“My Clothes, My Choice”

Voices behind the Veil

Fatima Khan

When 18-year-old A H Almas was stopped from entering her classroom along with five other students in late December last year, she didn’t think that she would find herself running from pillar to post several months later to regain access to her classes.

“We never thought this issue would drag so much. Giving us permission to wear the hijab was in our principal’s hands. If he had allowed us at the beginning itself, this issue wouldn’t have become so huge,” said Almas.

In these seven months, not only have the number of hijabi girls barred from entering their classes swollen from six to many thousands, the victims of Karnataka government’s hijab ban in educational institutions have also faced several death threats and have found their closest friends turn against them. Teachers too haven’t been spared, with many having to choose between either removing their hijab before taking their classes or quitting their jobs.

What started as a ban in one college quickly snowballed into a series of colleges across Karnataka barring hijab-clad students from entering. Hijabi students took to the streets to protest against this ban, but were soon countered by protests by saffron-shawl wearing students—many from the right-wing student body, Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP).

On 5 February 2022, the Karnataka government issued an order banning the Hijab in government educational institutions, saying that ‘clothes which disturb equality, integrity and public law and order should not be worn.’ On 15 March 2022, the Karnataka High Court upheld the state government’s ban on hijab in government educational institutions–pushing the future of several Muslim girls into further jeopardy.

“If our Hindu brothers and sisters can sit inside the classroom and study, why can’t we? Because of just hijab? What exactly is everyone’s problem with our hijab? Do we carry any weapons inside our hijab? We just want to wear the hijab and study with respect and dignity,” said Shaheen, a student in Karnataka’s Shivamogga.

Since she was a little girl, Hiba Sheik has known she wants to be a police officer. In 7th grade, she began preparing for the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) examination. “There are so many crimes that happen against women, no one does anything about them. I want to become a police officer and change that,” she said.

In March 2022, Hiba stepped into a police station for the first time—not as a police officer, but as a 19-year-old filing a complaint against boys from her own college. In a video that subsequently went viral, Hiba and other hijabi students can be seen being accosted by some boys from the right-wing student body, the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). Hiba can be seen fighting back.

“I questioned him, why did you ask me to go out of the college? Who are you to tell me? He started arguing with me, harassing me, and pushing me. I kept questioning him–who are you to ask me to go out of college? No one was helping us, even police were helping the boys and telling us to go away,” Hiba recalled.

But just days after Hiba filed the FIR, to her shock; an FIR was in turn registered against her for “causing tensions on campus.”

But that isn’t it. The hate and harassment that many of these girls face online is far more pervasive.

Hiba said she gets threatening messages on Instagram and Facebook—some by anonymous accounts, but many by her college seniors.

“I get messages saying that they will kill me and my parents will never get my body,” Hiba said.

Since the hijab ban has been implemented, many girls have been looking for alternatives—either online education or private colleges where no such rule is to be adhered to. However, a vast section of those affected cannot afford anything but governmental educational institutions.

Ayesha, a 19-year-old in Mangaluru, is the daughter of an auto-rikshaw driver.

“I have a desire to study, get a good job. When the hijab issue came, my family got scared. They began saying, ‘whatever you have studied is enough.’ But I have a desire to study further,” she said.

Her mother, Kulusu, said that as much as she and her husband want to support Ayesha’s decision to study further—they are hard-pressed by their circumstances.

“I have three daughters. My husband is a rickshaw driver. Because it is difficult to rent a place, we stay as a joint family in one house. We sent our children to a government school since paying fees for a private school is difficult for us. My wish is that she studies in a government college. But on the hijab issue, I am scared what will happen. We don’t have enough money to send her to a private college,” she said.

In April 2022, the Karnataka government officially extended the hijab ban to teachers as well. But even before that, many colleges had begun asking hijabi teachers to not enter the educational institutions with their hijab. Visuals of hijabi teachers taking off their hijab outside their collleges went viral.

But Chandni, a teacher in Karna-taka’s Tumkur, refused to comply.

“On 16 February, I went to the college to engage my classes. Principal Sir asked to meet me in his office. I went there. He told me that he has received some letter from authorities that from that day itself, teachers as well as students will not be allowed to wear hijab, which is a religious attire. I asked him if this is only confined to students. But he said that ‘this has been discussed in some meetings and even teachers can’t wear the hijab’. I was shocked,” Chandni recalled.

But she was not okay with such a dictum, so she resigned that very day.

“It’s very hard for a woman to strip herself on the road for education. Look, it’s completely nonsense to ask someone to choose between their livelihood and their religion, or between their education and their religion,” she said.

“People say we are a backward community and then they should help us to become developed. They shouldn’t push us back again, because of a piece of cloth,” she added.

