(This was first published on 21 February 2022. It has been republished from The Quint's archives in light of the Karnataka HC upholding the hijab ban.)
The big fuss around a piece of cloth – the hijab – could come at the cost of education. As the chaos around Karnataka's hijab row lingers, experts are concerned about the impact it could have on the education of Muslim girl students.
As the Karnataka High Court upheld the the hijab ban on Tuesday, 15 Fenruary, we take a look at the data around the education of Muslim women in India. How has it changed in the past 16 years – since the Sachar Committee recommendations to address the issues of the minority community?
Muslim Women's Education Lagging Behind Other Groups, But Steadily Moving Ahead
In 2001, with a literacy rate of 43 percent in rural areas and 63 percent in urban areas, Muslim women were lagging behind most religious and caste groups barring the SC/ST communities.
At an all-India level, the literacy percentage of the Muslim population was at 59.1 percent, while the overall literacy rate worked out to be 64.8 percent, according to the Sachar Committee report.
The committee, formed in 2005 by the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to study the social, economic, and educational condition of Muslims in India, had noted in its report:
"In this dismal scenario there is one big ray of hope; while the education system appears to have given up on Muslim girls, the girls themselves have not given up on education."
Over the past years, there have been several government surveys that shed some light on what kind of improvements were seen in the literacy percentage, the enrolment percentage, and the Gross Attendance Ratio (GAR) among Muslim women.
The 2011 Census data showed that the literacy rate among Muslims was still lower than the national average. For Muslim women, the literacy rate was at 50.1 percent, as compared to 53.2 percent for Hindu women and 76.2 percent for Christian women.
But in the consecutive years, the enrolment of Muslim students in higher education has increased as the All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) reports show. Between 2010-11 and 2017-18, Muslims students' enrolment in higher education increased by 37 percent.
An analysis in The Print showed that the percentage rise in enrolment of Muslim women in higher education in the same period was 47 percent, while overall figure for all categories rose by 24 percent.
However, Muslim minority students constituted a mere 5 percent of the total enrolment.
The 75th round of the National Sample Survey (NSS) that was released in 2020 indicated that the percentage of literates among Muslim women continued to lag behind other religious groups. It was at 68.8 percent for Muslim women, as compared to 70.0 percent for Hindu women, and 82.2 percent for Christians.
The Gross Attendance Ratio (GAR), which indicates the number of students attending a given level of education at any time during the reference academic year, was at 70.6 percent for Muslim women at the secondary education level and 47.6 at higher secondary level.
Systemic Marginalisation at Play
But all such data on the state of Muslim women's literacy need to be viewed in the larger context, Srinagar-based journalist Tooba Towfiq told The Quint.
"When we look at data points on Muslim women’s education in India, it can't be a comment on Muslims as a community because everything points to how systemically underprivileged they are. Be it their economic conditions or the ghettoisation of Muslims – it is a systemic marginalisation that the community faces."Tooba Towfiq, Opinions editor for Kashmir Observer
"Therefore, any data that points towards the 'backwardness' of Muslims, may in fact, not be something that is the outcome of something that is inherently wrong with the community or their beliefs," she added.
The Post Sachar Evaluation Committee headed by Professor Amitabh Kundu, which was set up in 2013, also pointed at the bottlenecks that remained in government initiatives for the Muslim community.
Noting the development deficit in the community, the Kundu committee report had observed that "not much attention has been given for strengthening community institutions, particularly of women, youth, working for poor minority communities."
"Government interventions have not been big enough to make a dent due to the large number of the marginalised... the design and implementation structures of the programmes have often not targeted the minority settlements and people directly and effectively," it said.
Hijab or Education Choice a 'Double-Edged Sword'
The reason why the available data on Muslim women's literacy holds special relevance at such a time is because refusing hijab-wearing Muslim girls entry into classrooms of several PU colleges of Karnataka is adding to the socio-political marginalisation of the community.
An analysis of the 75th NSS report on The Indian Express said that in the state of Karnataka where unrest over the hijab continues, the GAR of Muslim women in higher education rose from a low 1.1 per cent in 2007-08 to 15.8 per cent in 2017-18.
But as the protests continue for weeks at a stretch, social media is rife with debates on how the issue around the hijab can counter the strides that have been made in the last decades to improve the status of Muslim women.
While some have refused to lend support to what they see as a patriarchal imposition on women's clothing, others point out that denying the hijab might deny the right to education for many Muslim women.
Towfiq calls it "a double-edged sword".
"As an educated Muslim woman, if I’m asked to take off my hijab to get education, I’m going to deny that because this is a conscious, critical dress choice I have made. And, if I’m going to be coerced to take it off, then I might as well not take the education. Why must I? It’s a double-edged sword. Of course I am aware that there is some amount of patriarchy at play that is why some women may not want to wear the hijab. But that is not even the debate, the big issue is that you’re not being allowed into an educational institution because you’re wearing a hijab."Tooba Towfiq, Opinions Editor for Kashmir Observer
Hijab Row Can Cost Muslim and Non-Muslim Women 'A Cohesive Learning Space'
Will the hijab row result in dropouts of Muslim girls?
Sabah Khan, Co-Founder of Parcham, a non-profit organisation, said, “My experience is that many Muslim girls find colleges a means of getting out of the ghetto and surveillance. Often times they are the only Muslims in their class. Many have experienced discrimination in these colleges from friends and faculty (not only because of the hijab). Yet, they soldier on, making friendships with people who were initially terrified of them."
"The move to ban hijab might push them into Muslim management colleges where the hijab might be welcomed which will be unfortunate. Unfortunate for the Muslim girls and unfortunate for the non-Muslims who too will have lost on an opportunity to get to know and build relationships with Muslims.”Sabah Khan, Co-Founder of Parcham
The ongoing row can also cost girls from both Muslim and non-Muslim communities a "cohesive learning environment of mixed religions and castes," Priya Parande from Oxfam India told The Quint.
“With the religious polarisation over the hijab, the right to education of Muslim girls is being ignored, which is harmful to the development of girls and society overall. How can girls be able to decide for themselves if they are not allowed to learn in a safe environment in schools and colleges with mixed religious students? They should be able to experience the world outside of the family's religious context, which can only be accomplished through education. No one should be discriminated based on their clothing for education," she said.