The hijab row has caused a lockdown in Bangalore schools and tarnished that city’s reputation as a secular, peaceful, modern tech city. It is no longer easy to draw parallels between Bangalore and the Silicon Valley as a whole – despite the large number of top tech institutions, smart companies, start-ups and it having been a hub for innovation. Even in the Ease of Living survey conducted by the Ministry of Urban Affairs, Bangalore citizens had appeared to be happy. And now, suddenly, with this row, that veneer of positivity and refinement has eroded.
The basic facts about the hijab row are well known – that a small group of Muslim girls sought to enter the Government Pre-University college wearing a hijab but were restrained from wearing the hijabs in class in Udipi district. This PU College hosts classes from 8th to 12th, the senior two years being deemed pre-university. This restraint from the college authorities led to the Muslim girls protesting, whereupon Hindu students wore saffron colored scarves as a counter-threat and the tension spreading to Bangalore and other parts of Karnataka. Now the matter has gone to Court for adjudication whether hijabs are an essential part of the dress code for girls as prescribed under the Kuran.
The key issue here is not what is legally permissible or not. Whether the hijab is mandatory clothing for Muslim girls or not? Whether all communities should be allowed to dress as per their religious compulsions? Whether a uniform dress code should mean that every student should dress in the same way and without any distinguishing religious symbols as adornment?
Suppose it is held that hijabs are indeed mandatory under the Koran, does that alone justify wearing it? Can the government ban the wearing of traditional items of clothing which are sanctified in religious text? Should Sikh students who have traditionally been allowed to wear patkas, even turbans to school and college, should they be suddenly prohibited from wearing them?
In my view, the government should not have allowed the matter of Muslim girls’ demand to wear hijabs to reach the court. This is a purely managerial and administrative matter that the government should have settled at its own level by calling a meeting of a representative group of Principals and socially-respected citizens from various communities. It should also have quickly surveyed the dressing pattern of girls working in IT companies like TCS, Infosys and Wipro, in restaurants and hospitality sector, in the showrooms and malls. It should have got useful insights into the extent to which wearing hijabs was actually a practice amongst Muslim women. In all likelihood, such a survey would have revealed that once Muslim women begin working and are allowed to go out for work, the hijab is no longer necessary nor the practice.
In the meeting with Principals and elders a consensus should have been evolved that it was indeed necessary for educational institutions to maintain uniformity in dress worn by students – the ideal arrangement, of course, is that all students should dress without any embellishments that can prove their religious identity. The government should have got the seniors in the meeting to agree to broadcast such a point of view in the interest of educational discipline. Once accepted by the group mentioned above, the government would have been within its rights to enforce uniformity in government colleges with a greater sense of confidence and conviction.
However, in the likelihood of such consensus not being attained, the government could have stipulated regulations – that hijabs can be worn to the institution, but taken off before entering the class – failing which the institution would be forced to mandate that the student should display a name-placard so as to allow that student to be identified by the teacher. Most importantly, the government of Karnataka should have weighed the disadvantage of girls wearing hijabs in class against the disadvantage of their not attending class at all! This particular PU college catered to students from the economically weaker sections of society, even though it is rated highly for its facilities. Today, women in general and Muslim women in particular, have a lower educational literacy level than women from other communities. It is important for them to be well educated and for them to acquire modern outlook so as to integrate better into mainstream society and to nurture a progressive mindset in the entire family. That would be consonant with the government’s effort to do away with triple talaq and to steer Muslim-thinking towards a uniform civil code. The hijab is too small a matter to engross an entire state government or for government to ignore the societal benefits of educating Muslim women and – especially ushering in an atmosphere of scientific temper in those who are educated in traditional and religiously oriented madarsas.
Indeed, the government of Karnataka has messed up an opportunity to advance the position of Muslim women in society. It should have settled this matter amicably. Involving the court raises expectations on both sides, shows the government as incompetent and leaves the matter to chance and possibly a situation which will be embarrassing for the state.