PUCL finds segregation, harassment of Muslim girl students in Karnataka

In its report, PUCL noted that several Muslim students left government institutions and joined private institutions where the hijab was allowed.
Representative image of Hijabi students
Representative image of Hijabi students
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Ten months after the enforcement of a ban on wearing the hijab in educational institutes in Karnataka, the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) on Monday, January 9, released a report highlighting the segregation and harassment of Muslim students in the state in the wake of the ban. In the report titled "Closing the Gates to Education”, PUCL highlighted that due to the imposed ban on headscarves, several students did not write their examinations in the last academic year and transferred from government educational institutions to private institutions where hijab was allowed. 

"What the government of Karnataka has done is not uphold the right to education, but deny it. Many girl students did not appear for their final examinations and transferred to other institutions, prompting a segregation of students based on religion," said Arvind Narrain, president of PUCL, Karnataka, while discussing the report in an online press conference held on Monday. "Many students transferred to minority-run institutions because they felt safer and could continue to wear the hijab. In Udupi, a student said, ‘I feel safer among Muslims now, because nobody came to help us when we were in need’," the report stated.

The report described how educational institutions and the police collectively prevented hijab-wearing students from attending classes. It also touched upon how the media scrutiny in the case affected the lives of Muslim students. "A common testimony from students was that the police were walking in our corridors and taking their photos," said Aishwarya Ravikumar, who was part of the team that worked on the report. "This is an unprecedented situation where the state machinery is actively trying to throw students out of classes and out of education," said Poorna Ravishankar, another member of the PUCL team.

Karnataka hijab protests

In October 2022, the Supreme Court delivered a split verdict while hearing a batch of petitions challenging an order laid down by the Karnataka High Court in March 2022 that effectively barred the wearing of hijab in educational institutions in the state. The High Court case was prompted by a petition filed by students of a government-run pre-university college in Udupi district of Karnataka, which disallowed Muslim girl students from entering the classroom because they were wearing the hijab. 

The dispute in the Udupi college began in December 2021, and made international headlines in January 2022 when Muslim students were photographed outside their classrooms missing classes for wearing the hijab. The Muslim students were backed by the Campus Front of India, the student wing of the Muslim organisation Popular Front of India (PFI) which was later banned in September 2022.

The dispute spread to several parts of the state in the first week of February 2022, when students wearing saffron shawls stood opposed to their hijab wearing classmates. On February 5, the Karnataka government mandated a dress code, banning the wearing of clothes which disturb equality, integrity, and public order in schools and colleges. This government order was challenged, with Muslim girl students arguing in court that wearing the hijab is a part of their faith and that it is their fundamental right to do so. But the Karnataka High Court upheld the state government’s order banning the hijab in schools and colleges.

A full bench of the High Court comprising Chief Justice Ritu Raj Awasthi, Justice Krishna Dixit and Justice JM Khazi had held that wearing of hijab by Muslims was not an essential religious practice of Islam. A larger bench of the Supreme Court will now examine the issue.

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