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Cover Story: The hijab controversy

The hijab ban threatens Muslim women’s access to education

Print edition : Mar 11, 2022 T+T-
In a classroom at Maharani college in Bengaluru on February 16. While Muslims may have much more restricted access to education, they have participated in equal measure in the process of reducing gender disparities in enrolment

In a classroom at Maharani college in Bengaluru on February 16. While Muslims may have much more restricted access to education, they have participated in equal measure in the process of reducing gender disparities in enrolment

Students leave a pre-university college after they were not allowed to enter it wearing the hijab, in Udupi, Karnataka, on February 16.

Students leave a pre-university college after they were not allowed to enter it wearing the hijab, in Udupi, Karnataka, on February 16.

The hijab ban in government-run and minority-aided educational institutions seeks to undo whatever little progress has been made in getting Muslims educated. The reality of poor educational attainments among Muslims is the result of low economic status and not regressive or backward practices.

In the heat generated over the hijab, it is important to locate the controversy in the light of the larger restrictions on the education of Muslims, especially women. The ban on the hijab in higher educational institutions in Karnataka is on the grounds of maintaining sartorial uniformity in the education system. Yet as far as uniformity in accessing education is concerned, there is a wide variation among social and religious groups. Bridging that gap is what governments ought to be doing. The ban completely ignores the struggle of ordinary women from minority communities to acquire an education. It also ignores their aspirations of realising their dreams and goals in a space that under the Constitution is open to all without prejudice. As enrolment and attendance figures show, it is only a small, yet steadily growing, percentage of such women among Muslims who manage to reach the portals of higher education. It is not their religion that impedes their education but their economic status.

A majority of Muslims have been kept outside the stream of modern education, not wilfully or because they have wanted it that way but because these avenues have never been accessible to them fully. With education mostly in the private sector today, it is only the public-funded institutions with their low fee structures that draw in students from economically weaker sections across social and religious groups. Today, the ban on the hijab in government-run and minority-aided educational institutions and the attendant controversy seek to undo whatever little progress has been made in getting Muslim girls educated. What the debate on the issue does is to obfuscate the reality of poor educational attainments among Muslims.

In India, educational enrolment as captured by gross enrolment ratios (GERs)—the numbers enrolled as a proportion of the population in the relevant age group—still has a pyramidal structure. This ratio tends to drop as one moves from lower to higher levels of education. Thus, in 2019-20, the GER at the primary stage (classes 1 to 5) stood at 103.7 per cent, while that at the upper primary stage (classes 6 to 8) was 89.7 per cent. At the secondary stage (classes 9 to 10), the level was even lower, at 78.0 per cent, dropping to 51.4 per cent at the higher secondary stage (classes 11 to 12). At 27.1 per cent, the lowest GER was in higher education. In other words, there is a progressive narrowing of access to education as one moves to higher levels. This is of course not uniformly distributed across all social groups: while the gaps have been narrowing over time, the representation of Scheduled Caste (S.C.) and Scheduled Tribe (S.T.) communities at higher levels of education, for instance, continues to be lower than their share in the population. However, the gender gap has almost completely been eliminated at least as far as total enrolment is concerned; a steady rise in female enrolment at all levels of education has meant that even in higher education their representation, at 49.03 per cent of total enrolment in 2019-20, is proportionate to their share in the total population. Indeed, their estimated higher education GER at 27.3 per cent is greater than the 26.9 per cent estimated for males.

However, the greatest gap in access to education is between the Muslim minority and the rest of the population. As Table 1 shows, the representation of Muslims in total enrolment at each level of education progressively declines as one moves to higher levels of education. At the primary stage, their proportion in total enrolment reflects their share in the total population, but at the higher education stage, it is way below that share. In other words, the extent to which Muslims constitute a minority increases with increases in the level of education. Their situation stands out as exceptional in comparison with other smaller religious minorities and the historically disadvantaged sections such as the S.Cs and the S.Ts.

Situation in Karnataka

The figures for Karnataka, a State where the proportion of the Muslim population is almost the same as the national average, are also shown in Table 1. These figures and their comparison with the all-India picture bring out two important facts. Firstly, Karnataka also reflects the larger reality of access of Muslims in India to education but with a particularly marked drop in Muslim representation in enrolment in the transition from the secondary to the higher secondary level, which then carries over to higher education.

Implicit in the slightly higher representation of Muslim women in enrolment than Muslim men at all levels of education is another important aspect of the issue. Therefore, while Muslims may have much more restricted access to education, they have participated in equal measure in the process of reducing gender disparities in enrolment. This comes out even more sharply when we see the trends in the proportion of women in higher education enrolment in India in the past five years (Table 2). Here, Muslims have actually exceeded the national average, and by 2019-20, more Muslim women were enrolled in higher educational institutions than Muslim men. This disabuses one of any notion that the community in general keeps its women away from education; if the proportion of Muslim women in higher education is low, it is because Muslims in general have limited access to this education.

There is, however, a fair degree of State-to-State disparity in this regard. In Kerala, for instance, Muslim women heavily outnumber Muslim men in higher education enrolment. In several States where a hostile political atmosphere prevails against Muslims, the proportion of Muslim women’s enrolment tends to be lower. Karnataka also seems to reflect this picture, which is the opposite of the national average. As the figures in Table 2 show, Muslim women in the State have fallen slightly behind non-Muslim women in bridging the gender gap.

