Muslim girls walk tight rope between education and religion as Mangalore University now cites high court order to ban hijab

Ashraf, a fruit seller in Uppinangady in the Mangaluru region of Karnataka, is a worried father. His daughter is currently pursuing a bachelor of arts (BA) degree in the Government First Grade College, Uppinangady and she is caught in the quagmire of the hijab controversy.

Following a week of suspension, his daughter has now returned to the class after tendering an apology letter to the principal for insisting on attending classes wearing her customary hijab.

Nearly 13 other students, out of the 24 girls who were suspended last week for attending classes wearing the hijab, have returned to campus.

“I am really afraid to send my daughter to school due to the communal issues that have suddenly gripped the educational institutions,” says Ashraf, who has five daughters.

Using the cover of a March 15, 2022, order of the Karnataka High Court — which ruled that the wearing of the hijab is not an essential religious practice in Islam and that the freedom of religion is subject to reasonable restrictions — the Mangalore University syndicate decision on May 14 that hijabs which were being worn to the degree classes by Muslim girls should be banned in colleges affiliated to it where uniforms have been prescribed by the college development council.

The syndicate’s decision came after students from Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the right-wing student union associated with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Karnataka, protested against the use of hijab in classes by Muslim girls and warned that they would wear saffron shawls if the Muslim girls were allowed to wear it.

When colleges opened last month for the new academic year, Muslim girls at the Government First Grade College in Uppinangady and the University College in Mangaluru — both affiliated with the Mangalore University — were told that the rules had changed from the previous academic year on wearing hijabs and that they cannot attend class wearing the hijab due to the high court order (now under challenge in the Supreme Court).

Over the past few weeks, dozens of Muslim girls, who were shocked by the change of rules at the two colleges have either stayed away from classes or insisted on attending classes wearing the hijab resulting in their suspension. While 24 out of 101 Muslim girls were suspended at the Uppinangady college, nearly 16 of the 44 Muslim girls at the University College in Mangaluru are considering education options at places where the wearing of a hijab is not a hindrance.

The management of the colleges and civil action groups are now working to convince Muslim families to send their girls to the colleges where they have been admitted and are also making efforts to work out compromises that do not cost the girls their education.

“We are now making attempts to ensure that the classes they have lost are compensated by organising remedial classes. In case they fall short of attendance, we will try our best to upgrade their attendance,” said Shekar MB, the principal of the Uppinangady government college.

“Going ahead, if the girls in Uppinangady are adamant about wearing hijab, we might see at least a 10 per cent drop in admissions in the coming year,” he said.

According to the principal of the Uppinangady college, around 24 girls were suspended after a meeting with the college management on June 4 when they attended classes wearing the hijab. But two weeks later, the situation seemed to have eased out after repeated efforts by the management to reach out to the students and their to convince them about the uniform rules.

To Sanjeeva Matandoor, the BJP MLA of Puttur and the chairman of the Uppinangady Development Council, the college is trying to convince the parents of Muslim girls about the uniform rules to ensure the girls are not influenced by other radical forces. “Every teacher is given a responsibility to reach out to the parents in a weekly parent-teacher meeting program. They make them understand college discipline, academic importance, and also the guidelines of the new education policy, among others. Following the protest by certain ABVP-backed students, we convinced them that the high court order and the CDC order on the uniform matter will be strictly enforced,” the BJP MLA said.

File photo of BJP MLA of Puttur Sanjeeva Matandoor (second from left) with BJP President JP Nadda (centre)

A member of the Citizens Forum Group in Uppinangady said that efforts were on to convince the girls to get back to college and resume their education. “As members of the Citizens Forum, we have convinced the girls to attend class without the hijab and to respect the high court order. But there are other groups who brainwash these girls and belittle our efforts. We as a community are also requesting the college to at least allow the girls to wear the hijab on the campus on moral grounds,” said a member of the group, who did not wish to be named.

A majority of the 24 girls who were suspended for wearing the hijab in the classroom at the Uppinangady college have now returned to class by tendering an apology letter to the principal stating that they would comply with the college uniform rules.

“We are not happy about the ban of hijab in classes because we were used to wearing them before the High Court order. We would rather sit at home than follow the rules,” said one of the girls who returned after her suspension. The girls who returned after suspension wear the hijab on the campus but not in the classrooms as dictated by the government college.

Meanwhile, at the University College of Mangalore, the Muslim girls who see the new uniform rules prescribed by the university to be an impediment to pursue an education while being respectful to their religious beliefs are applying for transfer certificates (TC) to seek admission in another college where the hijab is allowed.

“I have just got two months to finish my course but I am contemplating the option to finish it in a different education institution. If the college allowed me to wear the hijab for the last two years, then why did they suddenly ban it? We all enrolled in this college looking at the prospectus which allowed us to wear the uniform shawl as a headscarf. Now I feel I may not be able to complete my education which is leaving my career hanging in uncertainty,” said a final year B Sc student.

According to a professor in the college, the members of the university’s syndicate decided at a meeting last week to remove a clause from the college prospectus which allowed girls to wear uniform shawls as a head scarf.

“The University College has been adhering to uniform rules for many years now. However, after the high court order, the prospectus relating to the uniform rules of the college confused the students. Hence it was decided that the clause should be excluded. However, as of today, out of the 17 girls who boycotted classes, most have returned barring five to six students who are thinking of applying for a transfer or yet to decide,” said the professor.

The vice-chancellor of the Mangalore University, Subrahmanya Yadapadithaya, said Muslim girls seeking to leave the colleges — where a no hijab rule is being enforced on the back of the March 15 Karnataka High Court order, the right-wing protests, and the syndicate Decisions — are being facilitated in the transfer process.

“Some girls have approached the principal for transfers. We have promised to facilitate the process. But the girls are also expecting us to find a college which we strictly cannot do. We are even ready to take extra classes an hour early and an hour later as per the college timings to compensate for the learning loss they suffered after boycotting the classes,” the Mangalore University VC said.

“I even counseled five girls in the presence of members of the Campus Front of India (the pro-Muslim student union) and two of them are contemplating leaving while the others have agreed to follow the rules.” There is indeed a breakthrough with many students returning to class after they realised that education is more integral to their growth,” Yadapadithaya said.

According to the BJP MLA for the Mangaluru city south constituency, Vedavyas Kamath, who is also the president of the college development council at the University College, the ruling BJP has played no role in the imposition of a hijab ban in government colleges with uniforms in the communally polarized coastal Karnataka region.

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“This is not the handiwork of the BJP or any organisation. The college administration is following the rules. The hijab issue will not give the BJP an electoral advantage. As a representative of the constituency, I was also involved in the syndicate meeting to ensure that the high court order was implemented. Going ahead, whichever college comes under the purview of the High Court order and where uniform is compulsory, we will ensure the students fall in line with the uniform guidelines,” the BJP MLA said.

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