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Young Muslim women in a politically polarized belt of Karnataka are presently in a tricky situation due to restrictions against the hijab at some government colleges. Many fear the row, which has reached the state’s high court, could harm the cause of girls’ education in the minority community. A wide range of research and data—collected through government and private surveys—shows these fears are rooted in reality.

Political undertones aside, the anti-hijab view is seeking a uniform dress code on the arguments of equality and “public order". But the weeks-long protests for their rights by college-going students has made their education a parallel casualty. “This is something that could very well have been resolved at the college level, but it was blown out of proportion in the politically charged atmosphere of coastal Karnataka," said Zakia Soman, a women’s rights activist. Come what may, institutions should be most concerned about education disruptions for these women, she said.

Muslim girls still lag behind other social groups in education, but if forced out of state-run institutions for not removing the hijab, they could lose out on their great strides made in recent years. School attendance among Muslim girls has significantly grown across India since 2015, including in Karnataka, shows the National Family Health Survey. Colleges, too, have seen an uptick: 10.3% of Muslim women in the age group 18-23 were enrolled for education in 2019-20, up from 7.4% in 2014-15, shows an analysis based on the All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE). The overall enrolment ratio for women in this age group is 27.3%.

Campus diversity

The current episode is not the first case of targeting of marginalized groups on campuses. The improving representation of various communities is making campuses more diverse. In the last seven years, the proportion of Muslim students as well as those from the scheduled castes and tribes have risen noticeably, albeit at different rates.

“When presence of any community increases in any institution, their social and cultural identity also get reflected on campuses," said Khalid Khan, an assistant professor at Indian Institute of Dalit Studies who has analysed AISHE data. The increasing presence of these new forms of identities, he said, are often considered a threat by conventionally dominant groups, resulting in identity-based confrontations on campuses as well, Rohith Vemula's 2016 suicide being one of the extreme outcomes of it.

Muslims, in general, have faced greater discrimination than other religious groups in recent years, shows a 2019-20 study by Pew Research Centre. Such a phenomenon could inevitably be spilling over to campuses, too, as Karnataka’s example shows.

Hijab question

In criticizing the hijab, Hindu nationalist groups have called it a patriarchal practice. Almost two in three Muslim women in India told the Pew survey they wore the burqa, 12% wore the naqab, and 8% hijab—all different forms of face veil. But covering the head outside home is also highly common among Sikh women, and to a lesser extent, Hindu women, too.

True, there is enough evidence that the hijab is a patriarchal imposition, Soman said. But women may wear it for various reasons, including personal choice, religious commitment and assertion of identity, and it also has a special role in taking Muslim girls closer to school, Khan said.

"Those from weaker sections may wear hijab to negotiate with their parents to continue higher education by convincing them that their cultural identity would not be at risk because of attending educational institutions," said Khan.

Cultural discrimination on campus will marginalize not just Muslim women but women in general, pointed out Reshmi Sengupta, an associate professor at FLAME University, Pune, who worked as a consultant with a government committee set up to review the implementation of an earlier panel's (Sachar committee) recommendations on the status of Muslims in India.

Dropout risks

When France banned the Muslim face veil in 2004, it led to increased school dropouts among girls in the community, a Stanford study shows. In India, too, such controversies could bear similar results. They put girls between the twin burdens of a patriarchal clothing and discriminatory singling-out by political outfits, said Soman.

Enrolment among Muslim girls already drops sharply at higher education levels. Upto middle school, their representation is in sync with, or even exceeds, their share in population. But it starts falling short in secondary school, and by college, was an abysmal 5.6% as of 2019-20.

If hijab restrictions prompt dropouts, it is “highly likely that these girls will soon be married off, and marriage is one of the prominent reasons for drop-out among older girls", said Khan. If the motivation at all is to discourage the hijab, what is a better tool than education and empowerment of these women, argued Soman.

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