While a three-judge bench of the Karnataka High Court hears arguments for and against the legality of wearing hijabs — the Islamic headdress prescribed for women — in classrooms across Karnataka, two deeply damaging consequences of the controversy are already being felt. The first is that hundreds of hijab-wearing Muslim girls find themselves debarred from education. The wearing of the hijab was obviously not an issue of contention all these years, and there appears to have been many different levels of accommodation with this practice. In some institutions, girls wore it in the classroom, in some they wore it in the campus but not the classroom, and so on. The refusal by the principal of a girl’s government pre-university college in Udupi to allow a group of Muslim girl students to wear the customary hijab to college – an act of extreme provocation that would in all likelihood have received prior sanction from the Department of Education — lit a spark that has become a raging fire. The managements of other government and government-aided pre-university and undergraduate colleges followed suit. Hindutva organisations mobilised school and college boys in saffron scarves to heckle and intimidate hijab-wearing girls, creating a “law and order situation” that was then used by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led state government to crackdown. Schools and colleges were closed, with the government sending out the strong and explicit message that the hijab-wearing girls were responsible for the “breakdown of law and order.” Meanwhile, Ministers and spokespersons of the BJP were allowed to make highly toxic and communally polarising statements against Muslims and Islam. A hurriedly set up “expert committee” offered a rationalisation of what was clearly a violation of the constitutionally mandated right to education.  “Clothes which disturb equality, integrity and public law and order should not be worn,” it concluded. The six Muslim girls from the Government Pre-University College for Girls in Udipi, who were barred from entering their classroom, filed a petition in the Karnataka High Court asking for the restitution of their rights to attend class. The case was transferred to a three-judge bench, but not before the High Court announced that the girls would not be allowed to wear any religious clothing in the classroom till such time as a final order was passed.

The second damaging outcome of the delay in judicial intervention in support of restoring the unconditional educational access to all students is the creation of a divide between students, with one section seeing the other as unreasonable, disruptive and guilty of holding the entire student body to ransom with their adherence to a religious sartorial practice. This communal polarisation, which has been the intent of BJP and its allies all along, has of course been strengthened by hard-line and conservative Muslim minority groups.

Most striking to observers of this unfolding crisis is the reaction to the no-hijabs-in-the-classroom rule. On television cameras we see Muslim girl students angry, defiant, and ready to fight back. While the girls assert their right to wear the hijab as a symbol of their religious identity, they are angry and perturbed that the new uniform rule has been suddenly sprung upon them just before the examinations. The experience of Muskan, the student from the PES College of Arts and Sciences in Mandya who, heckled and intimidated by saffron-scarved men as she made her way to her classroom shouting Allahu Akbar to their Jai Sriram, exemplifies the dilemma faced by young Muslim women from colleges in Mandya, Chikmagalur, Kalaburgi, Bagalkot, Haveri, Vijayapura and other urban centres of Karnataka. Which is more important, the hijab or an education? It is indeed shameful that this choice, one that they should never have had to make, is being thrust upon them by a communally-driven administration on the one hand, and the custodians of their religion on the other. Education, as a constitutionally mandated right, must be given equally to all. 

It is of some significance in this context to situate the urge that young Muslim women have displayed for education in the recent crisis in the context of the changing profile of education amongst Muslim women in Karnataka over the last decade. Data drawn from the National Sample Survey’s Social Consumption and Education series that pertains to the 64th round (2007-08) and the 75th Round (2017-18) show the educational levels for Hindu, Muslim and “Other” women, from rural and urban areas, in the age group of 15 years and above. For comparisons on Karnataka’s performance as a whole we have also shown the data for Kerala and Uttar Pradesh, and the all-India figure (see table 1 to table 6).

The story that emerges from the data show some interesting trends. (The reader must keep in mind that the figures given here are proportions or percentages pertaining to women within a religious group, comprising the age group of 15 years and above.)

First, on basic literacy we see that there has been a sharp fall in the percentage of non-literate Muslim women between 2007-08 and 2017-18 (Table 1 and Table 3). Their share as a percentage of the total population of Muslim women in the age group 15 years and above dropped rather dramatically, from 40 to 29, with urban literacy increasing from 70 to 77 per cent. Muslim women still form the bulk of the non-literate population, but their numbers are falling.

Secondly, the number of Muslim girl graduates at the higher secondary school level increased in the same period from 5 to 8 per cent. The 3 percentage point jump was mainly driven by urban enrolment, which saw an increase from 7 to 11 per cent. In respect of college level education, although Muslim women are still highly under represented with only 5 per cent completing undergraduate and/or post-graduate degrees in 2017-18, the increase from the previous decade is more than double. Here too, urban Muslim girls are doing much better than rural, with 8 percent completing their UG and/or PG (Tables 2 and 3). For rural Muslim women, higher education enrolment is virtually non-existent.

What the figures tell us is that Muslim women are breaking out of educational deprivation, driven perhaps as much by push factors from within the community as by the increase in the number and penetration of educational institutions in the private, aided and government segments across the state. In urban areas, Muslim girls are doing much better than rural areas, as the figures bear out. As higher educational institutions are largely urban-based, any restriction to educational access can threaten to reverse the significant gains that Muslim women have made over the decade. 

In a state where the gap between educational levels of students of different religious groups is large, obviously school access can be influenced by religious considerations. This is borne out by the data from different states. Take Kerala. Here the educational access of all religious group, namely Hindu, Muslim and Others (in Kerala and Karnataka, the “Others” category would be mainly Christian students) is less likely to be influenced by religious factors. A Muslim girl is as likely to attend school as a Hindu or Christian girl, or conversely, the events that affects classroom attendance, like a pandemic for example, are more likely to be non-religious in nature, and would affect all students.

The Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, on the eve of elections in his state, said that he did not want his state to become like Kerala. The known disdain that this particular chief minister has for facts and data notwithstanding, it is pertinent to note that not only is Kerala well ahead of Uttar Pradesh in educational access and attainment for women, but so too is Karnataka, a state where the BJP government is unfortunately seeking to reverse the gains achieved by Muslim girls in higher education. In fact, in Karnataka, Muslim women are better placed in literacy and higher secondary attainment than Hindu — let alone Muslim — girls in UP.

In the light of the conclusions that the data lets us draw, the injustice shown to Muslim girl students who are trying to break out of the trap of educational backwardness is particularly striking. First, as we emphasised earlier, these students are defending the gains made by women in their community over the last decade. Increasing numbers of Muslim parents, like forward-looking parents from all communities who want the best for their children, are seeing the benefits of education for their daughters.

Secondly, it is a fact that an increasing number of Muslim women all over the world are adopting the hijab. However,  in the current, communally polarised societal juncture in India, the hijab may well have made possible the entry of Muslim girls into educational institutions in spaces outside the home – a key element for gaining the personal freedom that education brings. The battle against the hijab/burqa as an element of unfreedom for Muslim women must come eventually from Muslim women themselves, in concert with progressive state action and enlightened support from without.  For women, formal education from school through college – with or without the hijab or other appurtenances of identity – is the one weapon that can equip them to fight conservatism and patriarchy in their own community and society at large. It does not lie in the hands of the Hindutvavaads — the standard-bearers of patriarchy, caste and social conservatism – to “liberate” Muslim women.