The literacy rates in the National Sample Survey’s (NSS) 585th Report, 75th Round on Household Social Consumption on Education in India (July 2017-June 2018), for religious groups showed that though Muslim women have the lowest rates of literacy among religious groups, the gap between Hindu women and Muslim women was less than 2 per cent. Literacy rates of women (seven years and above) among religious groups were as follows: Hindus 70 per cent, Muslims 68.8 per cent, Christians 82.2 per cent and Sikhs 75.9 per cent. The gross attendance ratio (the ratio of the number of persons attending in the level of education to the number of persons in the corresponding age group) for women in higher secondary and above was 12.1 per cent for Muslims, 22 per cent for Hindus, 27.7 per cent for Sikhs and 32.2 per cent for Christians. The age-specific attendance ratio (percentage of persons in that age group currently attending educational institutions) for different religious groups showed that 16.9 per cent of Muslim women, 25.5 per cent of Hindu women, 35 per cent of Sikh women and 37.8 per cent of Christian women in the age group 18-23 were found to be currently attending educational institutions. The percentage of Muslim women (3-35 years age group) who had never enrolled in education was 21.9 per cent compared with 15.9 per cent for Hindus, 7.2 per cent for Sikhs and 11.2 per cent for Christians. Although 38 per cent of Muslim women, 41.6 per cent of Hindu women, 42.1 per cent of Sikh women and 46.9 per cent of Christian women were currently attending some form of educational institution, the gains and strides made by women, particularly those from the minority communities, have to be increased.

Concealing bigotry

The hijab issue and a variety of issues connected with it have generated much debate. The only purpose behind bringing up many of them in the context of the hijab issue is to conceal the politics of bigotry, prejudice and polarisation that lies behind the controversy and create the conditions for that politics to have a field day.

Women’s organisations such as the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), the All India Progressive Women’s Association, the Bebaak Collective, the National Federation of Indian Women and Awaaz-e-Niswaan and people’s movement organisations such as the National Alliance of People’s Movements have called out the “intimidation by Hindu supremacist thugs” of Muslim girl students. They are critical of patriarchy, misogynist dress codes of all kinds and supportive of the right of women to wear what they want. In a statement, they said: “What women choose to wear, whether they choose to cover or uncover is a matter of choice. It cannot be a measure of modesty or immodesty.” The controversy over the hijab, they say, is the latest pretext to impose a kind of apartheid on Muslim women.

Mariam Dhawale, general secretary, AIDWA, said: “It is a direct attack on the right of education of young Muslim girl students. It is a denial of a right guaranteed to them under the Constitution of India. It is a denial of opportunities and the right to live a life with dignity. With the 12th standard exams just two months away, this situation has jeopardised the future of hundreds of young Muslim girl students. It is not the clothes worn by the girls that disturb equality, integrity and public law and order but the communal mobilisation by the Bajrang Dal and the Sangh Parivar. As it is, lakhs of children have dropped out of the school system during the pandemic. Schools and colleges have just about opened up. At such a time, such divisions among the student community will only push girls back into the confines of their homes, ruining the lives of many young persons. The developments in Karnataka are not about religion at all. A secular, democratic India has to rise in unison against sinister attempts by communal and fundamentalist forces to undermine our Constitution.”

Hasina Khan of the Bebaak Collective said that the protesting girl students could not be denied a right to education on the basis of their religious identity and expression. She said that the decision about a hijab or a burqa must come from Muslim women themselves who have had to negotiate a complex world between a majoritarian Hindu state and their own vilified community and public spaces. The struggle for the right to wear a hijab existed along with the struggle of many women to not wear a hijab or a burqa, she said, and the women’s movement had engaged with all these questions. The assertive act of wearing a hijab had become a symbol of maintaining the right to a minority religious identity in the larger context of the highly Islamophobic political climate instigated by right-wing groups, she said. Hasina Khan said: “When women struggle against the wearing of a burqa due to their own internal critique of the community and religious practices, it has an entirely different significance.”

Most Muslim scholars and activists, therefore, believe that the wearing of the hijab and its ban were deliberately made into a controversy. Talking to Frontline, Zeenat Shaukat Ali, founder and director general of the WISDOM Foundation and a former professor of Islamic studies at St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, said that there were many dimensions to the whole controversy and a huge ideological spectrum ranging from culture, role of religion, identity, national identity, gender justice to making a political statement. The issue, she said, had been blown out of proportion for political reasons, with young impressionable minds getting caught in the crossfire.

Zeenat Shaukat Ali said: “When politics enters, things get magnified. There has been love jehad, lynching, hate speeches and no punishment for that and open saffronisation. Religious symbolism has also been introduced at various levels, including in Parliament; no one questions that. Muslims consider themselves marginalised, not only in India but in other parts of the world too. The hijab issue is a side issue.” She said that if symbols of male religious identity such as the turban, skullcap, Hindu tilak or the crucifix are allowed, then there should not be any problem with women expressing their own identities. Yet she said that her own work on Islam and the Quran informed her that Islam never introduced the veil or even polygamy. Not many people she said knew that polygamy was a restrictive practice, not a permissive one.

According to her, the veil predated Islam and was a practice in the entire region 2,500 years before the Prophet Mohammad. Many icons and statuettes of that period reflected that. Elite women in ancient Mesopotamia and in the Byzantine, Greek and Persian empires wore the veil as a sign of high status. The word hijab itself was used eight times in the Quran and not once used in connection with clothing. It was used metaphorically, and translated in the Arabic lexicon it meant a barrier or separation, none of which concerned clothing. It was more to mark privacy at a time when doors, and so on, did not exist. “To equate it with a headscarf is specious. The dress prescribed for both men and women was one which basically suggested covering one’s private parts. Even the face covering was not prescribed by Islam. One could wear any dress that was decent. The abaya [a cloak or a robe] itself is not deemed necessary by the most conservative sections of the clergy. But it has to be made clear that the Constitution of India gives every woman the right to wear as she chooses. If one wants to remain a traditionalist, one is free to do so,” she said.