Women’s bodies are the battleground where political agendas are explored and social values are determined. Various colleges in Karnataka are currently denying entry to female students in Hijabs in response to “Saffron Shawl” protests by male Hindu students. Our leaders say religion has no place in education, but why is that limited to just one religion?
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
In an odd twist of fate, I had the unforseen opportunity to attend graduate school in a small district in Jammu and Kashmir. I wasn’t the “right” age for college at the time, I had been working a while and I hadn’t precedented that life could lead me out of a ‘metro-and-parliament‘ city. The college I attended is small, located in a district between Jammu and Kashmir where the population is largely Hindu, Sikh and Muslim, and most people are either transients or residential blue-collar workers. On my first day in class, I was surprised to learn that I had to wear a uniform: white shirts, black trousers. There were some official exceptions, of course, such as a salwaar-kameez option for those who didn’t want to wear trousers and a different colour of salwaar-kameez for married women. There were some unofficial exceptions as well. If you were Muslim, you could wear a hijab or a burqa over your uniform. If you were a Sikh woman, you could cover your head with a dupatta. If you were a Hindu woman who had just married, you could wear a chooda, in fact, in this case you could even wear dressy-suits that didn’t conform to any of the uniform guidelines for a month or two.
The unofficial exceptions were largely part of a constitutional freedom that we all apply on a daily basis without knowing it: The right to religious freedom. They weren’t part of the official (and deeply unnecessary) charter of uniform guidelines because whether you are a student, or not, you have constitutional rights as a citizen of this country that cannot be undermined. It doesn’t need to be said that you can practise your religion. While, personally, I have a lot of issues with the dress-codes of colleges as a concept, especially because they ubiquitously take more charge of women’s bodies than they do men’s, I thought the uniform guidelines of my college were reasonable. A component of rules with a side of sensibility, and a dash of awareness of the social context, seemed like an acceptable proposition even with the underlying issue of sexism. Theoretically, this worked for me, but in practice, something strange happened one day.
I had a classmate who wore a hijab and a burqa. She wasn’t the only Muslim student in our class, but she was the only one who wore a hijab. One day, during class, one of the teachers started demanding that she take off her hijab. Her reasoning was that she needed to make sure that the person on the ID card was the same person who was attending the classes, but a conveniently missed detail was that no one ever checked our ID cards anyway. The student protested, and asked the teacher whether she could do it in private, not in front of the entire class, but the teacher was adamant that all her classmates had the right to see her head. Ultimately, the student relented. Later, when speaking of the incident she expressed her desire to file a complaint, alongside fearful resistance that she would be singled-out if she did. Despite all of us offering to stand by her, she opted not to file a complaint.
I was horrified.
A lot of my horror has to do with privilege, I’ve been insulated from certain spaces in my life by virtue of my upbringing, and my classmates explained as much when they told me this kind of discrimination wasn’t a “big deal” and it happened all the time. They shared stories of being denied rental accomodation, threats by neighbours against Muslim-presenting women to stop wearing a hijab and warnings to Muslim students living in Paying Guest (PG) accomodations to “stay away” from the children of the landlords. Ultimately, the right to freedom of religion is a very nice thing in theory. We’re seeing a live-example of that play out in Karnataka right now.
After seven women in a college in Udipi district, Karnataka, were denied entry earlier this month, several other colleges have followed suit. Most recently, Government Pre-University College in Kundapur closed the gates on the faces of 27-female students for wearing a hijab. Kundapur MLA, Halady Srinivas Shetty, has spoken to the Education Minister B.C. Magesh and attempted to convinced the parents to allow the girls to attend class without a hijab without any resolution. Prior to this act, the students claim they have worn hijabs to college regularly for years and it has never been a problem. On Wednesday, prior to the gates being closed to these students, a group of male Hindu students staged a “Saffron Shawl” protest in deliberate violation of the dress-code to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the allowance of hijabs on campus.
Once again, India has made it clear, whether it is the politics of oppression or suppression, they will be played out on women’s bodies. The issue at hand has been phrased as one of uniforms and educational decorum, with authorities claiming that a violation of the uniform-code cannot be excused for members of one community and not the other. Based on my experience with college dress codes, exceptions are continuously made for members of all communities. Women are allowed to wear Chooda and Mangalsutras. Men are allowed to wear turbans. Not just Muslim, but Hindu, and Sikh women are allowed to cover their heads too. The false equivocation between saffron shawls and hijabs is a misdirection, they are not the same thing, one is an option and the other is part of the practice of a faith, to ban things at an equivalency would be to ban Kasi Tadu, or Mangalasutras, but those are symbols we cannot even discuss as possible forces of oppression without worrying about hurting religious sentiments.
The role of women, in Indian society, it would appear is to be both the victims of oppressive forces and the defenders of them. At home we must explain why our legs are not offensive, and at school we must defend the right to freely practise our religions, and on the internet we must explain how ghoonghats and hijabs are not the same thing, and how the non-consensual enforcement of either, can be oppressive. This issue is not one of uniforms, it is one of seeing just how far majoritarian sentiment can go to bully members of one faith into compliance to demonstrate that they can, and because women are often the representatives of faith in terms of attire, the attack is targetted at us, but it is an attack on religious freedom, underneath it all.
The Karnataka Home Minister, Aragav Dnyanendra, has said, “Schools are where children belonging to all religions should learn together. Schools and colleges are for education, not religion.”
This is an interesting take, especially since it is completely false. My stepson’s school has a mandir right at the entrance, all students are encouraged to pay their tribute to Goddess Saraswati as they enter. All students are made to sing Hindu prayers each morning. That was also the case when I was in school. We were taken to field trips to temples for Holi and Janmashtami, but never to a Chruch for Christmas. My Christian College had a lot of Christian ritual built into the campus culture but even they started their events with an aarti. Textbooks, especially those of “moral sciences” teach religiosity as a virtue. So it is rather convenient, and misleading, that now, when Muslim students insist on their right to practise their religion, all of a sudden, religion has no place in schools.
I actually agree. Religion does have no place in schools, but it is rather short-sighted to think banning religious symbols is the answer to that, when fostering inclusivity, a thing we did entirely by accident for decades, is more likely to make religion a non-issue in the day-to-day functioning of life. I’ve been a student. I was never bothered by my friend’s hijab or my other friend’s turban. It wasn’t my place nor did it impede my ability to focus on my education, what did impede my ability, and the ability of my classmates to focus, was when one of us, just one, was called out for their religious practise and ostracised. At that point, it was clear it wasn’t about education, but communal intolerance.
Is that what we’re teaching?