It's our right to wear hijab, don't bar us from class: Udupi students speak up

The girls are urging the college management to allow them to return to the classrooms, while reiterating their right to wear the hijab.
udupi students on staircase
udupi students on staircase
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For the last three weeks, eight students from a government pre-university college for girls in Udupi district of Karnataka have been barred from entering their classroom for wearing the hijab or headscarf. In this time, the incident has created a furore on social media drawing news reporters and police cars to the front of the inconspicuous Women’s Government Pre-University College in Udupi.

The students at the centre of the incident say that they will continue to reiterate their right to wear the hijab, and insist that it is a part of their faith. They once again urged the management at the college to allow them to return to their classrooms wearing the hijab.

The students, who are studying in commerce and science streams in classes 11 and 12, say they have not attended classes since December 27 as per the directions of the college principal Rudre Gowda. They have been marked absent even though they have gone to the college in this period. 

There are around 70 Muslim girls studying in the college; the ones insisting that they should be allowed to wear the hijab say that their stand is a matter of individual choice. "It is up to the other girls if they want to wear it," says the student.

Asked why the students were insisting on wearing the hijab in a girls’ college, she says, "There are a lot of teachers who are male in this college and there are a lot of people from the outside who come into the campus for programmes."

Women's Government Pre-University College, Udupi

‘Hindu festivals are celebrated in college, but headscarves are banned?’ 

The students say that they began wearing the hijab in college in December 2021, after they realised that there was no particular rule banning the hijab in the college rulebook. "Initially, when we joined the college, we thought that our parents had signed a form which had barred the hijab, but though there is a form, there was no mention of the hijab in it. So, our parents met the college authorities thrice and requested them. But there was no response and so, we decided to wear the hijab in school. This was in December (2021)," says one of the students.

She also says that her seniors used to wear the hijab in the classroom. A photograph shared with TNM from the 2020-21 academic year indicated that hijab was previously worn by students inside the classroom. This claim was refuted by the college authorities who say that no student in the college’s 37-year history has worn the hijab in the classroom.

The other argument put forward by the students is that the college has celebrated Hindu festivals in the past year and has not restricted any Hindu religious symbols like the bindi. “Why is there a restriction only on Muslims wearing the headscarf?” asks the student.

The college has been a hub of fervent political activities over the past year. In October 2021, a few Muslim students of the same college were pictured with a Campus Front of India banner. The photograph was taken after the Muslim students attended a protest by the ABVP. A message along with the photograph shared widely on social media read, "These students had participated in a protest without knowing that it is a protest by the ABVP. After Campus Front of India leaders counselled them today, they joined the Campus Front of India of their own volition." 

The students recalled that they were counselled by the Campus Front of India members. Some of the students from the October incident are among the ones now insisting their right to wear the hijab in the classroom. "We approached the CFI (over the hijab issue) after talks between parents and the college authorities did not lead anywhere," says the student.

Over the last three weeks, several rounds of talks between the girls' parents and the college authorities have failed to resolve the issue. "We were forced to write apology letters to the college administration because the issue became public," the student says. There has been a police presence in the college ever since the issue became public.

The college authorities including principal Rudre Gowda were unavailable for comment. Earlier, speaking to TNM, principal Rudre Gowda had said that the college was not allowing the wearing of hijab only during class hours and inside the classroom. He also stated that he decided to ban the hijab for 'uniformity'.

Muslim student orgs back girls

The students, with the support of Muslim student organisations Campus Front of India (CFI) and Students Islamic Organisation (SIO), approached the Udupi Deputy Commissioner Kurma Rao over the issue on December 30, but say that no action was taken over their appeal. "We are supporting the girls throughout this issue and we want them to be allowed to wear the hijab in their classrooms," Nazhat Assadi of the Campus Front of India in Udupi says. The students say they approached the Muslim organisations after talks between their parents and the school authorities were fruitless.

The CFI is affiliated to the Popular Front of India while the SIO is the students' wing of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind.

But since the issue in the school snowballed into a controversy, opinions have been divided among SIO and CFI members over finding a resolution. "We want to diplomatically resolve the issue in the college. We are planning to go to the pre-university department with a delegation of people from Muslim organisations. We don't agree with the language used by CFI to resolve this issue and we are hoping to continue the dialogue to resolve it," says Afwan Hoode. 

The CFI has been more vocal in backing the girls and have been involved in discussions with the principal about allowing the girls to attend classes wearing the hijab and have raised this issue in social media and in the media. SIO members say they did not want this issue blown out of proportion and are working to resolve it internally. 

