IN JUNE this year, President Nicolas Sarkozy denounced the burka, the traditional women’s garment that Muslim women adopt to cover themselves from head to toe, calling it “a sign of subservience” which “would not be welcome in the French Republic.” Unmindful of protests from Muslims worldwide, the French National Assembly instituted a commission of inquiry the very next day to decide if women should be allowed to wear the burka publicly in France.
More than 8,000 kilometres away, across continents and countries, Muslim women in Karnataka’s Dakshina Kannada district have already been handed such a diktat. Women wearing burkas — or even headscarves for that matter —will not be allowed into college classrooms and campuses in the region, state the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a students’ organisation and the youth wing of the Bajrang Dal. Both the ABVP and the Bajrang Dal are affiliated with the BJP, which is in power in the state. Though there is no legal backing for the ban, the decree has been enforced by government and government- aided colleges in the region. Since March 2009, the ban has applied universally to students and lecturers and has been aggressively enforced across colleges. Those daring to disobey have been suspended, asked to leave college and threatened with physical violence.
Says Aysha Ashmin, an 18-year-old student from Bantwal in Dakshina Kannada district, “Initially, Muslim women were asked to remove their burkas before entering class rooms. A month later, this was extended slightly – no burkas in college campuses they said. So women hurriedly changed out of these either at the gate or in the ladies room as soon as we entered colleges. Now, they are asking us to remove our head scarves before entering classrooms.” This is a stricture that Aysha experienced first hand. Within days of enrolling in the BCom course at the Sri Venkataramana Swamy Degree College in Bantwal, Aysha stopped wearing her burka in classrooms. Her classmates insisted she do so, saying it would only single her out for attention since Muslim students wearing the burka were rare on campus. It didn’t take much persuasion, as she wanted to fit in and make friends in her new college. In any case, she told herself, she had her headscarf on. A few weeks later, the newly elected president of the college student’s union began targeting Aysha for wearing the headscarf. “The president and some other union members would follow me everywhere and ridicule me for wearing a headscarf. They claimed my headscarf was unnecessarily escalating tensions within the college, that if I insisted on wearing it, they would be forced to wear saffron shawls. When the jibes turned into physical attacks, I asked them to hand me the saffron shawl – I would wear that and my scarf,” said Aysha.
Days later, Aysha was summoned by the principal and asked to stop wearing the headscarf. With Aysha was Azramma, the only other Muslim student who wore one on campus. When both students refused to remove their scarves citing religious beliefs and personal discomfort within the slightly hostile coeducational environment, they were asked to return the next day with their parents. In the meeting on August 7, the girls and their parents were bluntly told that if they refused to comply with the ban, they would be suspended and subsequently removed from college. While Azramma acquiesced, Aysha did not relent. Her father, Mahmood P was shocked at the rude behaviour of the lecturers who asked his daughter to either chose religion or education, arguing that here was no space for both on campus. “My daughter was told that nobody would look at her even if she removed her scarf since there were far more beautiful girls on campus! And this was the least vulgar thing they said. Along with the principal, there were senior lecturers and heads of departments present at the meeting. Even though I asked them to give me the reason for suspension in writing, they turned us away,” says an exasperated Mahmood. Aysha’s suspension has meant a loss of the Rs 7,000 her family has paid as annual fees. Besides, if her appeals to Mangalore University’s Vice- Chancellor fail, she is likely to lose an academic year. “Admissions have closed everywhere but I will continue to fight. Education is my right, just as practising my faith is,” says a determined Aysha.
There are several others who do not share Aysha’s ample courage. A lecturer at the same college, Mumtaz, chose to leave after having worked for 15 days. Afraid even to reveal her last name, Mumtaz was accosted by a fellow lecturer for wearing the headscarf. “He asked me, ‘If we insist on following our religious practices within educational institutions, what would happen if Digambar Jains decided to do the same and turn up naked?’ We were apparently guilty of violating the social order,” says Mumtaz. A resignation letter she wrote spelling out these reasons was refused by the college management.
When TEHELKA contacted Seetaram Mayya, the college principal, all he would admit to was pressure from various Hindutva organisations to enforce the ban against headscarves. Though there were no names of organizations or people forthcoming, Mayya admitted to the presence of members from these organisations within the college as well.