The battle of bigots over the burqa in Mangaluru

Both Hindu and Muslim bigots have decided what women should or should not do.
The battle of bigots over the burqa in Mangaluru
The battle of bigots over the burqa in Mangaluru
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Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series on the recent uproar in Mangaluru over a Muslim student wearing a head scarf to college. Read the second story here: From within and without, what Muslim women in Mangaluru think about the burqa

Zoya* inhabits two worlds at once. In one, she is expected to look and behave like a “proper” Muslim woman who covers her hair, and in the other, she’s herself and does what she wants.

Born and brought up in Mangaluru, when the city was still really a village in disguise, the 29-year-old now finds herself in an almost unrecognisable cultural landscape, one in which both Hindus and Muslims fight over how much women – both Hindu and Muslim – should wear and what they should or shouldn’t do.

Zoya herself never wore a scarf until after Class 7, when she moved to Saudi Arabia and had to wear an abaya (burqa here). When she returned to Mangaluru to obtain a degree, she chose not wear the scarf. “I was lucky to have parents who supported me no matter what I did. I don’t think any other girl’s parents would have allowed her to live by herself in Bengaluru for three years for her work.”

Now married, Zoya works in Mangaluru but lives in a small town just across the border in Kerala. It is rare for her to step out of her house without covering her head. She does get to go out without covering her head, but that story is to follow.

In the time that has passed since she was a kid, the choice had been made for her. It was made not even by her own family, but by people and developments totally unconnected with her life.

Introducing the bigots

Campus Front of India (CFI), the student wing of the Popular Front of India (PFI), staged protests on Saturday after Srinivas College of Pharmacy refused to allow first year students from wearing head scarves to class. Both male and female members of the CFI protested, arguing that the female students’ religious rights were being infringed by the college.

A few days later, male students of a government college in Bellare (Sullia taluk) wore saffron shawls to “protest” against a college lecturer and some students who wore head scarves to college. 

“What connection do the events in Mangaluru’s Srinivas college have with the college in Sullia?” asks Muneer Katipalla, the Mangaluru-based state president of the DYFI. The two colleges are 77 km apart, a distance which takes one-and-a-half hours to cover by bus. “Had an atmosphere for this not been created systematically over decades, both events would have been laughable. The question to ask is: Who benefits by this?”

For answers, he says, one needs to look back at events that began in the wake of the Babri Masjid demolition. Suratkal, a small town about 20km from Mangaluru, witnessed fierce violence which claimed over a dozen lives. 

“The RSS used any and every development outside the region to create a communal atmosphere here. The Babri Masjid demolition, then the Eidgah Mosque incident in Hubballi, and later the Baba Budangiri agitation, to polarise people here in coastal Karnataka,” Muneer says. More recently, it is cow-politics and moral policing. 

“This created a sense of fear among Muslims, eventually making it possible for fundamentalist organizations such as the KFD – which later morphed into the PFI – to be born here. The PFI then began to use the marginalised Muslims to further its own ends,” Muneer says. 

All this occurred against the backdrop of a large number of Muslims from coastal Karnataka working in West Asian countries, says Mohammed Irshad, a Mangaluru-based journalist and documentary filmmaker. “These men returned with ideas of Wahhabi Islam, which is very different from the Sufi-influenced religious and social culture of the Bearys,” he says.

The Bearys are the predominant Muslim community of coastal Karnataka, and are unique in their cultural traditions. The language they speak, also called Beary, is shared by some Hindu castes such as the Thiyyas. However, many Hindus are now switching to Tulu.

The influence of older Muslim groups, such as the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind or Salafi oufits, which espouse varying degrees of conservative thought, had always been marginal until the PFI came onto the scene, Irshad says. 

“The PFI used the insecurities created by the RSS to create a foothold for itself among Muslims. Until the PFI came along, groups such as the Jamat-e-Islami Hind and Salafis never had any takers among the majority of Sunni Muslims, most of whom never gave a damn about religion. That’s how the seeds of this sort of conservatism were sown,” Irshad explains. 

Because of this, many young men now go about lecturing how a Muslim should live his or her life, and rules they should follow, or how to do namaz on a train, he adds.

The recent uproar over the head scarf is a clear example of how religion is being used by both Hindu and Muslim bigots to further their own ends, Muneer says. Had either the CFI or the ABVP really cared for students’ welfare, they would have spoken up about issues that affect many students, especially the commercialization of education. 

“If anyone thinks that either ABVP or CFI are bothered about student rights they’re foolish. Both ABVP and CFI are equally bigoted. ABVP talks about Kashmir and CFI shouts about the scarf. If the CFI was really bothered about students, they could campaign against commercialization of education, a good chunk of which has been created by Muslim-managed institutions. If they really care about education for Muslim girls, let them campaign for women to be able to work after they get an education,” Muneer says.

In hindsight, the shallowness of student politics on campus in coastal Karnataka is evident.

In 2005, when we were pursuing our degree, my friends and I heard that two of our friends had been roughed up by a bunch of goons at a cyber cafe. They had gone there to get printouts for an assignment. Our Muslim friend had been targeted by the Hindu moral police, because he was with “their” girl. This was three years before the pub attack that made Mangaluru infamous. 

Back then, none of us knew what to do even though we were angry. Everyone knew that this had happened, but we were supposed to pretend that it didn’t. Ironically, the whole college had been shut down for a week a year before that, over a semester system that Mangalore University had newly introduced. The joint strike by many city colleges got the university to postpone it by a year.

Today, both, the Hindu and Muslim moral police continue to keep a creepy eye over girls of “their” communities. Neither has a problem if a girl from another community marries into their own. 

(*Name changed to protect privacy)

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