The lawyers' group All India Lawyers' Association for Justice (AILAJ) has also written to the department of pre-university education in Bengaluru about the issue and termed the targeting of the students' religious identity as Islamophobic. "The denial of education to the young Muslim students and forcing them to choose between getting an education and their faith, is a human rights issue and must be treated as such," the letter by AILAJ signed by advocate Clifton D'Rozario reads.

Is the hijab breaking the dress code?

There is no particular dress code mandated by the Karnataka government in its state-run colleges; decisions over the enforcement of dress codes are left to college authorities or their development monitoring committees. Karnataka Education Minister BC Nagesh says that the development monitoring committees will be allowed to take the final call on the clothing to be worn by students during classes. 

The college development monitoring committee in this case is headed by BJP's Udupi MLA Raghupathi Bhat. Speaking to TNM on the issue, he says, “We wrote to the pre-university department asking if uniforms are compulsory for college students. We reiterated that the college has had a uniform since it was started in 1985 and they want to stick to it. If the uniform is made compulsory, then there will be no scope for wearing the hijab along with it.”

Education Minister BC Nagesh meanwhile says, "We have discussed this with the state government but there is no law mandating a dress code in government colleges. We have not taken a decision on this.”

However, activists point out that the students in this case were in fact wearing the college uniform. "They are wearing the uniform. It is not as if they are breaking the dress code set by the college by wearing the headscarf along with the uniform," Maitreyi Krishnan, an advocate in Bengaluru and a co-convenor of AILAJ says. 

‘A matter of rights’

Theatre practitioner and educator Nisha Abdulla, based in Bengaluru, points out that the decision to bar the students is not up to a college authority's individual opinion, but is a question of the girls’ constitutional rights. "The first thing that occurred to me is that the girls are missing out on school. It is a violation of their constitutional right to faith (Article 25) as well as their right to education (Article 21-A). There is also the need to consider that they are minors and this is a child rights violation," she says. 

“What is the need to separate one's faith when we have always framed the secular identity as one that is accepting of all faiths?” she asks, “This is a community that  has been at the receiving end of violence in recent years. Why must the community also have to deal with constant unconstitutional rights violations? This is not a college principal's individual opinion but the girls’ constitutional right to faith and their right to education.”

The students say that they simply want to return to their classes and continue their education, especially with examinations looming. "To keep up with classes, we are asking our classmates for notes and trying hard to prepare ourselves for the examinations. We want to go back to the classroom and put this behind us," says the student.

The saffron scarf protests

In response to the standoff in Udupi, protests were held in two other colleges in Chikkamagaluru and Dakshina Kannada districts, where students from the Akhila Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) wore saffron scarves inside the college. Authorities in both institutes moved to bar saffron scarves as well as hijabs in response to the protests. 

Students wear saffron scarves in protest in a government college in Balagadi, Chikkamagaluru

But the students of Women’s Government Pre-University College, Udupi say that the counter-protests have little to do with the situation in their college. “If the saffron scarf is compulsory for the religion, let them wear it. In our culture, we have to wear the hijab,” one of the students says.

Journalist and feminist critic Nisha Susan, who launched the Pink Chaddi campaign in 2009 to respond to Sri Rama Sene's attack on pub-going women, is equally stout in her defence of Muslim women's right to define their own modesty. As somebody who has followed the attacks on Muslim women in times of Hindutva, she tells TNM, “About a decade ago, there was a wider campaign in the same region to prevent girls wearing hijab from attending colleges. So there is a historical context to this and it's not isolated. The question to ask is why is the hijab such a big threat that the girls are being kept away from classrooms for three weeks? What is the supposed neutral look from which this is looking like a dangerous aberration?".

The controversy over wearing the hijab in coastal Karnataka is not new. Over the years, several protests have been reported in colleges in Udupi and Mangaluru over the same issue. Protests were reported in SVS College in Bantwal in 2009, Dr. Shivaram Karanth government college, Bellare, in 2016, Srinivas college in 2016, and St. Agnes college in 2018. In the college in Bellare, there was a protest by its students wearing saffron shawls demanding a ban on hijabs on the college campus.

The issue is also the subject of a decades-long feud in France where the French Senate moved to ban women under the age of 18 from wearing the hijab in public in 2021. Hijab is an Arabic word referring to a barrier or a partition. It refers to the principle of modesty among Muslims. A common form of hijab is the head covering that many Muslim women wear. Though these modesty rules are open to a wide range of interpretations, Muslim women are usually asked to observe the hijab in front of any man they could theoretically marry.

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