withholding the issuance of certificates and other important documents like practical exam records.

They are also experiencing safety issues in and outside the classroom (including social boycotts and even threats of rape) but the college administrations are refusing to take cognisance of the matter, the report said, citing students.

The row over wearing of hijab was brought to light in February when the authorities of Karnataka’s Government PU College in Udupi had asked hijab-clad students to sit in a “separate room,” and later didn’t allow them to write their science practical exams.

The countless incidents of harassment of Muslim students

The PUCL Karnataka carried out a study to understand the impact of the high court judgment in Resham vs State of Karnataka at the grassroots level.

The team visited a village in rural Hassan district, Mangalore city, Ullal, Hoode, Udupi town, and Raichur town and met women students who spoke about their experiences and concerns after the hijab ban. The team also spoke to members of the local college administration, government officials, the local police and members of Muslim civil society groups.

The students PUCL spoke to said that “wearing the hijab in the classroom is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution, which implies the right to wear the hijab and get a modern education as well.” They want this choice to be recognised and accepted as such. They see their right to wearing the hijab as connected with their decision-making power.

They also told the team that their immediate concern is about appearing in the exams, resuming their education, and making plans for further studies.

However, the hijab ban in educational institutions – which has compelled many Muslim women to to choose between their attire and education – has taken a toll many students.

Students of Jadavpur University hold placards while raising slogans during a protest in support of the right to wear a ‘hijab’, in Kolkata, February 11, 2022. Photo: PTI

Also read: Who Takes Exception to the Hijab?

In Raichur, the students told PUCL that they knew of women students who were made to stand outside the gate for the whole day soon after the interim order was issued. (The order had said that no student should insist on wearing “religious clothes” until the court issues a verdict on the matter.)

A student, who was pursuing B.Ed, was expected, as part of her course, to teach class 10 students in government schools. The college had told her that she could go ahead and that a lecturer would accompany her to evaluate her performance.

However, after the high court judgment, her lecturers said that a headscarf was not allowed as it affects the students in the class. As a result, she could not take the classes.

The student, whose name was kept anonymous to protect her identity, told PUCL that her internal marks were left in the air. She said that she was even asked to take leave and promised that her attendance would not be affected.

Other students in Raichur told PUCL that the “carefully cultivated hostility in educational institutions by right-wing forces” has deeply affected them, and Muslim women in particular.

They said they are now scared to go to college, as the authorities offer little protection to them. The students said they call each other before going to college and enter in groups alone as it is ‘very frightening’ to enter campus alone.

“I don’t feel confident going to college, and I take my brothers along. Outside the college, I face harassment from other boys, who are not from our college. Earlier, I was the class representative, and I would go to the principal about issues facing the students. Nowadays, I’ve fallen silent, and don’t interact with other students. I want to change this college where I don’t feel free,” a student explained the emotional toll the harassment has taken on her.

She added that her scores went down, along with her attendance, due to a lack of confidence because of the hostile environment in college.

Another student, Hassan, said, “Our main fear was that our attendance would get affected. The principal started telling Muslim girls who wore the hijab to go home and give up on their studies. They spoke in threatening tones, ‘Wait and watch what will happen if you don’t remove the hijab.’ Facing this hostility day-in and day-out has made many students consider other options, but for many students, the choice is very limited [due to family income, affordability, etc.]”

“I am repeating my second year because I will not give up. Transferring is not an option for me because I am not changing my stream. And private and minority institutions are so costly that families like ours cannot consider such options,” another student from the same village told PUCL.

Also read: Muslim Women Challenged Those Denying Them Education, but Court Made the Conversation About Hijab

Speaking about issues outside campus, some law students in Dakshina Kannada, a district in Karnataka, told PUCL that they were not allowed into the court premises with their hijab on. They were asked to come back with a written permission from the university.

Another student from the same district said that while there was heavy right-wing politics present on her campus, the few Muslim professors on her campus did not support the students. 

However, a student from Udupi said that she feels safer among Muslims as nobody else comes to help when they are in need.

For Muslim women, the verdict has led to a setback to their advancement. “Government colleges have free education, but in my new college, I have huge travel expenses. I wanted to do my M.Sc., but now I can’t. I feel shattered. I do not want to think about my shattered dreams,” another student from Udupi told PUCL.

Expressing concerns over safety in college premises, some students in Dakshina Kannada had asked girls to carry weapons, so they wouldn’t be unsafe. In fact, the girl students had reported to the principal that a few male students had started to pick fights with them on the campus.

However, the principal refused to even accept their plea seeking intervention on the matter. And, when the students approached the head of the department (HOD), the principal asked the HOD not to entertain such pleas, and asked the security guards to push the girls off the campus.

With respect to the attire, some girl students started coming to college wearing hoodies. However, the teachers in an extremely rude tone told them, Show chal raha hai kya (is a show going on?)” upon seeing them in hoodies.

In fact, lecturers reportedly told the students, ‘Tum soch badlogi toh zamaana badlega’ (If you change your thinking, then the world will change), ‘Zamaane ke saath chalo’ (go with the times), ‘Tum bold bano’ (Be bold) and other such variations, suggesting that wearing a hijab is a regressive choice.

Such statements seem to be coming from a lack of understanding that Muslim women who wear the hijab have been doing it for long and not as a form of suppression but out of their own choice.

In another incident, a lecturer told the class that they would not deliver the lecture if the hijab-clad woman continued to sit in the class and that all students would be affected by it. What’s worse, when the student recorded this incident in a letter, the teachers refused to sign it.

Did the local authorities act on human rights violations?

In Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts, when students, parents and Muslim organisations approached the public officials on this matter, they were directed to speak with the college development councils, or CDCs.

According to the PUCL study, the CDCs did not have any statutory powers earlier, but from the passing of the interim order, they were given statutory powers but without proper systems of accountability. Moreover, it appeared that the CDCs had no Muslim representative. They told them that they were not responsible for the consequences of the government order.

The PUCL team, while speaking with the police, courts and bureaucrats, understood that they were more concerned about the implementation of the ‘hijab ban’. Human rights violations, including harassment of students by the media on campuses, curtailing the right to dissent, harassment of women students by other students and outsiders, creation of a hostile environment by saffron shawl-wearing protesters, hate speech, etc. were mostly left unattended.

Therefore, the PUCL in its report has asked the Karnataka government to take adequate measures to strengthen a secular and non-discriminatory learning environment within colleges, where students are allowed to express their faith and identity fully. It further asked the government to  ensure that such shocking violations do not recur, and that the students be allowed into the classrooms immediately.

It has also asked the human rights and minority commission to register suo moto complaints against the principals of respective colleges for violating the fundamental rights of the concerned students and initiate actions at the earliest.

Featured image: A hijab-wearing student walks past a worker painting a wall to conceal a pro-hijab slogan written on the wall, outside a college, in Hospet, March 16, 2022. Photo: PTI

This article was first published on The Wire.