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Hijab Ban: One Year On, Muslim Students In Karnataka Continue Their Fight For Education

On International Women’s Day, many Muslim students are awaiting a decision by the Supreme Court in response to a plea seeking permission to sit for exams that are beginning on March 9 (from tomorrow), while wearing hijab. 

Students protesting the Hijab ban. (Representative image)
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17-year-old Safa has stopped going to college following the turmoil around the Hijab ban in Karnataka that kicked started a massive political row last year. Now, on the advice of her parents, she prefers to stay at home and continue with her studies.

Safa was one of the students who was asked to remove her hijab before entering her college in Yelahanka in Bengaluru after the Karnataka High Court upheld an order issued by the state on February 5, 2022, which suggested that wearing hijabs can be restricted by the government colleges where uniforms are prescribed and ruled that “prescription of a school uniform” is a “reasonable restriction” that is “constitutionally permissible”.

Safa will soon start pursuing a correspondence (distance) course in BBA from home because she did not want to give up on her education. Neither did she want to remove her hijab before entering college. In fact, thousands of such Muslim girls across the state were robbed of their access to education and a sizable number of women were even unable to appear for their examinations, a report by People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) Karnataka revealed. 

On International Women’s Day, many such Muslim students are awaiting a decision by the Supreme Court in response to a plea seeking permission to sit for exams that are beginning on March 9 (from tomorrow), while wearing the hijab. 

Students forced to drop out

The fact-finding report by PUCL, which was released in September 2022, notes that while there is little to no official data regarding the number of students who were particularly impacted by the aforementioned sequence of events, the government stated that the total dropouts of hijab-wearing girls stand at 1,010 because of the hijab ban (or other reasons as well).

One such student, Gowsiya, tells Outlook that she was forcefully asked to drop out of her college, Mangalore University. “We stood outside our class demanding that we should be let in. The teachers shooed us away from there. We then stood outside the library but we were locked out from there as well. Eventually, they locked us out of the campus,” she said.

Although the HC upheld the ban in February, it was only in the middle of the academic year in June last year, when she received a WhatsApp message saying that students must not wear the headscarf on campus. “This happened only when 150 students out of the 1,500 in our college, protested against girls wearing hijab,” she said, claiming that the 150 were from the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) group.

The fact-finding report also noted multiple times that the Karnataka High Court has not issued a directive to enforce a ban on hijab at all. However, their findings revealed that a blanket ban was enforced almost immediately. 

“While the orders of the High Court were limited to prohibiting students from wearing the hijab inside classes of PU colleges only where there was a uniform policy in place, the government departments ensured that the limits on the same were exceeded. The mostly defunct CDCs of both PU and non-PU colleges sprang to life (as was the case in Udupi and Mangalore) to enforce a No-Hijab policy,” the report said.

Gowsiya says that she took admission in the college on the condition that the prospectus rules allowed them to wear hijab. “Only because a section of students sent a letter to the administration saying that they had a problem with hijab, they banned it. What about the 500-odd letters we sent asking them for an alternative option?” she asked. 

Moreover, college authorities treated hijab-wearing Muslim students with disrespect and contempt, alleging that they were breaking the law if they refused to take off their hijab, the report added.

Hum aapko chaaku se maar denge (we will kill you with a knife),” is what Gowdesiya and her friends had to hear. “Humne kya kiya? Hum sirf apne haq ke liye ladd rahe hai (What did we do? We are just fighting for our rights),” she asked, followed by a sad chuckle. 

While she managed to seek a transfer in her admission to a college that allows her to wear a hijab, she was too late. “I had to drop a year because I had no option. I finally found a college that gives my combination course and I will join in a few days,” she said.

Although Safa and Gowsiya dropped out of their college, other Muslim students decided to remove their hijab and continue their education. “My parents said my safety and my education - both are a priority. So they asked me to remove my hijab,” a student told Outlook on the condition of anonymity. “Accha nahi lag raha hai (Not feeling good),” she added. 

It became a routine, she said, to remove her hijab every morning. “I was writing exams for the second PUC and I thought I would be relieved of doing this once I start pursuing my degree in college. I thought I would only have to do this for a few more days…,” she narrated her ordeal. But then, she was asked to remove her hijab in college too.

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Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai had earlier clarified that the Karnataka HC order did not apply to degree colleges. But in reality, many students were barred from entering these colleges while wearing hijab. 

According to a report by The NewsMinute, First Grade College in Kavoor (Mangaluru), Government Engineering College in Raichur, Saraladevi College in Ballari, Uppinangady Degree College in Dakshina Kannada district, Siddheshwar Degree College in Gadag district and Field Marshal KM Cariappa College in Kodagu were among the other colleges that had stopped students from entering the college for wearing hijab.

“They told us that we are misusing the hijab by wearing it and entering the college. That is the excuse they gave,” the student told Outlook.

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Delay in Supreme Court hearings 

Activists and lawyers say that the delay in Supreme Court hearings would cause distress to Muslim students.

While an appeal was immediately filed against the ban that was upheld by the Karnataka High Court in February 2022, the case was not heard until September 5. The lawyers appearing for the petitioners had then too cited the urgency of the situation considering that their exams were to begin soon.

But it was only in October, last year, that the two-judge bench delivered a split verdict in the case. Justice Hemant Gupta upheld the ban, stating that the Rights to Religion, Privacy, Dignity and Liberty could be reasonably restricted to maintain discipline and unity in secular schools and the state was not curbing any students’ Right to Education. 

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Justice Sudhanshu Dhulia held that the ban was unconstitutional. Focussing on the plight of girl children in educational institutions, he stated that the ban would hinder their access to secular education and violate their Right to Equality by imposing an additional burden on them. The onus was then on the Chief Justice of India to assign the case to a 3-judge bench so that fresh hearings can take place. 

In February this year again, a group of girl students from Karnataka approached the Supreme Court for an urgent hearing on their plea, seeking permission to sit for exams that are beginning on March 9, while wearing hijab. However, the Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud said that he will list the case after the Holi vacation which ends on March 17.

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"What can I do if you come on the last day?", CJI asked the lawyer. The lawyer then replied that the matter was mentioned on earlier occasions.

“Such kind of procedural delay is taxing students. For many of them, removing their hijab is like undressing themselves. They are also citizens of the state, the government should not play with their lives,” said Dr Asma Zehra Tayeba, President of All India Muslim Women Association (AIMWA) and member of All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB). 

While students anxiously wait for the next court hearing, Karnataka School Education Minister B C Nagesh has already announced that students wearing the hijab would not be allowed to appear for the second pre-university course (PUC) examinations that are scheduled to begin on March 9.

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"We have made it clear that all students should come to the examination centres in uniforms. Hijab is not a part of the uniform. Hence, those who wear a hijab will not be allowed to appear for the exams," he said while talking to reporters in Bengaluru.

However, students, their parents, activists and lawyers hope for a positive outcome and an urgent listing of the case. “Many students dropped out after facing harassment and humiliation in exam centres last year. They need to be provided with remedial measures and counselling,” said Aishwarya, a member of the PUCL K, who was part of the study team that visited Hassan town, a village in rural Hassan district, Mangalore city, Ullal, Hoode, Udupi town, and Raichur town for the study.

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She added that even if the court rules in the favour of the petitioners, they must also allow the students to take extra examinations to overcome the loss of time. 

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