Controversy over the headscarf: a matter of uniform or religious majoritarianism?

For a month now, Aliya Assadi and seven other girls have been protesting for their right to attend classes wearing headscarves. Students in the first and second pre-university courses at Government Women’s PU College, Udupi, these girls are demanding the right to practice their religion while attending university.

The headscarf issue dates back a decade, with the first case reported at SVS College, Bantwal in 2009. This time in Udupi, the college cites the rule prohibiting religious practices inside campus, mentioned in the college’s prospectus . The prospectus and the available circular do not mention the term hijab anywhere.

The issue started to surface last year but remained hidden due to the pandemic. The college only had offline classes for two months. Aliya Assadi says they started wearing the headscarf even last year. They were restricted, harassed and kicked out of classrooms but remained silent. They were forbidden to use Urdu, Urdu and Arabic languages, while Tulu and Konkani languages ​​were used by other girls.

Read | The headscarf in the spotlight – once again!

The girls say they wear the headscarf of their own free will without the force of parents or the mosque. They wrap the shawl that comes with the school uniform around their head and shoulders and don’t use any extra pieces of fabric.

There are 970 girls studying in college. Among them, 82 are Muslims. For other Muslim girls who want to follow religious beliefs, focusing on studies without any controversy is a priority. Many of them remove the hijab or burqa before entering campus.

culture and religion

In the state, dress codes are only implemented through SSLC, and there is no government college dress code. Individual college development committees prescribe rules and regulations. It is the same with the Udupi case.

While the principal avoids the media, Yashpal Suvarna, the vice chairman of the college’s development committee, is in charge. A BJP activist and aspiring politician, he is against allowing the hijab as it is religious attire.

“The uniform is introduced to avoid discrimination and to impose discipline among students. They must abide by the rules and regulations put in place by the committee,” he told DH.

When asked if he allowed one type of religion while forbidding the other, he did not apologize. “When Muslim institutions can practice their religion, why not us? he asked, alluding to the unspoken religious practices that have always existed, which says a lot about the majoritarianism prevalent in society at large.

Udupi MLA Raghupathi Bhat, the chairman of the development committee, was a diplomat. “The only fact here is the dress code and the issue surrounding the decorum of fabric and not other accessories,” he said.

BC Nagesh, Minister of Primary and Secondary Education, ruled out the existence of a controversy. The government will set up a committee and decide on the dress code in colleges for the next academic year, he said.

“Someone will want to wear shorts, and someone else will want to wear shawls. Can we allow everything? He asked.

“Let people follow their religion inside homes, why bring it to colleges?” he added. Accusing a “certain community” of being regressive and failing to educate its women, he called the whole incident a plot to derail the education of the girls in question.

The path of reconciliation

Meanwhile, the girls rejected the offer of online lessons. The Udupi wing of the Girls Islamic Organization (GIO), Karnataka, represented the district administration in supporting the position of the girls.

Amid a National Human Rights Commission notice to the state government for undermining the girls’ right to medication, the situation is at an impasse. The state government decided to maintain the status quo; girls will not be admitted to college.

Phaniraj K, a social activist from Udupi, has been observing the problem from the beginning. “The practice of religious rituals like Pujas continues in government organizations even today. As long as it does no harm to anyone, there is no reason to oppose it. The controversy is only due to the increased communitarisation of the right. Even then, there is no public order problem at the moment,” he said.

Everyone’s priority now should be the education of girls. “Don’t hold back women’s education because of an issue that no one else cares about,” he said.

(With contributions from Manjushree GN at Udupi)

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