Karnataka: A year of living with the Hijab ban

They’ve had to change courses, colleges, even cities, or just drop out… Karnataka’s Muslim girl students recount what the sudden ban took away from them

Karnataka: A year of living with the Hijab ban

Naheed Ataulla

CPI(M) legislator John Brittas said in the Rajya Sabha that an estimated 100,000 Muslim students have had to drop out of educational institutions in Karnataka after the hijab ban. To some that will sound like a deliberate overstatement for dramatic effect. But far from being an exaggeration, the ban has done far worse: apart for the dropouts, the ban has traumatised Muslim students and polarised college campuses.

The Karnataka government informed the state assembly in September last year that only around a thousand students had dropped out following the ban on hijab. But whatever be the actual number, it’s a fact that the education of a large number of Muslim girls has been disrupted.

Gowsiya should have graduated by now from the University of Mangalore. But thanks to the loss of two years due to the pandemic and the hijab controversy last year, the three-year undergraduate course has already stretched to five years. The B.Sc. (honours) distinction student of physics, chemistry and mathematics needs to complete another semester of six months.

She is not alone though. The state government’s sudden order banning head scarves inside the college campus and classrooms disrupted the education of many. “I was in the sixth semester, the final year, when authorities asked me to leave if I continued to wear the hijab inside the classroom. I sought a transfer to Besant college, affiliated to Mangalore University, but as it was mid-session for the college, I was asked to return in March 2023,’’ she confided.

Pointing out that losing an academic year is harder for the girls, she recalls that she has used the break to teach and also took up assignments for bridal make-up and applying mehndi. She also took up tailoring as part-time to earn what she could.

In a report titled ‘Closing the Gates to Education: Violations of Rights of Muslim Women Students in Karnataka’ released in January, People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) documented the trauma of the students and examined the role of college authorities, the administration and the police.

“It was traumatic for the students. They had, a stroke, lost out on their education and support of friends and teachers they had long trusted. They found themselves isolated during the crisis, and wished more Indian citizens had stood up for their dignity and fundamental right,” the PUCL report stated.

The PUCL team collected testimonies from students from Hassan, Dakshina Kannada, Udupi, Raichur and Shivamogga districts of the state. The report established that the students were unfairly denied their right to education besides finding themselves at the receiving end of a climate of hate, hostility and misinformation.

Besides, a report in the Indian Express in January this year also confirmed that there has been a significant shift of Muslim students from government colleges to private pre-university colleges (PUCs) in Udupi district, which was the hotbed of the hijab protests in 2022. In 2022-23, the enrolment of Muslim students in government PUCs dropped by half, including that of Muslim boys (from 210 to 95), while Muslim girls’ enrolment dropped from 178 to 91 in PUCs in 2022-23. There has been a simultaneous offsetting of this drop by the increase in enrolment in private PUCs, it added.

Recalling the nightmare Gowsiya remembers, “At one point we agreed to remove the hijab and cover our heads with shawls (dupattas), which was of the same colour as our uniform, but even this was not allowed. I along with my friends then sat on the veranda and listened to the lectures; but we were asked to leave as we were accused of distracting the other students. Later, we shifted to the library but were thrown out from there as well. After that we moved out of the campus, but police would not allow us to sit at the gate.”

Students like Zubeida (name changed) chose to leave Mangaluru. Along with 10 other students Zubeida, a student of Sri Dharmasthala Manjunatheshwara (SDM) college run by Dharmadhikari of Kshetra Dharmasthala and Rajya Sabha MP D. Veerendra Heggade migrated to the minority-run Al-Ameen college in Bengaluru.

“The SDM college authorities kept us in suspense till the last minute; The exam timetable of the LLB was already out but our transfer certificates were not released. Our teachers took an undertaking that we would appear only for an internal examination. When we secured admission at Al-Ameen, we had to appear for 10 papers in the 10th semester, five from the ninth semester,” Zubeida recalled.

“I took an apartment on rent and shared it with four of my friends. I completed my LLB in December 2022. I am doing hifz-e-Quran (memorisation of the Quran), which I will complete by Ramzan. Thereafter I want to start practising law,’’ Zubeida said.

Fathima Shazma, a first-year B.A. student of journalism was also asked to leave the University of Mangalore college, when she refused to remove the hijab. Now a student in Besant College, she too had to start afresh. Others like Ayesha Afra were forced to switch courses because their new colleges did not have the streams or because the fees were steep.

Afra, a student of B.Sc (chemistry, biology and zoology) was in the third semester when the Hijab controversy broke out.

“Initially the college allowed us to cover our heads with our dupatta. But some classmates, among them my friends, complained and we were asked to leave. I have enrolled in a college which allows hijab and abaya and have started afresh by opting for engineering in biotechnology. I lost two years, while some of my friends who could not afford the fees have discontinued education,’’ Afra said.

There have also been students who decided to comply with the controversial rule because they ran out of options. Zaleka Filha says, “I had no option as I was in the fourth semester of microbiology when the controversy started. We met Congress MLA U.T. Khader who spoke to the Dakshina Kannada deputy commissioner. The DC said the vice chancellor was against any relaxation of the ban. I now remove the hijab in the classroom.’’

Elyas Muhammed Thumbe, national general secretary, SDPI, the political arm of the banned People’s Front of India, feels the hijab ban will be an electoral issue in the coastal belt during assembly elections in May.

“We are waiting for the Supreme Court’s ruling on the appeal challenging the earlier split verdict,’’ he added.

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