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(This was first published on 25 January. It has been republished from The Quint's archives in light of the National Human Rights Commission's notice to Karnataka government.)
For eight teenage girls in Karnataka’s Udupi district, the first 20 days of the new year have been marred by a public ordeal, emotional upheaval, and intense scrutiny. They have been subjected to what they describe as “mental harassment” at the hands of their school authorities.
They have gone from being ordinary students with a usual routine to now sitting on the staircase outside their classrooms – they are barred from going in. The reason? The piece of cloth on their heads, or the hijab.
The girls, who are students at the Government PU College For Girls, are all between the ages of 16 and 19.
Their photographs protesting outside their classrooms have gone viral, but they say few have tried to understand their anguish.
Speaking to The Quint on a zoom call, two such students at the university, AH Almas, 18, and Aliya Assadi, 17, detailed their ordeal.
“We are practising Muslims, and the hijab is a part of our faith. Along with that, we are also students with aspirations for a career and a good life. Why are we suddenly expected to choose between our identity and our education? That isn’t fair at all,” Aliya said.
On 31 December 2021, when the students went to their respective classes, they were told by their teachers to "remove the hijab or leave the classroom."
While the girls weren't expecting the brazenness, they weren't entirely shocked either.
"When we joined the university last year and tried wearing the hijab, we were told that we can't because our parents signed a written agreement during our admission, which said we won't wear the hijab in the university."AH Almas
The classes subsequently went offline, through the various rounds of lockdown, but when the physical classes resumed in December 2021, they said they decided to wear the hijab again. "We went back and checked. There's no such official rule in the university nor did our parents agree to any such arbitrary policy. So we decided to wear the hijab anyway," Almas added.
Days after the girls were prohibited from entering the classroom with their hijabs, the college authorities held a meeting with the parents of the students, which was chaired by chairman of the college's development committee and BJP MLA of Udupi, K Raghupati Bhat. Students were informed after the meeting that the school will stick to its decision of no hijab in classrooms.
SAFFRON SCARVES AS PROTEST AGAINST HIJAB
The girls now allege that they are being forced to apologise to the college authorities. "We are being threatened to take back our protest and apologise," Almas said.
The college principal, Rudre Gowda, did not respond to The Quint's calls or messages till the time of publishing this report. BJP MLA Raghupati had earlier told Mangalorean that the girls aren't being allowed to wear the hijab for the purpose of uniformity.
"Today, few students have asked to allow to wear the hijab inside the classroom, tomorrow some more students will ask permission to wear the saffron shawl, jeans, or sleeveless dress," he is quoted as saying.
Soon after the Udupi issue captured eyeballs, a group of students of a government-run-university in Chikmagalur held protests against students wearing the hijab, by spotting saffron scarves on their necks. Another such protest was held at Pompei College in Mangaluru, with students wearing saffron scarves. Some among them were from the ABVP.
But the Udupi girls insist that they are not asking for any special treatment. "The school holds pujas and other religious rituals regularly. And if other students want to wear their religious symbols, we have no objection to that," Aliya said.
'THIS IS HURTING OUR EDUCATION'
The students say that the 20 days away from their classrooms is costing them their education – and their attendance. "Our attendance is falling... we are missing out on important lessons. We have our exams in a few months. We are very nervous about what will happen then," Almas said.
She added that some of the hijab-wearing students protesting against the university have begun falling sick, the upheaval taking a toll on their bodies.
Given how the university has also been adamant on their stance so far, the students don't have too many options left. "We either give up our I and enter the classroom, or continue fighting for our fundamental rights. We choose the latter. We aren't giving up," Aliya added.