Update: Hours after the story broke on The Quint, Delhi Public School, Srinagar apologised for “hurting the sentiments of the people”.
In one of Kashmir’s most elite schools, Delhi Public School (DPS) at Athawajan, Srinagar, a female lecturer was given a tough choice: To either take off her abaya and hijab or leave the school.
In Muslim-majority, conservative Kashmir, the abaya (a traditional long gown worn with the hijab) has always been a first preference for women. In the holy month of Ramadan, women in the valley of unease have come under severe criticism for wearing the abaya.
The incident evoked widespread anger across the state among Muslims.
Chairman Backs Principal’s Ultimatum
The 29-year-old teacher, who doesn’t wish to be named, was wearing an abaya that covered her entire body and a hijab that covered her head. Only her face was exposed.
She was intimidated by the in-charge of the school and was told that wearing an abaya was not allowed in the institution. Either she would have to discontinue teaching or enter the institution only when she wasn’t wearing an abaya.
The teacher, speaking exclusively to The Quint, said:
There is no contract with any terms and conditions explained which was given to me. I only submitted a joining report when I joined the school as a biology lecturer. The principal was absent for two months. After she came to school, she passed a message to me that I should not wear abaya. She categorically told me that Islamic dress is not allowed in the school premises.
“Later the Chairman of the school, DP Dhar, also told me that I should not wear it inside the school. When I refused, I was told that I have to leave the job.”
“I have already taught in different schools while wearing an abaya, but it was never a problem. I even used to wear it in 2003 in college, Kashmir University. I have done my Masters in Biology but till date, no one has asked me about my dress code,” she added.
Surprisingly, the principal even told me that ‘I appreciate your dress but it is not allowed here.’ Whether I am in the school or not, this should not happen. I even told them that had I been covering my face, I would have understood the problem, but I do not cover my face.
Cue Political Backlash
Top politicians including separatist women’s leader Asiya Andrabi, Shehnaz Ganai and Sakina Itoo all wear the hijab. Some wear the abaya as well. Also, thousands of young Kashmiri girls who attend schools and universities wear the abaya in the Muslim majority state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Kashmir’s most influential female politician, People’s Democratic Party (PDP) president and first female Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti, who wears an abaya, had earlier told a local newspaper that, “wearing of abaya is my personal choice.”
The government on Saturday said that it will inquire into the “serious” issue of banning of abaya by Delhi Public School, Athwajan on its campus, saying that “it cannot be done in the state”.
It (disallowing a teacher to wear abaya) is a serious issue. We will go into the truth of the issue and raise it with the management of the school.Naeem Akhtar, government spokesman and Minister for Education to the Assembly
“We live in a multi-religious, secular country. This is not France. Least of all, it cannot be done in the state,” Akhtar added. “We believe the management is sensitive to the issues here.” He added.
Despite repeated attempts to call DPS’ official landline numbers, we received no response.
9/11 Fostered Intolerance Against Symbols of Muslim Identity
Post 9/11, there has been an international focus on the Muslim community across the world. Muslims have grown more conscious of their identity. There is a notion across the world that the Muslim identity is violent.
“Any violence that happens anywhere in the world by any Muslim extremist is being linked to the Muslim identity. That is why non-Muslim cultures have grown intolerant about any Muslim identity markers like the beard, hijab or anything else,” says a political analyst who requested anonymity.
As far as Kashmir is concerned, a Muslim majority state given the historical and cultural settings of Jammu and Kashmir, people here are even more sensitive about their identity. So whenever any secular or liberal institution wants to enforce a standard code of dress, such things crop up.
“We have thousands of schools here and no school has a particular dress code since it is a Muslim majority region. Even government schools follow a kind of Muslim dress code for girls,” he added.
School in Disarray
Students from all classes gathered in the school sports ground and then the indoor stadium to protest against the school administration for banning the abaya.
“The students protested the school behaviour and demanded an apology from the administration,” a student said, “However, principal madam told us that she did nothing on her own.”
Students were supposed to attend classes which they refused.
Even ninth and tenth class students boycotted their exams.
The management of Srinagar apologised five hours after the story broke.