Government Pre-University College, Kundapur in Udupi district was calm on Tuesday, 8 February. As classes were being held, principal B G Ramakrishna stayed most of the day in a quiet staffroom with about a dozen teachers. All seemed fine, except that 27 out of 28 Muslim women students of the college were missing from classes.
The only Muslim woman student attending classes was not wearing a hijab.
In six of Kundapur’s colleges, all located within a radius of two kilometers, most Muslim women were absent on Tuesday. Moreever, they did not even attempt to protest, fearing backlash.
Meaning, the ‘saffron-shawl’ protests, where Hindu students were seen in saffron scarves to protest hijab-wearing in Karnataka’s educational institutions, have yielded a sinister result – denial of education to Muslim women who want to wear a headscarf.
“Today, we were sure that we will not be allowed inside. How long can we stay outside the college gate?” asked Tehrin Begum, an 18-year-old student. On 8 February, Begum and her younger cousin – Ayesha Shaheen – remained in Kandloor village, about 12 kilometers away from their college in Kundapur.
Except for MGM college, where male students in saffron scarves raised Jai Sri Ram slogans, Udupi remained largely calm, on account of the missing Muslim women and their forced silence. Meanwhile, elsewhere in Karnataka, campuses remained tense as saffron scarves surfaced in government and private educational institutions in Shimoga, Davangere, and Raichur. Over the last week, such protests were already held in Hassan, Mandya, and Chikkamagaluru.
Who Are the Muslim Women Denied Education?
Tehrin Begum said that she had joined the Government PU College in Kundapur with much hope. “Other people from my family had good opinion about the college. Even my mother had studied there. At the time, there was no ban on hijab,” she told The Quint.
The 18-year-old hails from a daily-wage worker’s family. Her father is a mason.
When asked why she opted for a government college, the student said sheepishly, “We had some financial troubles. Expenditure on education is less in a government college.”
Shaheen said that her father does odd jobs for daily wages. She wants to do her Masters in Business Administration.
“We were suddenly asked to leave,” Begum said, as she thought of 1 February, the day the college management handpicked Muslim women out of their classes to segregate them in a closed room. The students were then asked to get their parents to the college. The students said that their parents were forced to choose between education and hijab.
“Hijab is our fundamental right. Education is also our right.” Begum said.
But getting an education has not been easy for the two.
The Struggle to Study in Hijab
Over 150 kilometers away from Udupi district, in Government First Grade College, Shimoga a bunch of students, presumably Hindu, in saffron scarves hoisted a saffron flag on their campus. When Begum and Shaheen heard the news, they were reading intently the proceedings in Karnataka High Court, Bengaluru where a writ was filed challenging the ban on hijab.
The previous week, Karnataka government had asked college managements to stick to the uniform guidelines of College Development Committees.
Clothes which disrupt “public order” should not be worn on campuses, and students should strictly stick to uniform, the order had stated. Begum and Shaheen said that for the past 29 years, Muslim women have been wearing hijab to their college. The Government PU College Kundapur was established 1971.
For the two women, going to college has always been a struggle. “From our homes, we have to walk over one kilometre to reach the main road. From there we travel for half an hour to reach the college,” Begum said. The women were carrying their book-bags even on a day when they abstained from going to the college. A habit? They smiled, without answering.
After they were ousted, over 20 Muslim women of the college had tried to continue their education by holding negotiations with the government authorities.
'Strict Instructions From Government'
“One of the district administrators, Deputy Director of Public Instruction (DDPI) told us point blank that we will have to remove the veil if we want to study. We asked him whether he would deny education to his own children,” Begum said.
When The Quint asked principal BG Ramakrishna, he said, “We have strict instructions from the government not to allow students in hijab into the college.”
However, on 7 February, the girls were allowed into the campus. They were given a separate room to sit. “We were not taught anything. None of the teachers came to us,” Shaheen rued.
What affected the women the most, however, was the hate campaign to silence the protest.
Effort to Subjugate Using Hate
As the women sat outside their campus for five days at a stretch, local media outlets ran stories to defame them, they allege. “Despite coming from a poor background they accused us of being affluent because one student from Udupi approached the court with a writ. They asked how we could afford a lawyer, even though we had not approached the court directly,” Begum said.
When the girls sat on the road in front of the college in protest, they were accused of having ‘pulav,’ a kind of biryani.
“We were not even allowed to go to washrooms inside the campus. When someone gave us some food, we had a few mouthfuls,” said Shaheen, who has been bearing the brunt of the hate campaign. The women have been disallowed from entering their college since 2 February.
On Tuesday, MGM College of Kundapur erupted into protests as students turned up wearing saffron scarves and turbans.
Do the Muslim women fear the changing academic atmosphere? “We are not scared. But we are just 18. Aren’t we allowed to be scared?” Shaheen said. In her class, she was the only Muslim woman student.
Karnataka government, on Tuesday, declared a three day holiday for all colleges in the state.
If the saffron mobilisation continues even after colleges reopen, will the Muslim students stay away? “We have no problem if they wear saffron shawls. We are not staying away because they are wearing the scarf. Just allow us to wear the hijab, that’s all that we are demanding,” Begum said.
Though desperate, they hold on to hope. Remembering some Hindu women friends, Ayesha Shaheen said, “Some of them shared their notes with me. They said they will pray for my safety. They said they will pray for the realisation of my right to wear the hijab.”
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