Cameraperson: Athar Rather
Video editor: Mohd Irshad Alam
There are many things that keep Charanjeet Kaur busy. She is a farmer, an ASHA health worker, and a mother of a growing son who recently began college. Despite her hectic routine, there is an additional task she decided to take on in life — one that elicited surprise and raised eyebrows from many around her. In April this year, the 46-year-old filed a petition in the Supreme Court against the Hijab ban in Karnataka’s educational institutions.
Kaur is a Sikh from Haryana’s Kaithal, the Hijab ban doesn’t affect her—at least not legally; even if the SC upholds the Karnataka High Court’s ban, it is safe to assume that her life would go on as normal. But that isn’t how she looks at it.
“Today, they are attacking Hijabi girls. But I too wear a dastar (turban). I can’t think ‘this won’t effect me.’ All of us women should think that if such a bad thing can happen with the Hijabi girls, it could happen with us too. When there’s fire in someone else’s home, it can spread to our home too,” Kaur tells The Quint.
There are 23 petitioners fighting against the Hijab ban in the SC, with Kaur being the only non-Muslim among them. The apex court finished hearing the arguments on 22 September and has reserved its judgment for now. The arguments, made over the course of 10 days by various petitioners, range from: the Hijab ban impinging on the Hijabi students’ freedom of choice and conscience, while others contend it is against their right to education, and some assert that the Hijab is an essential part of Islam.
For Kaur, however, supporting the Hijabi girls’ access to education and classes didn’t take much pondering and deliberation. For her, it was the most natural decision.
Her Sikh Turban
In 2007, around the time that Kaur began working as an ASHA worker, she grew closer to her faith and participated in the holy ‘Amrit Sanchar’ ceremony — following which, she began wearing the dastar or turban.
“This turban is now an important part of my life. For as long as I live, this will remain with me. We are not forced to take part in the Amrit Sanchar ceremony, this is out of choice. Once you realise the importance of this clothing, you want to wear it all your life,” Kaur says.
Kaur says that ever since she chose to wear the turban, everyone has been respectful of her choice.
“I can wear this turban, no one stops me, no one questions me. If someone stops me, I will take them head on. In fact I won’t even tolerate being questioned over my turban. So why are the Hijabi girls being stopped from wearing the Hijab? People say her wearing the Hijab will affect the unity of society, but how? She is wearing her choice of clothing, minding her business...she isn’t hurting anyone,” says Kaur.
Kaur’s job as an ASHA worker involves going from village to village, raising awareness about vaccines or family planning, among other things. Many of her colleagues wear the ghunghat while at their job.
“Our Hindu sisters cover their heads while working, while going to temples, or they wear sindoor in their hair. But we won’t ever say to them, “What is this that you are wearing? Take it off. Our unity is getting hurt’.”
In Kaur’s view, to associate head coverings with Islam and Muslim women alone is to neglect Indian tradition of women covering their heads—regardless of religion.
Kaur’s petition says, “That associating scarf/hijab with the Muslims only is actually an insult to our centuries old tradition and practice of covering our heads which dates back to before the commencement of Islam.”
She cites the example of Pratibha Patil, former Indian president, who would often take her saree’s loose end over her head. “So who says that covering the head is exclusive to Muslim women?,” she questions.
A Video That Moved Her Into Action
Earlier this year, while casually surfing through the internet, Kaur chanced upon a video that ended up moving her deeply. In that video, a Muslim Hijabi student parks her scooty outside her college, but while on her way in, is intercepted by a crowd of young boys wearing saffron shawls. The boys yell ‘Jai Sri Ram’, and in response, the girl yells back, ‘Allahu Akbar’. The video went on to become viral worldwide, and the girl in question, Muskan, became the poster-image of the protests against the hijab ban in Karnataka.
“I remember watching this video and wishing I was with that girl. Sometimes, some things hit us hard, and make us feel like we can’t stay quiet anymore. This was that moment for me,” Kaur recalls.
At the time, the video ignited a debate over Muskan’s decision to yell back at the crowd of boys, as opposed to staying quiet and moving away. But Kaur says she completely understands why Muskan did so. “She had to do something in her defense. For example, we say, “Bole So Nihal...Sat Sri Akal”. That gives us energy and courage. Similarly for her. Now she didn’t have anyone else with her. So she had to raise a slogan,” says Kaur.
“These people got more irked by that, and yelled ‘Jai Sri Ram, Jai Sri Ram’. We have no issues. You say ‘Jai Sri Ram’ or ‘Allahu Akbar’ or ‘Wahe Guru’. People can say what they want. But to force someone else to say it, that’s not acceptable,” she adds.
Worry For 17-Year-Old Niece Who Wears The Turban
Kaur says her family, particularly her husband, has been of great support to her.
“According to our religion, if there’s any oppression on anyone, we can’t just quietly watch. So we decided to go ahead with the petition. If you want to raise your voice, there will be hinderances and challenges, there will be expenditure. If you don’t want to do anything, then just stay quiet and don’t venture out of your home. But if you care about these things, don’t remain quiet,” says Satnam Singh, Kaur’s husband.
Both husband-wife participated in the farmers’ protests in 2020, and sat at the borders of Delhi on days on end.
“So many farmers from all across the country joined in. If they stayed quiet, everyone would have been at a loss. So all fights require us to speak up,” Singh said.
Singh’s younger brother’s daughter Khushdeep is 17-years-old, is a student in class 12, and wears the turban. Kaur says it would break her heart to see Khushdeep being stopped from entering her classes.
“When I see Hijabi students my age being barred from their schools and colleges, I feel horrible. What if tomorrow this happens with me? This is why I want to speak up for them,” says Khushdeep.
Outside their residence, a pole stands upright, with a line pained on top: “Sabhi Dharm Ka Satkar Kare” (Respect all faiths.)
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