After knocking on many doors, Aliya and Almas decided to file a petition against the hijab ban in the Karnataka High Court. While they returned disappointed from there too, but the struggle only made their friendship stronger.

But the friendships within the classroom have taken a real toll.

When asked if any of their non-Muslim classmates reached out to them for support, most of the hijabi girls replied in the negative.

“No, there are no such friends. They did reach out…but only to say, ‘What is the use of doing all this? You are wasting your life.’ They are just giving lectures. No real support,” said Almas.

Aliya said that many of her classmates even refused to share class notes with them, as they continue to miss classes.

Afra recalled how her classmates didn’t want her to enter the class to take her books after the controversy erupted.

“They were like ‘don’t enter the class…no. Principal will yell at us.’ They didn’t let us enter. ‘Go outside, we will give you.’ That really hurt,” she said.

Many girls also witnessed their classmates and former friends participate in the saffron shawl protests against the hijab. “Many of those outside my college wearing the saffron shawls and protesting shouting ‘Jai Sri Ram’ were my classmates. They used to be like my brothers and sisters. But today, it doesn’t even feel like we ever spoke to them,” said Shaheen.

“The government has actually ideated this…that they shouldn’t wear the hijab. But many of my friends are Muslims. Whatever ideas the government takes up, it will be for the good of India itself. Everything is advancing, so sometimes I guess you will have to give up your religion stuff,” said Srima, an 18-year-old student in Udupi.

But it isn’t just Hindus and Muslims who have drifted away from each other. The controversy has even created a rift among Muslim students.

While many hijabi students have stopped attending their classes due to the hijab ban, many others have decided to give up the hijab to enter the classrooms.

“In the beginning, everyone was together, supporting. We will not enter the classroom without hijab. Now due to the exam pressure, more than half of the girls gave up on hijab and sat inside the class,” said Afra.

Another student, Afsheen, said she has had a fight with her hijabi friends who have given up the hijab to enter the classes.

“They asked me…no, they told me that ‘you also come with us. It’s only for some days or some months. We will just remove and after that you can wear.’ So I told them, don’t do this. We fought also. We had that conversation. At last, I gave up. I said you go, but I will not remove my hijab,” said Afsheen.

“We had 200 hijabi girls (in my college) on first day. Then later on, slowly, the number decreased. When the verdict came, we were 50. And now I guess we are not more than 15. The rest have all entered the classes without the hijab,” she added.

Many colleges have made arrangements for hijabi students to take off their hijab in a room right at the entrance, and then they can attend their classes without the hijab.

“They didn’t even recognise me without the hijab, I felt very uncomfortable,” she said.

Many of the hijab-wearing girls who are now barred from entering their colleges excel at academics. But they are also a pool of talents and interests beyond that.

Both Aliya and Almas, the lead petitioners in the case against the hijab ban, are trained karate players.
“I didn’t go to national level. But she (Aliya) went. She was so tiny. Her pictures were shown on the banner when she went to national level. We were so proud,” said Almas.

Aliya is also a keen wildlife photographer and has an instagram page dedicated to her clicks.

Meanwhile Almas aspires to become a pilot—but before she flies a plane, she has learnt how to ride everything on the ground: a car, a bike, a scooty.

Hiba has won several awards for her singing and can sing in 5 different languages—Hindi, English, Kannada, Malayalam, and Korean.

Shaheen wants to become a volleyball player, and her inspiration is Wilda Siti, an Indonesian Hijabi volleyball champion.

“I feel that if a girl can wear the hijab and play volleyball at an international level, why can’t we in India? Why are we being neglected?” she asked.

While hijabi students and teachers have been the direct victims of this ban, no hijabi in Karnataka has remained unaffected by it.

Jasmeen is neither a teacher nor a student, but she has been protesting the hijab ban regularly at this square in Karnataka’s Davanagere. She is out in the scorching heat, while her 14-month-old daughter sits tight in her lap. She holds a poster in her hand, which says ‘My Clothes, My Choice’, in Kannada.

“My main intention is to spread awareness. People have given us the title of being a passive community, who will not speak up no matter what atrocity is committed on them,” she explained.

A woman passing by stopped and her attention was immediately caught by the protest. “Correct! She is correct in protesting,” the woman declared.

But such is the extent of polarisation in the state, that even Jasmeen’s non-violent protest irked many. A man, passing by on his bike, stopped to tell her to “not do such things in public.”

“But I can’t let these things bog me down. My protest must continue,” she said.

For many, the right to wear the hijab isn’t just a religious struggle, but also a feminist one.

Back to Home Page

Vol 55, No. 10, Sep 4 - 10, 2022