Last Tuesday, the pursuit dispute over the right to wear the hijab by female Muslim students in Karnataka worsened when visuals showed a Muslim girl, wearing a burqa, being heckled by a large group of boys wearing saffron shawls at a middle school in Mandya. The video showed the girl standing, shouting “Allahu Akbar” while the boys on the other side chanted “Jai Shri Ram”. More than 400 km from this pre-university college in Mandya, Shybu KP, who teaches English to 11th and 12th graders at Edappally Government Higher Secondary School (GHSS) in Kerala, is a worried man. He said he watched with anxiety as schools and colleges in the neighboring state erupted in religious tension.
“What is happening in Karnataka is condemnable. By not allowing them (Muslim female students) to enter the schools, they suffer a lot of trauma. The issue (about the hijab) should have been resolved through friendly talks between parents, teachers and students,” Shybu said.
He recalled an incident at a school where he previously taught where a similar incident involving religious attire was nipped in the bud by school officials before it turned into something serious. ‘important. “One day a Muslim boy came to class wearing a skullcap. He came from an orphanage and was quite stubborn in carrying it. As it was the time of the annual Sabarimala pilgrimage, a few Hindu boys said they too wanted to come to class dressed in black, as per the 41-day vow they were taking. Immediately we realized that this could escalate into major problems. We told both parties that school was not a place to display their religious identity,” he said.
“Whatever freedoms our Constitution promises, they must be respected. This is the priority. At the same time, religious manifestations must not be allowed in our schools. It’s dangerous. If something is deliberately done (to provoke), it must be stopped,” Shybu added.
One example, he pointed out, was the Kerala government’s strict instruction not to allow the display of any sort of religious identity or symbol during the training of police cadets. “But there was a part of the population who criticized him. School is where it all begins and where we respect each other and are tolerant of each other’s beliefs. (If such religious conflicts continue), we have to worry about what kind of citizens they are becoming.
At GHSS Edappally, one of the largest public schools in Ernakulam district of Kerala, there are no rules prohibiting any type of religious attire like hijab or burqa. Students in all grades wear a uniform established by the local parent-teacher association in accordance with Department of Education rules. It helps teachers and school staff to identify students and for them to get discounts on bus fares. A total of 720 students study in the 11th and 12th grades of the school, of which about 150 belong to the Muslim community. More than half of them are girls.
Hana Fathima Ashraf, a 12th grader, said most Muslim girls in the school wear a simple “thattam” or “veil” that covers their heads. Very few wear the hijab and even fewer wear the burqa to class. “There are even those who don’t even wear a ‘thattam’. It is their wish what they want to wear. Each Muslim family may have its own customs and traditions,” she said.
Reacting to the developments in Karnataka, Hana said, “I don’t think the hijab should be banned. It’s related to someone’s beliefs, why do you want to ban it? What is happening in Karnataka is wrong. Many of my friends here shared posts on social media condemning him.
Her classmate Afni Fathima, who wears a ‘thattam’ in class, said she has never encountered any problems from her friends or school officials regarding dress. “They understand our beliefs and customs,” she said.
Sankaranarayanan, head of the school’s upper secondary division, pointed out that religious dress has never been a topic of discussion at PTA meetings because everyone is aware of beliefs and feelings. “Ideally, we should not impose anything on anyone. There can be feelings attached to someone’s religious identity. The idea is to be inclusive and welcome everyone. Isn’t that what India represents? he said.
Although the government has recommended the use of school uniforms, it has not expressly made it compulsory, Sankaranarayanan said. “The government understands that a lot of people are going through financial difficulties right now and that it is not right to impose anything on them. When we place orders with retailers, we ask them to apply discounts and give us extra uniforms for children who cannot afford them. That’s how we do it,” he said.