As another end-term exams approach, 18-year-old Aliya Assadi is nervous about what may unfold in the coming days. Assadi, a final-year school girl from Karnataka’s coastal district of Udupi was among the six girls who sparked the legal battle for the right to wear hijab in public schools.
“I do not want to be heartbroken to see girls being turned away from exam halls for wearing hijab,” Assadi lamented. News about the ordeal of Muslim girls having a tough year due to the hijab ban in educational institutions makes her feel “guilty.”
“So many dreams were destroyed. I fill up in tears when I hear about them.”
The furor that began in January last year from Assadi’s school in Udupi soon escalated to other places. Students in support of Hindu nationalist ideology heckled Muslim students wearing saffron shawls in several cities in Karnataka. To quell unrest, schools were shut for days, and a curfew was imposed in some districts.
In reaction to the tensions, on 5 February 2022, the Karnataka government issued an order that said the dress code prescribed by the College Development Committee or the administrative supervisory committee must be followed.
“If the administration does not fix a dress code, clothes that do not threaten equality, unity, and public order must be worn,” said the order.
Assadi and other Muslim girls filed a petition asking to repeal the government’s directions backfired.
On 10 February 2022, the Karnataka High Court passed an interim order saying that no student should insist on wearing “religious clothes” until the court decides the matter — legalising the state-wide ban for the first time.
The order said, “all students, regardless of their faith from wearing saffron shawls, scarfs, hijab, religious flags or the like within the classroom.”
Following the interim order, schools and educational institutions across the southern state banned students and staffers from entering the campus wearing hijab.
The ban immediately triggered global outrage. While condemning the ban, Rashad Hussain, the US ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom, urged Karnataka state to “not determine the permissibility of religious clothing.”
On 15 March 2022, the High Court upheld the ban.
This would end all the effort put in by Afreen (name changed on request) during her first year in Pre-University College. The 17-year-old now repeats first-year PUC in a college not “academically” reputed as her previous one.
“My non-Muslim friends sometimes tell me how they wish we were together. But most of them have moved on. But I am still haunted,” Afreen says, rewinding the hostilities she had to face in February last year.
“It will not leave me,” she said to Maktoob.
This would end the dreams of thousands of Muslim girls who were reluctant to remove the headscarf. The ban imposed weeks before the exam compelled many to drop out.
Per the state government’s own admission, 1,010 students have dropped out of college, possibly because of the prohibition of the hijab. But activists believe the number may be higher.
On 13 October 2022, The Supreme Court delivered a split verdict on the hijab ban. The matter has now been referred to the Chief Justice of India for the constitution of a larger bench.
“Miss my student life”
Assadi believes that standing one’s ground for “freedom of choice” has wrecked her “normal life.” No private schools, even run by Muslim management, gave Assadi and her friends admission considering the “risk.”
“Media called us terrorists, and nobody must have wanted us to be in their school,” Assadi said.
A recent report on the hijab ban by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties Karnataka chapter, Closing the Gates to Education: Violations of Rights of Muslim women students, says a TV channel alleged “a possible connection of the hijab issue with terrorist organisations like ISIS.”
The PUCL report argues that the Karnataka Government has an inalienable constitutional responsibility to respond to the continuing violations of the fundamental rights of young Muslim women.
Threatened for their safety, Assadi was forced to file a criminal complaint against the cameraman and reporter of the Kannada channel Suvarna news for entering their house without consent.
“The atrocious coverage of the issue on television news left the students, and the entire community feeling violated,” the PUCL report stated.
Assadi now attends private tuition to write the exam in April.
A student of commerce, she will be writing the exam she missed last year after she was turned back from the school gates last year.
Last month, the Chief Justice of India, DY Chandrachud, agreed to consider the hijab matter for urgent listing, saying that interim directions are required to permit Muslim girl students to appear for exams conducted only in Government colleges.
Assadi is hoping for something “positive.”
“There is a certain time in one’s life you forget about society. I just stopped thinking about how people must be judging me. I want to have my student life. Get away from all these media and everything. But deep down, we are still haunted by what society says,” Assadi said.
“My parents are patient and tell me this will pass. But I am impatient. My dreams are ruined, but I want to be something. Something good enough,” Assadi added.
Critics of Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist regime argue that the hijab ban is a step that tries to erase the Muslimness of the religious minority in the country. Very few Muslims donning hijab make it into the public spheres of India, plagued with Hindu nationalist imaginations.
“How the ban was imposed, and the justification given by the court shows how the system belittles the dignity of Muslim women in the country,” points out Aysha Renna, leader of the student outfit Fraternity Movement of India.
“They try to project it as secular values. But if those values are not inclusive to Muslims, it is Islamophobic values,” Renna, who met the Muslim girls in Karnataka last year as part of a national delegation, said.
Supreme Court judge Justice Dhulia, who opinionated to revoke the ban on the hijab, in his verdict says, “By asking the girls to take off their hijab before they enter the school gates, is first an invasion on their privacy, then it is an attack on their dignity, and then ultimately, it is a denial to them of secular education. These are clearly violative of Article 19(1)(a), Article 21, and Article 25(1) of the Constitution of India.”
“The issue reaches far beyond the right of a woman student to cover her head in a public space. It touches upon the most basic question of democracy as a form of what Ambedkar called ‘combined and associated living,’ namely the importance of respecting individuals not as a means to an end but as ends in themselves.” PUCL report reads.